Facebook owns my Social Graph… It shouldn't

###Key points:

– Social networks position themselves as new addressbooks
– Social networks decide their own Terms and Conditions of use. That is OK
– Exiting users not given the ability to remove shared content from site. Not OK
– Remaining users left with holes in addressbook. Not OK.

### Main Article

Facebook, LinkedIn, and various other Social Media properties have been fighting hard to monopolize user’s online time and become their de-facto addressbooks and ways to share photos. While these applications have proven to be a great tool for consumers, current practices and policies by the parent corporations have determined a ‘reliance’ on social networks a danger.

It’s time for consumers and corporations to rethink their use of social media.

Recently an industry colleague, Stephanie Frasco, had her account disabled by Facebook. I’m not going to comment on why it happened or what triggered it – it is up to Facebook to set their Terms of Service and make judgements on user activity, and I respect that.

What troubles me is the manner in which her account was disabled – and the ramifactions of it on online communities.

When Stephanie’s account was disabled, she lost her data ( or at least any sort of access to it ). This didn’t just mean that she couldn’t message friends through Facebook or play a third-rate Scrabulous clone called ‘Scrabble’ — it meant that Stephanie could no longer access the phone numbers, email addresses, postal addresses of her friends through the network. It also meant that she lost the ability to access the photos she posted online – or the ones friends had tagged her with. When her account was disabled it wasnt limited to ‘read only’, she wasn’t given a window or ability to download her content, she was simply disappeared… silently, quickly, without a blink of an eye.

Seasoned industry people will laugh “Well that girl was stupid — she should have had a non-Facebook listing of all her contacts people.” Seasoned industry people are smart like that – they don’t rely on Facebook or other websites to exclusively handle contact info… but social media properties are actively promoting themselves to the 100million plus non-industry users as their new online homes — and their new online addressbooks, to overtake their default pen&paper, computer and even cellphone versions.

What troubles me even more about Stephanie’s case, is that not only did she lose access to Facebook… but I lost access to her.

Contact Info on Social Networks is like a double edged sword: information is rarely entered by a user into their own addressbook, instead someone else’s information is incorporated into their social graph. This results in an addressbook that is always ‘up to date’ — but offers out-of-sync details when a user abandons an account or loses entries when a user deletes their profile.

People often ask the question “Who owns the Social Graph?” I recently wrote an 8,000 word primer / whitepaper on the legal and technical aspects of the subject, along with best-practice recommendations on ToS and Data Portability for FindMeOn’s corporate clients. ( It will be public soon folks! It’s getting a final review right now ). One of the largest hurdles to Social Graph portability that we discuss is access and sharing in relation to copyright and contract law ( i.e. what can be shared and under what conditions )

In the Frasco/Facebook case, those questions weren’t raised to my satisfaction. Facebook simply stated “We own your social graph”.

Except Facebook didn’t tell Stephanie that… they told it to me.

When Facebook disabled Stephanie’s account, they didn’t just keep her from logging in to their walled garden — they removed her from *my* Social Graph.

I no longer have her updates , postings, content that she shared… with all of Facebook or even with me. Facebook was nice enough to keep her imprint in my inbox and messages, although with an ’empty’ link and profile photo. ( which, incidentally, is one of FindMeOn’s recommendations for account closings ). However, she’s not in my addressbook – I can’t click her info and send her an offline email, I can’t see her in my friendlist, I can’t use Facebook as way to interact with her outside of Facebook.

What Facebook should have done, was to freeze her account as is. Within the constraints of the Privacy Policy / Terms-Of-Service , Facebook should have kept as much of her information active and available as possible — not as a service to Stephanie, but as a service to the 100+ users that incorporated her into their social graphs. At the least, Facebook users should have been sent an email stating “Person X in your addressbook has left Facebook. You have X days to copy/transcribe information that they made visible to you.”

Instead, what Facebook did was say “We own your addressbook. We own your Social Graph”.

I say “Not anymore”.

It is absurd and overly arrogant that Facebook has decided to say who can and can’t be in *my* addressbook. Not only am I limited to having an addressbook of people that ‘want’ to join Facebook’s walled garden, but now I learn that addressbook may be shortened as they prune network membership to their desires.

I’m glad that I keep my contact info off Facebook and up-to-date manually — and I pity people who do not.

I used to think Facebook was neat — but now I STRONGLY question it’s utility. What good is a tool that lets you manage contacts/relations, when it dictates which contacts/relations you’re allowed ?

3 thoughts on “Facebook owns my Social Graph… It shouldn't

  1. Jonathan,

    This is a great article and I love your thinking! I thought the phrase “Did you back it up?” was so 90s. And I would have usually answered that with yes, “I have it on facebook.”

    Thanks again!

  2. As you know, Jon, I see the use of sites like Facebook a bit differently than you do. To me, Facebook isn’t a ‘dumb’ repository of ‘data’ but a complex system with its own domain logic.

    I see the write-ops on such systems not as service invocation but as content publication – but not ‘dumb’ publication. Facebook is not an FTP server. Rather, writing on FB is publication of content (a statement of friendship, a photograph, etc) into a machine with its own read and write domain logic and operations. You grant access to the machine. No take backs. But you’re free to criticize the UX all day.

    I don’t see anything wrong in what they did, though I do see something terribly impractical. You’ve called them out on the very real burden created by HOW they purge data, but you’ve done it slightly wrong. You’ve done it like the folks on the DataPortability lists. Instead of focusing on nuts and bolts pragmatism, you’ve invoked righteousness by discussing their “ownership” of “[your] Social Graph.” (No take backs, kids! Read your contracts!)

    Ignore that shit. Don’t fall into the nonsensical jibba jabba about ownership of data or graphs or blah blah blah. Don’t become a “join table portability” robot. Instead, leverage the power of a consumer who accepts that what Facebook did was 100% legal and within their domain but wants to point out that among the available (legal) choices, they chose a bad one.

    Stick with the 90% of this post that is spot on. Point out how the UX (which is the outcome of the machine) was hurt by the functioning of their purge policy. Leave out the bigger, useless rhetorical statements about ownership. It’s below you.

    At least, until you get that law degree. At that point, you can discuss publishing rights, copyright, and “ownership” all you want.

    Until you’re a lawyer, you’re an engineer, and engineers don’t give a shit about whiney “ownership” nonsense.

  3. Toby — I also agree with 90% of what you said… But I think there is confusion on your part as I used some popular left-join terms to describe things from a consumer marketing perspective, not portability.

    There indeed exists a complex domain logic and publication — which creates the ‘Read your Contracts’ TOS and Copyright legal issues you mention. ( BTW, did i toss you the working copy of my social media best practices doc ?)

    I don’t think DataPortability could solve this – or should solve this – which is why I didn’t bring it up ( well, in passing mentioning a paper, but not otherwise) The issue is that Facebook has positioned itself by saying “We should be your new addressbook and photo management application”, but then decided who I can connect to on it. While its their prerogative to do so, it seriously undermines their utilty. Porting my facebook social graph to any other network would never solve this – it would just migrate the problem.

    Facebook didn’t assert ownership of my Social Graph in terms of them being the ones who control where it lies, they asserted ownership by deleting the relations and information on it. The large question isn’t over ownership concerns in migrating people to/from Facebook – but from going in and manipulating my data within the network.

    I see that there are two solutions:

    • Anything a person puts into an application or is sent to you by others, should be able to pull out. This is a best-practices recommendation I give to all clients. This doesn’t relate to data derived from analysis and algorithms ( my top 10 recommendations ), but that if I upload a photo or someone sends me their contact details, it should be mine.

    • People shouldn’t use Facebook or anything else as a replacement for communications and addressbook functionality. People need look past advertising and marketing. ‘Portability’ isn’t a solution to this – it just ports the underlying problems: all of these networks are and always will be walled gardens — not in relation to portability, but because its their turf — and they decide on the rules. Facebook deserves the right to make decisions like this, that is undeniable — and because they have that right, they should never be relied on.

    If a social network cost $100 a year to join, and if you don’t pay up all your info is held hostage, you’d say screw that and use other software. And if you found out that by-design, every online software is like that… and the only reliable way is to get a dayplanner and manage it yourseld – you’d get one. That’s this situation and my argument.

    And you know I stopped being just-an engineer a long time ago ;( I’m a more of the entrepreneur / consultant for years. At least that pays way more of my bills than architecting systems.

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