Facebook has, as usual, been riling feathers with its latest round of change. Dave Winer argued Facebook is now scaring him, and the LA Times questioned whether they have finally gone too far. At issue (this week) is “frictionless sharing” in which things people read, listen to, or otherwise engage online are sent from partner sites to Facebook, announced to their Facebook friends, and incorporated into their forthcoming Timelines (formerly known as “profiles”). Now it is true that people can opt out of this sharing, although, as Mike Masnick of Techdirt points out, doing so may be far less than transparent.
All this is disturbing, for the reasons outlined in the articles above. More concerning, however, is a likely end game, as just enacted by Spotify, in which access to partner sites requires having a Facebook account. Spotify, a music streaming service whose US launch had been eagerly anticipated for more than a year before it finally happened, has just announced that all new Spotify accounts – worldwide – will require a Facebook login.
As they told Evolver, in a tone-deaf response meant to quell unrest:
From today, all new Spotify users will need to have a Facebook account to join Spotify. Think of it as like a virtual ‘passport’, designed to make the experience smoother and easier, with one less username and password to remember.
Think about that language: “like a virtual ‘passport’”
Who issues passports?
Do we really want to think of Facebook as a nation?
In 2010, with danah boyd and Alex Leavitt, I read through hundreds of English language news articles about Facebook’s privacy issues with an eye toward the metaphors reporters used as they described the site and its implications. Facebook as a land, or nation, was a prominent one. Among the terms used to describe Facebook were homeland and cyberland. It was referred to as the third largest country, an island nation. The site’s owners in this metaphorical scheme were totalitarian secret police, Zuckerberg their King (or sometimes, their Boy King). The users? Reporters referred to them as citizens or migrants. When they left Facebook, it was called an exodus as people sought asylum offline. Privacy in this metaphoral scheme is a regime. For his part, Zuckerberg has been quoted lately as saying that your profile on Facebook should “feel like your home.” It is not a coincidence that the open source response to Facebook called itself Diaspora.
Educational theorists have argued that metaphors are fundamental to learning. We grab on to the new and make it make sense by understanding it in terms of something we already know. When Spotify tells us to think of Facebook logins as “passports,” they are invoking a metaphor to trigger a set of ideas with which we are all familiar and comfortable.
But we should think long and hard about its implications. Except for nations that block the internet or some of its sites (hello, China!), the internet has thrived on being a set of domains across which we could travel without passports. Do we really want Facebook citizenship to become a requirement for accessing other domains? Do we really want an internet where we not only need a passport, but a passport from a nation – any nation – owned by a privately-held corporation? Either social network “citizens” need rights beyond emigration or we need to push back hard. We must be the builders of our own futures, not subjects in a nation motivated by profit.
Addendum: John Carter helpfully points out that Microsoft’s attempt to create a “passport” didn’t work out all that well for them.