Landing : Athabascau University

Is Facebook Evil?

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By Terry Anderson November 18, 2010 - 12:33pm Comments (9)

I just read a very interesting article in the Globe and Mail A regulatory nightmare: Facebook and its goal of a less private WebThe article overviews the use of web analytics to track and then recommend/target users, products and services. At Athabasca University we have been building our “partially closed” -(restricted membership but not necessary restricted reading to members of the Athabasca community) . Our social networking system is based on the ELGG platform and hosted on our machines. We choose this route rather than Facebook for two primary reasons – enhanced privacy controls for indiviudals and the control that we (not a commercial company) have on the data generated.

It serves reminding that the customer of Facebook and other commercial networking sites, is NOT the user. Rather, their customers are those who pay for ads, information about users or both. Athabasca has participated (both officially and unofficially) in a number of groups on Facebook and students, of course, start their own groups focused on our courses or programs.  But you can imagine a private university or other company paying for the contacts, friends lists, behaviours and other data generated by the members of these groups and targetting (or at least learning about) students enrolled at Athabasca.

I am a huge supporter of the value add to students (and lifelong learners) of  social networks and especially those studying at a distance (see my 2005 article Distance learning: Social software’s Killer app?), but I am very glad that we are not gathering information for Facebook or other commercial sites.

We also experience the challenge of attracting students (and our staff) away from Facebook and I know of at least one University that had their social network become a ghost town when Facebook opened its very compelling doors. But I continue to think that the University tradition of offering a safe space for study and exploration can and should be maintained in our networked era.

So, to answer my title question, Facebook MAY not be evil, but they are commercial company with interests, values, mission and vision that is far from that maintained by a public university like Athabasca.


  • Serhat Beyenir November 18, 2010 - 1:03pm

    Hi Terry, thanks for bringing this up.

    The Internet has introduced some challenges to our lives globally, for example, the censorship to certain information portals (thinking about China), the dominance by large organizations (I liked what Google was, I am now afraid of what Google has become) and probably the most important for me personally is privacy on the WWW or the lack of it. Facebook is a good example, George Clooney once said he’d “rather have a rectal examination on live TV by a fellow with cold hands than have a Facebook page.


  • Mark Crawford November 18, 2010 - 4:59pm

    Hi Terry, coincidentally, I FINALLY have figured out how to delete my Facebook account--provided that I don't trip over a Facebook icon in the next 14 days, and provided that they keep their word.  If I ever return to Facebook, it will be with my eyes wide open and personal info at an absolute minimum.

    What scares me is how easy it is to "deactivate" one's account, versus how hard they make it to actually delete. The former makes your personal information off limits "to all other users"--but as you say, that begs the question, since the users aren't the clients. Users are just the information that gets sold to the clients.

    The fact that they don't even prompt you for re-activation, but keep the deletion option in a hidden place with several steps (and some very suspiciously difficult gotcha spam prompts),  just  adds to the annoyance I already felt over their repeated adacious attempts to assert their proprietary rights over user info.Thee are at least two good places to go. I think that Lorna Stefanick gave me this one:  It includes top ten reasons you should quit Facebook

     My advice is that EVERYBODY should delete their accounts, even if they intend to go back. Why? It is a good way to wipe your slate clean before putting your info out there again. (hopefully more carefully).

    When we first started discussing the Landing the objection was raised that students and faculty already had social websites (most notably Facebook and Twitter) and therefore wouldn't want another one. Well, they actually are very different beasts...mainly because of the nature of the Third Party on facebook, which is the advertisers.

  • Mark A. McCutcheon November 19, 2010 - 12:18pm

    I've always been skeptical of Facebook, and the ideas and links shared here make a lot of solid points -- Facebook's corporate character and profit motive being an especially important detail to keep in mind. That said, I can't see deleting my own FB account.

    I've always kept FB content for "friends" only; the only 3rd-party app I use there is Twitter; and (while it's more work than it should be to monitor and customize), I keep personal info as minimal as possible -- only what FB itself needs to know. (I always cringe when I see friends publicizing their children's names on FB. That's a huge FB user fail, imho. And I'll credit Lorna here, too, with influencing my thinking on this point.)

    The point of Facebook for me is simple human connection: maintaining or re-establishing contact with people I wouldn't have otherwise -- contact that, in most cases, remains variously rewarding, fun, informative, even educational.  Also, it has its specific role in my social context. My FB network has little overlap with my Twitter network, less overlap with my holiday card mailing list, and virtually no overlap (so far) with my Landing network. I use Facebook for very different reasons than I use the Landing.

    And I suppose this is why I find the either/or dimension of this discussion a bit baffling. Why must anyone choose only Facebook or the Landing, as though they are mutually exclusive social networking options? Is leading students "away from" Facebook a viable strategy? (I doubt I am alone in using a number of social network apps and services.) Alternately, I appreciate that it's hard to appeal to a collector's sensibility with these things: the default response, now, to any pitch for a new social app is a kind of expression of SNS exhaustion: "I already have too many accounts with X, Y, and Z. Why would I need another?"

    I don't have a good or ready answer. I might say that using a very differently built app like the Landing definitely helps one to see the limitations and deficiencies of a "naturalized" app like Facebook much more clearly. The Landing and its Elgg platform look, to me, light years ahead of Facebook. (I liked the Gizmodo article's point about FB's crappy design.) I might say, further, that even similar-looking apps serve different functions when they serve differently-defined communities. Then again, I might suggest that Facebook and the Landing are actually different enough -- technically and contextually -- to leave their comparison an apples-and-oranges exercise.

  • Susan Bainbridge November 20, 2010 - 3:23am

    Although there are issues and concerns about social networking, your post made me begin thinking of social networking and if it is truly as revolutionary as the printing press.
    It struck me that I, personally, am experiencing something revolutionary through social networking. I have reconnected with elementary school friends, high school friends, friends who were around while I was pregnant with my first child and so on. Unlike my father's generation who lost track of old friends, for example my father is always saying, "I wonder what happened to so-and-so?" or "So-and -so, I haven't thought about her in years.", through social networking on www suddenly my entire past is now my present. This is truly transformative! Conceivably my children will not even understand previous generations chunking their life into sections that no longer exist.
    Philosophically and psychologically, I wonder if we have even begun to fathom the impact of this new connectivism.

  • Tanya Elias November 21, 2010 - 12:06pm

    Hi Terry,

    I had to laugh at the title of your blog post.  When looking for a previous post by Jon Dron about Facebook I ended up searching for a word I knew was in it - evil.  At the time, it was the only reference to "evil" in the Landing.  Now I know there will be two - both referring to Facebook.

    I have thus far resisted jumping into Facebook, but it is getting harder and harder as more and more groups are moving to Facebook as a way of keeping people up to date.  Soon asking for someone to send an email update will make me feel like  dinosaur (sometimes it already does!).

  • Suzannah Goldsack November 24, 2010 - 11:45am

    Wow - deja vu.  We are just reading this article in my Marketing class at school. The importance of making students understand how advertisers mine the information from what they put on the social networking sites.  It is very important for them to understand THEY are not the users but the advertisers are the users.  Caution as always is the byword.

    I personally don't use Facebook all that much and have deleted it several times I am worried about what the personal information will be used .

  • Mark A. McCutcheon November 25, 2010 - 8:43am

    Fresh evidence that Facebook is, in fact, evil: the company is attempting to trademark the word "face." Seriously?

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