Have a Slap in the Facebook

When you’re young, you look at television and think, There’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It’s the truth.

Steve Jobs

Q. How do you know when somebody closes their Facebook account?
A. They’ll tell you about it.
— The Internet

I wouldn’t normally keep track of this sort of thing, because I’m not on Facebook. However, I do read a few tech blogs and news aggregators, and recent events have bubbled into my consciousness. In case you, also, are healthy enough to maintain general ignorance of Mr. Zuckerberg’s latest capers, allow me to briefly summarize the news of the last few weeks:

  1. Facebook gives all users an @facebook.com email address and changes user profiles to display this address instead of their previous one..
  2. Users of Facebook’s contact sync for mobile devices had their address books overwritten with @facebook.com email addresses.
  3. Users noticed that @facebook.com addresses were losing messages.
  4. Facebook announced that the contact sync bug was not intentional, but that users were just confused about missing messages.

So then, why do I care about this? After all, I’m not on Facebook, I don’t have a mobile device, and in my opinion, anyone who is still on Facebook deserves whatever they get, because they should have known better already. Respecting Hanlon’s Razor, I don’t know whether Facebook is actually a malicious entity, but either way I try to make sure my friends on Facebook are aware that the company is not out to do them any favors. If you’re not paying for the service, then you’re not the customer–you’re the product.

This is not a Facebook witch hunt post. Rather, I am completely fascinated by people’s sheer willingness to put up with continual abuse. And I’m not talking about high-minded abuses of liberties, abstract freedom, the downfall of society as we know it, or other holier-than-thou screeds I could write. No, I’m talking about abuse in terms of software slapping a user in the face by throwing away user data and disregarding user preferences. Losing email due to Facebook hijacking your address? Who puts up with that?!

My guess is that virtually everyone will put up with that, and this guess is confirmed by my casual conversations with several Facebook users at a 4th of July picnic today. You’ll have a tiny technical minority that’s outraged, a larger set of users who are puzzled and mildly annoyed, and an enormous plurality who either won’t know or won’t care about the changes. From the set of those who actually know what Facebook is doing and are angry about it, how many do you suppose will go so far as to close their account? My guess is an infinitesimal fraction, a rounding error in Facebook’s daily account signups.

What’s the lesson here? I write software and I am susceptible to trying too hard for perfectionism rather than pragmatism (resulting in analysis paralysis and deadlock and not achieving anything worthwhile), so the lesson to me is poignant and depressing:

Matt’s Law of User Abuse

The degree to which you can abuse your users is directly proportional to the number of users you have multiplied by the degree to which they are addicted to your service.

That’s too wordy, however. There is a succinct version I like better:

Matt’s Law of User Abuse

Most people don’t care.

Your software might have to be good and respectful of users if you only have a few, but once you have mass-market appeal, you can just about do whatever you like. I would put money on the notion that Facebook could post video of its staff sacrificing kittens on an altar every week and they still wouldn’t lose an appreciable number of users, because people don’t care.

Nobody should be surprised by Facebook’s success at the user abuse game, however. The observant reader will note that this type of behavior also has rather direct parallels to government and civil liberties. After all, people are willing to be publicly molested at airports in exchange for illusions of safety. Why would they object to having their privacy molested online in exchange for illusions of community?

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