6 Things Social Networking Sites Need to Stop Doing
Social networking is here to stay. Virtually everyone reading this has an account with one of these sites, if not more than one. And who are we to criticize? We have "share" buttons on every page of this website. Social networking sites are how humans interact now, and it will continue until the day the zombies eat through our network cables.
That's what makes increasingly annoying and/or invasive social networking practices so much harder to swallow. We want all of the below to stop and, barring that, at least not get any worse. But if they don't, what are we going to do? Ditch our computers and go live in the woods?
Insisting They Can't Protect Your Private Info Without More Private Info
Recently, many Facebook users have been getting this message:
If Facebook is telling you your private information isn't safe, you know it's time to worry -- Facebook is still one of the few places on the Web that 100 percent connects you to your real-world identity. And you don't want strangers looking at those revealing baby photos your mom tagged you in, do you? So you click "Increase protection." But how can Facebook make sure that you and only you can see your personal information? By verifying your identity -- by asking for even more sensitive information.
And here is the paradox of the social networking age. It's like a bank saying it can't afford to put locks on its vault unless you put more money into that vault. First Facebook asks you to give it a second email address, in case, you know, someone hijacks your other email and changes your password when you really need to water your fake crops. That's reasonable enough. But then it asks for your phone number.
In case someone hijacks both email accounts, changes all your passwords, and you really, REALLY need to water those freaking crops.
The problem is that you might not even have any sensitive information on Facebook, but if you follow these "security-enhancing" steps, you will. Information that can be leaked the next time Facebook has a security breach. Oh, and if you have Facebook Mobile, it's apparently very easy to accidentally post your cell phone number to your public profile, as numerous users found out only when friends asked them if they'd suddenly gone insane.
We're not just picking on Facebook here -- any competitor that replaces it will eventually do the same. Already, Gmail has started asking for phone numbers as a password-retrieval measure. And if you have a Gmail account, you can scroll down to the bottom of the page and see this:
Click on "Details" and you'll see a list of all the locations from which your account has been accessed recently, which is pretty cool because it lets you know if someone in North Korea is reading your emails right now. The only problem is ... do you remember telling Gmail it could track your location to protect you? You probably don't, because it didn't ask (check the last section of this page for details on how to turn it off).
Tracking Where You Are (Whether You Like It or Not)
There are two important reasons why constantly announcing your location on the Internet is a bad idea, the first one being that it makes you an easy target for burglars. The second reason is that it's really annoying. Seriously, shut up for a second.
But mainly, burglars!
Location-based social networks are riddled with privacy issues. And you don't even have to do anything. If you're using Foursquare, for example, and your account is connected to Twitter, when your friend checks in at a location you've checked in at, their post will automatically say they're at that location with you. Even if you've set up your profile so that your location is visible to friends only, there are still ways for it to become public, like making your frequent hangouts available to anyone who figures out your user name or being randomly featured on the page of a place you've been to.
"You've been ousted as the mayor of erotic baking."
But that's the whole point of sites like Foursquare, right? To let people know where you are? So if you have a problem with that, the obvious solution would be not to use them. This works perfectly fine with Foursquare, but not so much with Facebook Places.
When Facebook offers you the feature, you have two options: "Yes" and "Not now." If you click "Not now," you think you're not using it, but you actually are: It still lets your friends tag you anywhere. And even after you've declined being tagged, it will still keep tagging you in the future.
So if you live in Manhattan, your iPhone looks like this 70 percent of the time.
Reading (and Censoring) Your Private Messages
You read every word!
Gmail's software has filters to prevent spam or viruses, but instead of protecting you, they're meant to make you buy shit. That's why whenever you mention going on a trip, Gmail will conveniently show you ads for airline tickets. The filters are weirdly specific: For example, send yourself an email with a bunch of random U2 lyrics (why?) and Gmail will show you ads for U2 concert tickets. Gmail doesn't recognize every song by every band ever, though we're strangely pleased to report that it seems to know Queen's entire catalog.
Way to jump to conclusions, Google. We could be saying that under a different context.
Gmail users can't opt out of this feature -- the only way to stop Google from turning your conversations into ads is to repeatedly mention sensitive topics like "suicide," "murder" or "9/11" in the body of an email. Unless you're willing to have the creepiest email signature ever, that's not very useful. Still, this is a relatively harmless feature, since no human Google employees actually read your messages. Only the robots.
As usual, Facebook takes things to the next level. Back in 2009, The Pirate Bay added a feature to share torrent links through social networks. Facebook reacted by banning users from linking to the site -- not just publicly but also in private conversations. Facebook claims that this isn't so different from email providers filtering junk mail, but those other providers at least let you read the email and reply to the Nigerian prince asking for your help, should you choose to do so. Facebook simply forbids you from even sending the message, showing you this notice instead:
They're hoping the use of the word "spammy" will endear them to you.
Also, maybe it's just us, but doesn't the fact that Facebook is monitoring private messages sort of disqualify them from being called "private"? And this isn't a one-time thing: Last year, Facebook banned users from linking to Lamebook.com, a website that posts ridiculous or stupid Facebook exchanges, including in private messages. Who knows what it will ban next? Lamebook isn't an illegal download site or anything like that; it's a humor website that makes fun of Facebook. Uh, if writing articles mocking Facebook gets you blocked, guess who else falls under that definition?
Removing Your Ability to Say "No"
Hey, remember last year when Google Buzz enabled itself on every Gmail account and decided who you should follow, causing a huge Internet shitstorm? Fun times. Maybe not so fun for the woman whose information Buzz made available to her abusive ex-husband, though. Or for Google, which had to do some serious damage control after this fiasco. Or for everyone in the world who had to put up with every existing news outlet everywhere doing "Bad Buzz" puns.
But fun times still.
And hey, at least Buzz didn't email burglars with a list of your fears. Like MySpace.
A few years earlier, Facebook had done something similar when it unveiled Beacon, an advertising system that allowed external websites to show Facebook user activity without the user's consent. So, for example, if you bought The Erotic Adventures of Pinocchio from Blockbuster.com (one of the partner websites), that information could be posted to your wall, for all to see and you would find out only when your grandma disowned you (she freaking hates Pinocchio).
Like Google, Facebook apologized profusely and ended up scrapping the whole system, but it didn't change its "users shouldn't be able to say no" philosophy -- it just found more subtle ways to implement it. For example, Facebook recently decided to replace the "Ignore" button with a much nicer one that says "Not now." This essentially lets you put someone's friend request on hold without having to look at his stupid face every time you log in. Because Facebook is dedicated to doing everything possible to make you forget you're an awful person.
"Now I can get back to ignoring Todd until one of us dies."
In case you're wondering what happened to the "No" option -- well, uh, there isn't one anymore. At least not right away. You have to go looking for it. Before, if you clicked "Ignore" on a friend request, the other person would simply go away. But with the new system, when you click "Not now," the other person can see your public wall posts in his timeline. He's gained limited access to your account simply by sending a request. So when you decline that person's request, you're still kind of saying, "What the hell, let 'em stalk me." To permanently delete a request, you have to go into your Friends list, click on "Find friends" and go through all the hidden requests there.
Or, there's a faster way: When you click "Not now," Facebook will ask whether you know that person...
She does look vaguely familiar.
If you click that, Facebook will let you block that person from making any more requests. It seems that Facebook assumes there are only two options in life: knowing someone and being his bestest friend forever, or not knowing him at all and having no desire to ever interact with him.
We'd try it ourselves, but Cracked's arch-enemy has been dead for some years.
Following You Around the Internet (Whether You Want Them to or Not)
Let's try something: Log into Facebook, then go to the front page of any website that has one of Facebook's "Like" boxes (here's one). Now look at those "People who like this" pictures -- chances are, you'll see some of your friends there. How is that possible? There are 600 million Facebook users and you have, what, a measly 130 people in your friends list?
That may be generous.
Well, it's like this: When you sign up for Facebook, it gives you a cookie that remains active in your system even when you leave Facebook's website. This means it's able to follow your activity through any site that has a "Like" box, anywhere on the Web.
The creepy part: It does this with non-users, too.
When you go into a website that has Facebook integration, Facebook will create a tracking cookie even if you're not a Facebook user. A researcher for a Dutch university found out that Facebook uses these cookies to store the online activity of people who never registered on the site, and if they should join later on, that information is integrated into their new accounts. This means Facebook follows you even when you're logged out, as long as you visit sites that have "Like" boxes or Facebook Connect.
Suddenly we're very glad they don't allow porn sites.
But there's an even more effective way for social networks to collect your info: your stupid friends. All it takes is having exchanged a few emails with one careless idiot years ago to be in someone's database. Most social sites have a "Find your friends" option that asks users for access to their email/instant messaging contact lists to find out whether anyone they know is already registered on the site. Twitter shows you this screen right after you sign up:
But even if you're not on Twitter, it will still have access to your name, your email address and whatever information your friend's contact list has about you, which it will save in case you should register later. At least Twitter asks before doing anything, some dubious sites, like Badoo, Imeem and Lockerz, automatically raid the email account of anyone foolish enough to give them a password, spamming every address they can find with fake invitations.
Getting back to Facebook (because it's been like two paragraphs since we mentioned it), it does something similar with phones: Users who activate Facebook Mobile are letting FB copy their entire contact list, including non-users. It also lets people tag you in pictures using your email address and name, so that, you know, you have a few photos of yourself in there when you inevitably sign up. This actually got Facebook in trouble with the German authorities, who launched a court case against the company for illegally accessing and storing the data of millions of people.
The fact that most of those people were "totally boring" didn't count as a mitigating factor.
Of course, when it comes to stalking people online, Google probably still takes the prize. Even if you don't have a Google account, it still tracks your activity when you're using its search engine or when you're visiting a site that displays its ads -- that means over 1 million websites. Think this is outrageous? The Federal Trades Commission does, too, which is why Google recently added a "permanent opt-out feature" for Chrome. Firefox is working on something similar, but the only thing its feature does is let websites know you don't want to be tracked, which should be as effective as going out at night with a "PLEASE DO NOT MUG" sign hanging from your neck.
Making It Ridiculously Hard to Delete Anything
Let's say you've had enough of these shenanigans and you decide to quit social networks altogether. Sounds simple, right? After all, it took you only a few minutes to sign up, so how much longer could it take to do the opposite? Well, it turns out that quitting some websites is harder than quitting crack -- and that's the way they like it.
On the plus side, crack dealers rarely ask for your cell phone number.
For example, deleted Hotmail or Windows Live accounts are kept in their servers for 270 days -- that's nine months. And if you accidentally log into your account within those nine months, the account is reactivated, and you have to start over again. The idea is to help former users who suddenly regret ditching their email accounts ... almost a year later.
Facebook keeps deleted accounts for only two weeks, but it makes sure that even getting to that stage is ridiculously complicated. If you search in your account settings, you'll see an option to "deactivate" your profile. Click on that, and Facebook will show you images of your friends and you saying "[name] will miss you."
Let's say you somehow make it past all the emotional blackmail and deactivate your account. Guess what? "Deactivating" isn't the same as deleting: All your information is still stored by Facebook indefinitely, and people can continue to tag you in pictures and send you invitations. The REAL delete button isn't in your settings at all -- it's hidden in a place that isn't so easily accessible. To reach it, you have to follow a needlessly complicated series of steps.
Even then, you're not out of the woods. As we mentioned, you have to wait two weeks for your profile to be erased permanently, but if you interact with Facebook in any way during those 14 days (including "Like" boxes and Facebook Connect), the account cancellation will be aborted. Let's say you use Facebook Connect on a website and you set it up to log you in automatically. As soon as you navigate into that website, Facebook will assume you regretted your decision and will reactivate your account.
"It's OK. We forgive you."
Plus, Facebook pictures are also notoriously hard to delete. Try this: Upload a picture to Facebook and then copy the image's URL (that's the long address ending in .jpg). Now delete the image from your profile and paste the URL to your browser's address bar. The picture will still be there. If you check back in a month, chances are it still won't be gone.
A study by Cambridge University found out that out of 16 social networks, seven take longer than a month to delete your images. Think of the implications: Let's say an embarrassing picture somehow finds its way into your profile, possibly due to circumstances involving alcohol consumption. The next morning you rush to delete the picture, but if even one of your friends saw it and copied the URL, he'd be able to access, download and propagate the image for the next month.
Facebook admits that deleted content "may persist in backup copies for a reasonable period of time" adding that it "will not be available to others," but that's bullshit -- try that URL from before in a different computer, and it will still work. By contrast, sites such as Flickr and Twitter delete images instantly. And speaking of Twitter, it doesn't store your deleted tweets for any amount of time -- but the Library of Congress does. For, you know, posterity. It keeps a record of "ALL public tweets, ever, since March 2006," in case future generations wonder what Snooki was having for lunch on Dec. 23, 2010.
Tequila. She had tequila.
Be sure to pick up our book, where we blow the lid off the entire planet.
Learn why you're no long safe behind your computer screen in The End of Online Anonymity: Why Will You Be Freaking Out? and 5 Wacky Internet Pranks That Can Get You Jail Time.
And stop by Linkstorm to Cracked can save you from your Facebook addiction.
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