Facebook and the problem with negative liberty

This post was written by Owen on September 26, 2011
Posted Under: internet

As you’re probably aware, various alterations were recently made to Facebook’s user interface. And, as is now commonplace when this happens, large numbers of people reacted pretty negatively. This was followed, almost as predictably, by a backlash from those who thought getting worked up about a few fairly superficial cosmetic changes was maybe a teensy bit excessive.

As you can probably guess, I had some sympathy with the latter reaction. Some, but actually not that much. Because the main form the backlash took was some variation on this:

…and frankly, that’s not remotely convincing. Yes, Facebook’s free to use, and no, no one’s actually coercing you into getting an account. But it doesn’t follow that the opinions of Facebook’s users on how it operates aren’t worthy of concern. If you live in the UK and you’re between the ages of 14 and 30, the odds are that the vast majority of your friends and peers not only have Facebook accounts but use them relatively regularly.

It’s not just that it’s essentially a monopoly, as David Mitchell points out. It’s that in order for a social networking site to work as effectively as possible, that’s what it has to be. If it practically everyone didn’t have a Facebook profile, it wouldn’t be nearly as easy to organise your social life through it.* How many of your friends were only able to tell you they’d lost their phones or changed their numbers because of Facebook? How many events do you only hear about because you get invited to them through it? Of course people didn’t organise their social lives through Facebook in the past, but that’s irrelevant; they do now, and unless you want to be excluded you’d better sign up.

So yes, you can choose not to be on Facebook, but for a lot of people, it’s only a choice in the same way that you have a choice to stop going to work if you don’t like your job; no one’s coercing you, but, despite what Isaiah Berlin would have you believe, not being coerced into doing something doesn’t necessarily mean you did it freely. It’s also worth bearing in mind that while users might not pay to have Facebook profiles, without them Facebook wouldn’t have a revenue stream as no one would buy their advertising space.

As such, given that Facebook plays a centrally important role in the social lives of its users, and that without said users Facebook wouldn’t be able to make any money, there’s clearly a fairly strong case to be made (David Mitchell’s jokes about nationalising it aside) for its users being entitled to have a substantive say in how the site’s run. I’m not saying this is likely to happen, but it would be nice if people at least recognised that just because no one charges you money for something or puts a gun to your head to make you use it, you still have a right to complain about it.

*Yes, there are other social networking sites, but if you can find me anyone who has a Google+ page and not a Facebook profile, they’re either a Google employee or a liar. And yes, you could theoretically have more than one ubiquitous social network which everyone was on, but most people aren’t going to bother regularly checking more than one site if they can help it.
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Reader Comments

ex-FB user

“Of course people didn’t organise their social lives through Facebook in the past, but that’s irrelevant; they do now, and unless you want to be excluded you’d better sign up.”

– wow i hope you think about what your words mean and that your belief in them might be problematic (not just for you)

Written By ex-FB user on October 3rd, 2011 @ 2:14 am

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