The suicide squad

On May 31, more than 34 000 people around the world committed suicide—social media suicide that is. They cold-bloodedly opened their computers, logged on to Facebook and, after some fiddling around to find the right button, closed their accounts.

This stunt was organised by a grassroots movement called (surprise, surprise) Quit Facebook Day, as a protest against changes Facebook has made to its default privacy settings. Essentially Facebook has slowly but surely been exposing more and more user data—things like photos and wall posts—to public searching and viewing, unless users opt out.

So the thought of over 34 000 people quitting on a single day must have had those Facebook geeks sweating, right? Well, not really.
Facebook is adding users at a rate of about 35 000 per hour, so this whole mass movement was a gentle speed bump in the path of a juggernaut.

And you can understand Facebook’s perspective. The rate of physical suicide around the globe is around 10 per 100 000 people. Facebook’s “population” is about 450-million—so their suicide rate is a mere 7,5 per 100 000 users. Over 80 000 people actually took their own lives in the month it took to organise Quit Facebook Day.

Even more embarrassing is the fact that altogether more trivial movements on Facebook have gained far more popular support. Back in 2008 a group named “We Hate The New Facebook, so STOP CHANGING IT!!!” (note the passionate use of exclamation marks) attracted over a million members in a single month.

So should we write off the movement as an irrelevant digital tantrum? There are three good reasons not to. Firstly, the Quitters do have a fair point, however shrill. Facebook has been eroding its privacy policies since 2007. This is largely in response to Twitter’s growing popularity, which has proved that people are more keen on public sharing than anyone could have guessed.

Secondly the Quitters attracted a disproportionate amount of bad press for Facebook. A cursory search on Google News reveals over 3 000 articles on the subject—nearly one article for every 10 Quitters.

Thirdly, the Quitters appear to have won. On the 26th of May Facebook re-launched its privacy controls, making them both simpler and more powerful. Their CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, even tacitly acknowledged defeat, saying “the feedback we got from users really resonated with us”.

Still, this victory is ultimately a hollow one, because the onus is still on users to change their own privacy settings. On the whole, people are lazy and given to bouts of stupidity. Why else would they post messages about how much they hate their bosses on their profiles? Or photographic proof that their last sick day was actually a hangover day? All it takes is one irate “friend” to blow the whistle and the once private suddenly becomes very public.

There’s a pretty simple rule that trumps any privacy control Facebook could ever devise: if you don’t want it to be public, don’t put it on the internet. In fact, if you’re really that worried about privacy, then don’t participate on social media at all. You can rest assured that Facebook won’t notice your absence.

Alistair Fairweather

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