I am, to put it bluntly, a little miffed. A few weeks ago, Facebook asked me if I wanted to upgrade to a new profile design; I declined, cautiously but good-naturedly. The good-naturedness was slightly reduced after a couple of weeks, when I noticed friends complaining that after changing to the new profile, they were now unable to change back. And now this week, I am informed that “In the next few days, you’ll be upgraded to the new profile, which offers more ways to show and tell your story.” And I’m a bit annoyed about this, as I think are a few of my friends. “Fuck Facebook” I think.
The thing is, I don’t own my Facebook profile. I didn’t pay for it or otherwise give a reward to the company that produced and maintains the website in exchange for them letting me use it. I indirectly allowed them to get money out of advertisers, but I didn’t choose to do that, and it didn’t cost me anything. Why should I complain about their decisions, rather than feel gratitude (the same, more or less, could be asked about this blog)?
That is, I feel like my Facebook profile is ‘mine’. I don’t have a legal right to it (though I may a right to some of the information in it), but I have psychologically associated myself with it for a long period, and this has given rise to a feeling of ownership. This association has involved thinking about it, acting on it, consciously designing it, and has been solidified by other people associating me with it, and me knowing that they will do so.
Should this personal involvement with my profile give me any moral claim to make decisions about it, beyond simply making me want to? A very simple model of ownership is that I have a right to something if 1. I worked on it, and 2. nobody else has a prior claim that overrides mine.
Have I worked on my facebook profile? It’s not clear there’s an objective answer to that. I’ve done things to it which took effort – I had to think for a whole 30 seconds before choosing my present profile picture. But does it count as work if nobody else values it? After all, it takes effort to damage or destroy something too.
Just as ambiguous is whether the company’s prior right overrides any claim I might have acquired. If I own a hammer, can I claim to own whatever someone makes with that hammer? After all, my ownership means that if I want to, I can keep the hammer to myself, so I could also say ‘you can only use the hammer if you give me the stuff you make with it’. Or does ownership not give that degree of freedom? If it does, then we might end up in a situation where a few people do no work but own almost everything that others slave endlessly on, because they owned a crucial object at the beginning, or even one computer-programmer getting lucky and becoming a multi-billionaire because enough other people decided to use his website.
Remember, after all, that the main reason that I joined Facebook was not anything intrinsic about Facebook, but rather the fact that everyone else was joining Facebook. They joined because everyone else else was joining. Zuckerberg is at most partly responsible for this phenomenon.
We might ask why I get rights over what I work on in the first place? One answer is that these right are concessions to expectations I need to form – I won’t do the work if I don’t expect to own the result. And I do seem to have formed such expectations – each day, when I inputted some silly message into my status box, I worked under the assumption that I’d be in control of how that message was presented, when it changed, etc.
Plausibly, it’s because I formed and relied upon those expectations that I now have these feelings. Does that mean the feelings are legitimate, or that I shouldn’t have formed those expectations?