TechCrunch explains how Facebook is getting even worse

Yesterday on Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow posted a link to an article on TechCrunch, breaking down the ways that Facebook's new app interface is more manipulative and dishonest than their previous ones.  I haven't actually seen the new interface, because I've logged into Facebook about three times this month, and that was only to check for messages after someone told me they'd sent one. The article, 5 Design Tricks Facebook Uses To Affect Your Privacy Decisions, is an easy read, and has accompanying pictures to illustrate the problems.  The writer, Avi Charkham, points out:

Facebook keeps “improving” their design so that more of us will add apps on Facebook without realizing we’re granting those apps (and their creators) access to our personal information. After all, this access to our information and identity is the currency Facebook is trading in and what is driving its stock up or down.

Facebook's stock has not been doing well since the company went public.  It seems like the company's approach to solving this problem is going to be to try and extract even more personal information from its users.

For the record, Tumblr, Reddit and Twitter all have a very good track record for not exploiting their users.  If you're not ready to quit Facebook, a good first step is picking some of these other sites and getting active on them, as well.  Get your friends to do it, too.  Diversify your social presence online.  That way, no one service can hold hostage relationships that are important to you.

Something that needs to stop

I've complained about ads a lot here -- we need to have some kind of policy reform on advertising, or at least some kind of advisory board, that gives advertisers a seal of approval, like registering plumbers. One of the big things that needs to be on that list is ads that look like the content the site is offering.

This picture is from the BBC's US and Canada news page:

Here are some of the problems I see with this ad:

  • The only indications that it's an ad are in small print, off to the side.
  • They're in an image/text format similar to the format of the actual articles on the BBC page
  • Many people skim headlines, and come to conclusions about reality based on those.  That's the problem with articles titled things like "Is Obama a communist?" -- even if the bulk of the article is saying "No, absolutely not, what are you even talking about," you're still misinforming people scanning the page.
  • The ad company's logo looks similar at a glance to AP's logo.

You see this kind of treatment all over the internet.  Google's ads look like search results.  Ads on filesharing sites have huge "CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD" buttons.

Ads aren't intrinsically bad.  It's possible to have advertising that's about connecting interested customers with worthy products, and that's a mutually beneficial arrangement.  But this kind of advertising isn't about helping out the customers.  It's about harvesting the potential monetary residue of lazy browsing habits, at the cost of net trust in the world.

I don't want my internet to be a collection of pit traps.  I don't want there to not be ads -- I've found some stuff I really like that I heard about because it was advertised.  But I don't want every webpage to have links that look like they're going to give me cool new content, and are actually just going to deliver me to a sales staff.

Another thing wrong with America's system for funding education

SourceFed reports on a 14 year old kid who was persuaded, by a for-profit college recruiter, to falsify documents in order to get into an online college before he was 18.  The college, Ashford University, took the government aid money and gave the kid online classes.  Then, when the government found out that he was actually 14 and hadn't graduated high school, they demanded their money back. From the kid, not the college.

PhoenixNewTimes.com reports more broadly on the phenomenon, which they compare to the sub-prime mortgage scandal -- it differs only in that this can't get big enough to implode the world economy.

Overall, the 15 largest for-profit colleges spend nearly $13 billion a year on recruiting and marketing.

It's a terrific business if you don't have to worry about educating students. Nearly 80 percent of them won't complete their programs within six years — almost double the failure rate at traditional colleges.

These organizations tend to charge around twice as much as a state college, and the article describes an approach that leads to a lot of students being flunked out -- not because they didn't do the work, but because the college doesn't have the resources to provide them the opportunities they need to graduate.

This kind of exploitative crap is the result of years of deregulation, and it's poisoning the future of America.  That sounds dramatic, but I mean it.  The institutional-scale failures of the currently dominant generation to prepare my generation to take responsibility for America seriously endanger the country's future.

That college at the top, Ashford University, should be dissolved.  The government should take all their money.  And after using part of it to relocate Ashford's students to real schools, then using part of the remainder to cover the costs of the dissolution, the government should recycle the rest of the money into the education system.

This should be done with every for-profit college that's preying on the weak, wounded people trying desperately to find some way to crawl up the increasingly rotting economic ladder.