It’s sort of unfortunate when people who may have a point undermine themselves with hyperbole, hand-wringing, and inaccuracy.

I got pointed via BoingBoing to what should have been an interesting article about the people behind the sources of Facebook’s funding. I’m no particular fan of Facebook, especially because it just seems to get more and more annoying over time, and certainly there are and have been privacy issues with it.

But I can’t take seriously an article that

1) originally connected something created in 1999 with “after 9/11” (there’s a correction on it now, but this isn’t just a misprint kind of error — it’s a fundamental conceptual error of the type that tends to be brought on by a desire to connect 9/11 to everything and/or a desire to see nefarious influence everywhere).

2) spends a lot of time hand-wringing about Facebook being “fundamentally uncreative” and disconnecting us from nature. This is just typical The Children Are Too Connected To Their Computers and What Is The Point stuff. Why use Facebook when there are books to read? he wonders. That’s not the issue. Facebook is completely different from books. If I want to read I read; Facebook is a vehicle for something entirely different — social connection.

3) uses the phrase “anyone can glance at your intimate confessions”. If you’re putting intimate confessions on Facebook (which people do) I must say I don’t have much sympathy for you. Facebook is essentially the public internet — and is basically about sharing and other people seeing what you do — even though there are some ways to limit information distribution. The phrase is used in the context of the ToU’s “if our privacy controls are circumvented we can’t necessarily protect your information” which is certainly unfortunate, but the head bit should be “weak privacy controls” not “anyone can glance at your intimate confessions”.

In general, the article raises the issue of Facebook’s connection to people I would characterize broadly as crazy libertarians, but it also conflates them with neocons (without taking any effort to convince you that it’s a valid connection). It uses rhetoric rather than actual argument to try to convince you that because Facebook was funded by these people and can be interpreted, in a certain light, as an experiment in realizing their world vision, it must be that we are helping them out in reaching their allegedly sinister goals. I wasn’t convinced of either the total sinistry of their goals (they range from the off-the-wall bizarritude of the Singularity to very unpleasant extremist capitalism) or of the fact that Facebook actually serves as either an an experiment or actual realization of them, largely because the points are implied and almost assumed. I suppose maybe for the usual audience of the Guardian that’s enough?

There’s also plenty of hand-wringing about the ad-supported nature of Facebook. I do think that this is a general trend that’s concerning — there are very few online social sites that are not ad-supported, and that basically means that all online community is also an opportunity for people to sell you stuff. But the same is true (as the article’s author indeed alludes to) of newspapers and magazines. Ad-supported media is not new and the amount of “OMG your social relationships are being used as marketing devices” seems excessive to me. I find guerrilla marketing and paid shills who act like sincere product users far more disturbing uses of the social network for advertising.

Maybe I’m too complacent about this, but ad-supported websites of all kinds are de rigeur, and I’m sure most of the ones that have any information about you via login use that information to target the ads (Google does, for example). Facebook does have a lot of people’s personal information, but I’m more concerned about the general availability of the information than about them sharing it with advertisers, honestly. At least I know what advertisers want — my money. The government? Random people? Not so sure about that.

It’s inarguable that you’re giving these people ROI (return on investment) through your use of Facebook, and you may quite legitimately want to avoid doing that. It does squick me a bit for sure, especially since the pointer from BoingBoing was about Facebook hiring Alberto Gonzales’s former Chief of Staff as their general counsel. Yuck. I can’t see that going anywhere good.

But it’s less clear to me that these people’s strange worldview and aims are necessarily furthered by Facebook, or that even if they are, that Facebook doesn’t have other uses that are completely legitimate and irrelevant to that. The guy may have founded PayPal as a way to escape monetary controls (see article for this contention), but most people just use it to send money to friends or people they bought something from, or set up an easy payment system for their website. Likewise he may have invested in Facebook because it instantiates a virtual, borderless world, but most people just use it to talk to their friends and share photos. The article, instead of being a consideration of the implications of the financial relationship (most interestingly through providing potential funding to the guy’s weirder organizations — not that he really needs more money to be effective given how rich he is), is a piece of poorly argued hysteria.

I’m currently having a similar problem with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which I expected to like. It may be in part that unlike most of the first generation who had the book available, I was initially exposed to history that was being rethought to give more weight to what happened to the groups that weren’t writing all the books. So although some of what he writes about is new to me, much of it isn’t — it doesn’t feel revolutionary.

But even more so, I feel that he retreats from evidence into rhetoric; that he has a definitive agenda into which he’s trying to fit evidence, rather than letting the facts speak for themselves and guide his points. To his credit, he makes that explicit at the beginning of the book — and indeed I almost stopped reading at that point, because I’d been led to believe that it was a history book from a unique perspective, not an extended essay with a particular thesis (“the guys in power actually suck a lot” to put it shortly).

One example is his discussion of Native American social arrangements. While he seems to stick to the facts, there’s a definite gloss of romance over them. They were egalitarian! They cared about the environment! Europeans suck compared to them! He doesn’t, however, address the issue that the progress of farming tends to give rise to greater hierarchy (this is a Jared Diamond idea so it may not have been around when he wrote the book, but it does affect his point), meaning that given their own time, it’s entirely possible that the Native American cultures could have ended up much less egalitarian. And he doesn’t discuss the less savory aspects of various Native American cultures, of which there certainly are some. His evidence about their behavior is valid and I grew up with the new-standard narrative that yes the Europeans were absolutely horrible to Native Americans and that’s putting it lightly, but he tilts it just that little bit too far, undermining his legitimate points.

I need to read more of the book before I make any firm conclusions, but all the chapters have felt like that so far to me. Some very interesting evidence, interesting framework, just pushed a little too far for credibility.

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