Facebook is a utility; utilities get regulated

From day one, Mark Zuckerberg wanted Facebook to become a social utility. He succeeded. Facebook is now a utility for many. The problem with utilities is that they get regulated.

Yesterday, I ranted about Facebook and “radical transparency.” Lots of people wrote to thank me for saying what I said. And so I looked many of them up. Most were on Facebook. I wrote back to some, asking why they were still on Facebook if they disagreed with where the company was going. The narrative was consistent: they felt as though the needed to be there. For work, for personal reasons, because they got to connect with someone there that they couldn’t connect with elsewhere. Nancy Baym did a phenomenal job of explaining this dynamic in her post on Thursday: “Why, despite myself, I am not leaving Facebook. Yet.”

Every day. I look with admiration and envy on my friends who have left. I’ve also watched sadly as several have returned. And I note above all that very few of my friends, who by nature of our professional connections are probably more attuned to these issues than most, have left. I don’t like supporting Facebook at all. But I do.

And here is why: they provide a platform through which I gain real value. I actually like the people I went to school with. I know that even if I write down all their email addresses, we are not going to stay in touch and recapture the recreated community we’ve built on Facebook. I like my colleagues who work elsewhere, and I know that we have mailing lists and Twitter, but I also know that without Facebook I won’t be in touch with their daily lives as I’ve been these last few years. I like the people I’ve met briefly or hope I’ll meet soon, and I know that Facebook remains our best way to keep in touch without the effort we would probably not take of engaging in sustained one-to-one communication.

The emails that I received privately to my query elicited the same sentiment. People felt they needed to stay put, regardless of what Facebook chose to do. Those working at Facebook should be proud: they’ve truly provided a service that people feel is an essential part of their lives, one that they need more than want. That’s the fundamental nature of a utility. They succeeded at their mission.

Throughout Kirkpatrick’s “The Facebook Effect”, Zuckerberg and his comrades are quoted repeated as believing that Facebook is different because it’s a social utility. This language is precisely what’s used in the “About Facebook” on Facebook’s Press Room page. Facebook never wanted to be a social network site; it wanted to be a social utility. Thus, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Facebook functions as a utility.

And yet, people continue to be surprised. Partially, this is Facebook’s fault. They know that people want to hear that they have a “choice” and most people don’t think choice when they think utility. Thus, I wasn’t surprised that Elliot Schrage’s fumbling responses in the NYTimes emphasized choice, not utility: “Joining Facebook is a conscious choice by vast numbers of people who have stepped forward deliberately and intentionally to connect and share… If you’re not comfortable sharing, don’t.”

In my post yesterday, I emphasized that what’s at stake with Facebook today is not about privacy or publicity but informed consent and choice. Facebook speaks of itself as a utility while also telling people they have a choice. But there’s a conflict here. We know this conflict deeply in the United States. When it comes to utilities like water, power, sewage, Internet, etc., I am constantly told that I have a choice. But like hell I’d choose Comcast if I had a choice. Still, I subscribe to Comcast. Begrudgingly. Because the “choice” I have is Internet or no Internet.

I hate all of the utilities in my life. Venomous hatred. And because they’re monopolies, they feel no need to make me appreciate them. Cuz they know that I’m not going to give up water, power, sewage, or the Internet out of spite. Nor will most people give up Facebook, regardless of how much they grow to hate them.

Your gut reaction might be to tell me that Facebook is not a utility. You’re wrong. People’s language reflects that people are depending on Facebook just like they depended on the Internet a decade ago. Facebook may not be at the scale of the Internet (or the Internet at the scale of electricity), but that doesn’t mean that it’s not angling to be a utility or quickly becoming one. Don’t forget: we spent how many years being told that the Internet wasn’t a utility, wasn’t a necessity… now we’re spending what kind of money trying to get universal broadband out there without pissing off the monopolistic beasts because we like to pretend that choice and utility can sit easily together. And because we’re afraid to regulate.

And here’s where we get to the meat of why Facebook being a utility matters. Utilities get regulated. Less in the United States than in any other part of the world. Here, we like to pretend that capitalism works with utilities. We like to “de-regulate” utilities to create “choice” while continuing to threaten regulation when the companies appear too monopolistic. It’s the American Nightmare. But generally speaking, it works, and we survive without our choices and without that much regulation. We can argue about whether or not regulation makes things cheaper or more expensive, but we can’t argue about whether or not regulators are involved with utilities: they are always watching them because they matter to the people.

The problem with Facebook is that it’s becoming an international utility, not one neatly situated in the United States. It’s quite popular in Canada and Europe, two regions that LOVE to regulate their utilities. This might start out being about privacy, but, if we’re not careful, regulation is going to go a lot deeper than that. Even in the States, we’ll see regulation, but it won’t look the same as what we see in Europe and Canada. I find James Grimmelmann’s argument that we think about privacy as product safety to be an intriguing frame. I’d expect to see a whole lot more coming down the line in this regards. And Facebook knows it. Why else would they bring in a former Bush regulator to defend its privacy practices?

Thus far, in the world of privacy, when a company oversteps its hand, people flip out, governments threaten regulation, and companies back off. This is not what’s happening with Facebook. Why? Because they know people won’t leave and Facebook doesn’t think that regulators matter. In our public discourse, we keep talking about the former and ignoring the latter. We can talk about alternatives to Facebook until we’re blue in the face and we can point to the handful of people who are leaving as “proof” that Facebook will decline, but that’s because we’re fooling ourselves. If Facebook is a utility – and I strongly believe it is – the handful of people who are building cabins in the woods to get away from the evil utility companies are irrelevant in light of all of the people who will suck up and deal with the utility to live in the city. This is going to come down to regulation, whether we like it or not.

The problem is that we in the tech industry don’t like regulation. Not because we’re evil but because we know that regulation tends to make a mess of things. We like the threat of regulation and we hope that it will keep things at bay without actually requiring stupidity. So somehow, the social norm has been to push as far as possible and then pull back quickly when regulatory threats emerge. Of course, there have been exceptions. And I work for one of them. Two decades ago, Microsoft was as arrogant as they come and they didn’t balk at the threat of regulation. As a result, the company spent years mired in regulatory hell. And being painted as evil. The company still lives with that weight and the guilt wrt they company’s historical hubris is palpable throughout the industry.

I cannot imagine that Facebook wants to be regulated, but I fear that it thinks that it won’t be. There’s cockiness in the air. Personally, I don’t care whether or not Facebook alone gets regulated, but regulation’s impact tends to extend much further than one company. And I worry about what kinds of regulation we’ll see. Don’t get me wrong: I think that regulators will come in with the best of intentions; they often (but not always) do. I just think that what they decide will have unintended consequences that are far more harmful than helpful and this makes me angry at Facebook for playing chicken with them. I’m not a libertarian but I’ve come to respect libertarian fears of government regulation because regulation often does backfire in some of the most frustrating ways. (A few weeks ago, I wrote a letter to be included in the COPPA hearings outlining why the intention behind COPPA was great and the result dreadful.) The difference is that I’m not so against regulation as to not welcome it when people are being screwed. And sadly, I think that we’re getting there. I just wish that Facebook would’ve taken a more responsible path so that we wouldn’t have to deal with what’s coming. And I wish that they’d realize that the people they’re screwing are those who are most vulnerable already, those whose voices they’ll never hear if they don’t make an effort.

When Facebook introduced the News Feed and received a backlash from its users, Zuckerberg’s first blog post was to tell everyone to calm down. When they didn’t, new features were introduced to help them navigate the system. Facebook was willing to talk to its users, to negotiate with them, to make a deal. Perhaps this was because they were all American college students, a population that early Facebook understood. Still, when I saw the backlash emerging this time, I was waiting and watching for an open dialogue to emerge. Instead, we got PR mumblings in the NYTimes telling people they were stupid and blog posts on “Gross National Happiness.” I’m sure that Facebook’s numbers are as high as ever and so they’re convinced that this will blow over, that users will just adjust. I bet they think that this is just American techies screaming up a storm for fun. And while more people are searching to find how to delete their account, most will not. And Facebook rightfully knows that. But what’s next is not about whether or not there’s enough user revolt to make Facebook turn back. There won’t be. What’s next is how this emergent utility gets regulated. Cuz sadly, I doubt that anything else is going to stop them in their tracks. And I think that regulators know that.

Update: I probably should’ve titled this “Facebook is trying to be a utility; utilities get regulated” but I chopped it because that was too long. What’s at stake is not whether or not we can agree that Facebook is a utility, but whether or not regulation will come into play. There’s no doubt that Facebook wants to be a utility, sees itself as a utility. So even if we don’t see them as a utility, the fact that they do matters. As does the fact that some people are using it with that attitude. I’d give up my water company (or Comcast) if a better alternative came along too. When people feel as though they are wedded to something because of its utilitarian value, the company providing it can change but the infrastructure is there for good.  Rather than arguing about the details of what counts as a utility, let’s move past that to think about what it means that regulation is coming.

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79 thoughts on “Facebook is a utility; utilities get regulated

  1. Ike

    Danah, I loved yesterday’s post but you are way wrong here.

    Facebook is NOT a utility, no matter how utilitarian people are in their attitude.

    Facebook does NOT force anyone to use it.

    Facebook does NOT charge you monetarily.

    I work for a publicly-regulated utility, and while I understand your “hatred” of them, they serve a valuable function. Can you possibly imagine how expensive your electricity would be if you had two or three companies all stringing their own lines through each neighborhood? How chaotic it would be for them to radically alter the amount of power they need to generate to meet the requirements of base load?

    There is a reason power companies and cable companies are regulated as monopolies – to keep costs down for the people who need it. None of that applies to Facebook.

    Oh — and many regulated utilities also have to provide service to everyone in a geographic zone, provided they can pay the rate. Such utilities can’t say “We won’t be providing you service, because it would cost us too much to string wires out to where you live.”

    In the case of cable companies, they have agreements with their chartering entities about population density and new neighborhoods, but the principle is the same.

    Now, what would Facebook have to look like in order to truly be a “utility?”

    It would be under charter to be accessible to everyone.
    And there would have to be a justification that nobody could possibly compete with Facebook on grounds of technology and infrastructure.

    Well, as I recall, there is nothing preventing someone else from replicating Facebook’s design or functionality. There is indeed a competitive marketplace, and that’s what allowed AOL to get usurped by Friendster and MySpace, and both of those to fall to Facebook.

    As for me? I *really* want to leave Facebook, but I have a strong philosophical belief in never running FROM something until I know what I am going TO. And I would wager that the majority of those you polled would agree with that very sentiment, even if they hadn’t expressed it that way themselves.

    The only thing worse than what Facebook is doing to us would be a Facebook where political governance gets involved. Then you have a whole other mess of privacy issues AND the death of innovation that only government meddling can bring. Truly the worst of both worlds.

  2. Gil Freund

    Well, your post got me to disable my account. I could rationalize reasons for staying on, but I realize that anyone of those reasons means that I will simply wait for someone else to resolve this.
    Leaving facebook is also a better way for advocating the need for a change. I have tried to guide people for better privacy settings, but I realize now this is futile. My lecturing and persuasions were less effective then just leaving. Leaving is making a stand.
    I have also disabled all facebook related tools and links on my sites and profile.

  3. Till

    I like the idea of thinking about social media as (kind-of) public good. And about the political consequences of such an idea.

  4. George

    Building on Ike’s comment, not only is Facebook not “preventing someone else from replicating [their] design or functionality,” but their Graph API lets you leverage who people are following on Facebook for your app, rather than asking them to re-build their social network. http://developers.facebook.com/docs/api

  5. Scott R Lewis

    Facebook is not a utility. The Internet is the utility! If fb continues to abuse their users without offering significant new value it is a matter of time before a competing social network rises with what customers want. It may take a while to find out which one will compete and whether they will sell out to fb or another mega-company, but the idea is already being executed on by some: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/196017994/diaspora-the-personally-controlled-do-it-all-distr

    Plus if anyone ever realizes that people want to share every which way, so long as they control it, why not serve the bigger market. Just wait till anonymous makes a comeback. 🙂

    Thanks for writing!

  6. Almad

    Thanks. Well said.

    I agree that FB is becoming an utility; not because it is, but because people see it as such. It’s about perception, so I have to disagree with Ike, althrough he’s right in his POV.

    And by the way, I left facebook and found my mind less cluttered. I enjoyed the experience, but I’m not looking back.

  7. Kris Cohen

    Another difference between FB and the utilities you mention (although I think the implication of this one points in a different direction than the difference Ike cites above) is that FB’s value—to its bottom line as well as to its users—is not only built on, but simply IS the work that users put into it. And as Nancy Baym’s quote makes very clear, that value, the presence and activity of FB’s millions of non-employees, is the product FB offers (I think this is still true no matter how much credit one gives to FB employees for their collective effort). That’s part of the reason why people can be so angry and still want to stay attached: we’re all trying to stay attached to our own labor (whether labor of love or otherwise), to the friends we made, the groups we built, the conversations we started, the opinions we registered then defended then changed, the protests we started that mattered and didn’t matter, etc. etc. I think we would feel differently about electricity and water utilities if the energy or water were extracted directly from our bodies. Would we want them better regulated in that case? We’d definitely want them better cared for.

  8. Mr. Gunn

    This may well be the smartest thing about Facebook I’ve read yet. Ike points out that Facebook doesn’t meet the current legal definition of a utility, but they’re looking more and more like one every day. Didn’t they just say they wanted to be the the identity provider for the web? As more and more people come to depend on it, at what point does identity service become like internet service? It’s true that it costs utilities more to each lay their own pipe, but doesn’t it also cost sites to each develop their own authentication mechanisms and ways of connecting profiles? How many different protocols do we have for authenticating someone? OAuth, XAuth, FB Connect, Open ID, Google login, etc, etc.

    This is why we can’t have nice things.

    We’ve enjoyed such a nice run of innovation and experimentation, free of the regulation that weighs down so many other industries. We’ve achieved this because the internet had mostly been the domain of geeks who were smart enough to police each other, knowing that it would only take one bad actor to bring regulation down on the heads of everyone. Lately, the MBAs have been moving in and it turns out they’re not quite as ethical as the hackers of days gone by. Zuckerberg, who may have been a little sociopathic all along, has now surrounded himself by a culture of hero worship and he’s become shielded from the self-policing that has held regulation at bay for the past few decades. Nothing will stop him short of governmental intervention.

    Thanks for ruining it for everyone, dude. Thanks a lot. I’m not just singling him out, BTW, it’s well known that executives tend to score a little higher on the narcissist/sociopath scale, but this has gone too far.

  9. Joe

    It does suck having deleted my account. I think people need to weigh for themselves the value they get from Facebook against the ultimate cost of acquiescing to arbitrary treatment of personal content. The decision was hard, but clear, for me. I fear that if we don’t realize that we can choose to say no, this will be only the beginning of a much wider phenomenon and there will be little beachhead left.

  10. Jeff Yablon

    Diana, that was without question one of the most impassioned treatises on this kind of subject I have ever read.

    That said, as much as I wish to agree with you and your moral outrage, I can only agree with the outrage part.

    People might “need FB”, but the other options are plentiful enough that treating them in the way you suggest is just plain…scary.

    You know, Apple also does things the big-brother-like “we know best” way (geez…look at Steve’s “keep the world free from porn” comments). Shall we regulate them too?

    Jeff Yablon

  11. Jillian C. York

    I agree with the update; Facebook is trying to be a utility, and though they’re not quite yet, it’s true that the vast majority of us see them that way.

    Like Nancy, I haven’t left yet, for many of the same reasons, but also for another: I’m deeply intertwined with activists in other countries who, for the same reasons as many of us–namely, the strength of our network–can’t or won’t disconnect from Facebook. As Sami Ben Gharbia points out in a comment on my blog (http://jilliancyork.com/2010/05/15/policing-content-in-the-quasi-public-sphere/#comments), leaving isolates activists from the same ordinary Facebook users they’re trying to reach.

  12. zeynep

    hey danah,

    I agree. I made a very similar argument here during the initial Google Buzz fiasco (which, to their credit, Google quickly admitted they messed.) I include Facebook, Google, Wikipedia and, to a degree, Ebay, Amazon in this category.

    I base my assertion on the fact that they are a) natural monopolies such as your dreaded cable company, and b)enjoy network externalities — i.e. it makes most sense to stay where everyone else is. Sorry, but let me quote myself:-)

    Facebook or Google are optional in the sense that electricity, telephone, modern medicine are optional. Don’t like the medical establishment? Don’t use antibiotics! Don’t like how deregulated electricity markets are run? Well, don’t use electricity! Hey, solar panels are available. Telling people to opt-out of major streams of sociality, information and markets on the Internet makes almost as much sense.

    The next argument is: well, use an alternative service! That, too, is as valid as telling people to use a different cable company or an electric utility if they don’t like the current one. In most markets, there is only one or two such utilities, and for good reason. The investment in laying cables and connecting doors is large enough that most markets cannot support multiple, truly alternative services. Similarly, especially in the lives of young people, Facebook acts like a phone directory used to and opting out of Facebook during college would significantly constrain social options for many. Facebook has become de facto social commons, especially in college but now has spread to other cohorts. It takes effort to maintain a profile and people are unlikely to duplicate that effort in multiple services the same way multiple electric companies don’t put down parallel cables to each neighbor to compete with each other. Google is such an environment for searching … ”

    I think this is especially true for co-created sites where user labor key and which would not exist unless for the contribution of millions of people. There is an implicit social contract that goes into people choosing where to congregate.

  13. Jason Ramsden

    I find it interesting that you have compared Facebook to a utility. I think it makes sense, but one could also argue they are also a burgeoning software company a little like Microsoft in the early days. A young, college age man creates something people can not do without, believes that what he is doing is “right” for the marketplace and creates an incredible niche based on a perceived “need.” Lots of people heavily invest time into using the software only to find it has problems, issues, and bumps along the way (can you say Windows ME?).

    Sooner or later, Facebook will face a competing network, much like Apple has come to be for Microsoft. However, the only issue is that change is hard and its hard to move away from that which you know and have come to rely upon so heavily whether it be a life style, eating habits, an operating system, or a way of keeping in touch with “friends.”

  14. Nathanael Boehm

    Ike, whilst I would prefer for the Facebook Killer to come along prior to me making that decision at some point it is likely that the needs Facebook fulfills will be overtaken by my needs that Facebook does not or no longer fulfills, such as offering a trustworthy, credible, reliable and private system; to quote The Matrix “There are levels of survival we are prepared to accept”.

    I’m not sure about the utility argument, but as a monopoly in this niche I believe Facebook should live up to the moral and social expectations now placed upon it – even if not required by law to do so. Failure to do so will only reflect badly upon them and undermine the trust that hundreds of millions of people had placed in them when they signed up.

    However as for Ike’s regulation to keep costs down argument – I think we really should revise the definition of a “utility” if it works for us, and be open to realisation that not everything in this world is about money. People can make investments in other ways too – trust and social capital for example. So if we’re not so narrow-minded about what a utility is then perhaps we’ll see that Facebook indeed does fall under that category – but I’m not going to jump into a category prematurely but it is useful to predict where this story is going.

  15. Kathy Sierra

    I deleted my Facebook account a few months’ back, after spending several gut-wrenching days helping two 13-year old girls deal with the emotional aftermath of but-I-thought-that-was-private?! I was already planning to pull the plug, but that was the final push.

    It’s not a problem for me to stay in touch with my tech friends w/o Facebook (despite the hilarious Facebook deactivation screen describing how sad my “friends” and husband will be now that they’ll have NO way to contact me), but Facebook is — unfortunately for me — the only place where most of my *horse* friends are. The only reason I joined in the first place is that many in my horse community had abandoned their Flickr accounts in favor of posting their horse show pics on FB instead 🙁

    However, before I left FB I’d noticed that the majority of my “friends” significantly reduced their FB activity once the novelty and initial ‘friending frenzy’ wore off.

    Actually the only thing I do miss now is the ability to “Like” or make snarky comments on the updates of my daughters, though their FB activity is also much less than it once was…

    Thank you so much for these posts, danah. (And I hope our real world paths cross again soon!)

  16. William Carleton

    Danah, it seems to me that the utility can be replicated, perhaps quickly, perhaps in a matter of months, particularly if people find easy ways to export their content to platforms that are either more private (for the original FB constituency) or completely public (for the rest who don’t mind the lack of privacy, but resent the dissembling). AOL rose and fell; MySpace, too; and Yahoo went from dominant to, well, significant but not dominant. It may be that the utilities to replace FB will have to be open to letting people import and export their content, even facilitate that, like blog platforms do.

  17. Ike

    danah – I see now that we are much more aligned once we get past the “Utility” issue.

    Robert – The fact that YOU use Facebook like a utility does not make it one. I know people who rely on Netflix for everything, but that doesn’t make it a utility either.

    As much “Facebook angst” as there is within the last week or so, I am 100-times more worried about what might happen to ICANN. Now THERE is a utility-grade nightmare just waiting to be spoiled. ICANN does in fact have the power and wherewithal to screw people hard, and in essence block any competitor it wanted.

    And Kathy… we still need to talk at some point. My regret is we never got that chance.

    As to the rest? The only thing worse than today’s Facebook would be a regulated one — because then there would be a governmental oversight framework that would FOREVER prevent competition. Look up the definition of “Rent Seeking.” Facebook WANTS you to push in this direction, because then it gets legitimized and cemented in a political framework.

    Look beyond what you think you WANT… and consider what that precedent would enable. THAT frightens the hell out of me, and it ought to frighten you too.

  18. Ruth

    Let me start off by saying I am pretty torn on this issue as well.

    In the end, I think calling the internet as a whole as a utility (in the sense that it should be a legal right overseen by public and not private interests) is fair enough, but Facebook specifically is too narrow an idea. I think we’re giving them too much credit. They could do a lot of damage to people with the kind of information they’re collecting and making public, but the government is large and clumsy and only knows how to use blunt tools.

    LiveJournal has gone through pretty much the same thing as Facebook before Facebook’s most recent scandals hit public consciousness. They got bought out by a Russian company, which is shady in itself, but only made transparency issues worse in a website designed to make money that people think of primarily as a community. Livejournal isn’t widespread any more so people beyond fandom rarely care when LJ screws up, and there have been people who have moved out at various points in LJ’s shitstorms, but the vast majority have stayed. Despite the fact that they know LJ doesn’t care about them and does a pretty shitty job a lot of the time. Everyone hates LJ and yet they stay, so there is no pressure on LJ as a company to change. I’m one of those people, both on LJ and Facebook. I wish I could leave, but I can’t. I don’t even have any sentimental attachment to Facebook, I’ve actually hated the design from the beginning, but I can’t tear myself away. In this case I agree with you, but there are plenty of other options besides LJ, some which are actually better (Dreamwidth). Yet those little alternative options stay little alternative options.

    If you wanted to regulate Facebook as a utility you would have to regulate all social media sites the same way, including livejournal. Instinctually, I’m all for that. Monopolies are bad. Yet on second thought, you know what kind of difficulties we’re going to run into there, with the problems classifying and defining such things with the internet as mutable as it is. And as you’ve already said, this isn’t an American Government thing, this is an international thing. I’m Canadian and I’m used to having to deal with American laws governing my websites, but it’s still irritating because the internet doesn’t have little bits carved out of it with an American flag stamped on. The internet is less a wild west nowadays, but do we want to make that step to government-run police forces? Hard to say.

  19. Shyam Somanadh


    Are you not mixing up ‘something with great utility’ and ‘utility’ here? It is a great enabler and like all enablers go, it serves to meet an end – connect and communicate – than being the end in itself.

    What will be the eventual downfall of Facebook is the much vaunted network effect. In the past two years you have seen the cost of actually being on it starts to catch up with the benefit from being on it. As Facebook tries to up the benefit quotient in it, it will keep making it harder for people to justify the cost of having to understand what is the latest raft of changes that is being forced their way.

    Yes, most of the average users don’t care much about all of this, but they did not care much about anything else other than that everyone they knew were headed on Facebook. That audience is very fickle and prone to momentum and that momentum is slowly building up against Facebook. It won’t take too much for it to go all wrong for Facebook, leading to the Bank moment, where Al Pacino is trying to convince the punters to not leave his casino as they run out, in Ocean’s 13.

    On a related note, a personal plug: Even Zuck does not share much to the world, for all his love of sharing to the public http://goo.gl/c75W

  20. Doctor Science


    I’m also on LJ (under a different pseud) and I’ve seen a lot of increased movement toward Dreamwidth in the last couple of months. DW is only a year old, which isn’t much even in Internet years — I think it’s still in the long beginning tail of the S-curve. The thing about change on the Internet is that the explosive growth phase occurs *really* quickly, so the flip from “very few people are doing this” to “everyone is doing this” seems to happen overnight.

    For social networking systems in general, I think the important “regulatory” factor will be replacing the “reasonable man” standard (where “reasonable” means “like Zuck’s rich white male friends”) with what I call the “reasonable teenage girl” standard.

    A “reasonable teenage girl” is a hypothetical, a philosophical construct. She’s a person who knows that she has a better than even chance, at some point in the future, of being stalked or harrassed. She knows that she’ll be judged harshly by family members, friends, and future employers if her inevitable foolishness is publicly revealed — “boys will be boys”, but she will never get to count on “girls will be girls”. She needs to be able to have a social life that is not searchable, a record that is erasable, identities that can be kept separate or abandoned at times of danger.

    Women are (and can be expected to be) the *majority* users of social networks. Facebook may claim to want to be a “utility”, but it isn’t walking the walk: it isn’t even pretending to tailor its defaults to women. Facebook really IMHO wants to be a utility for *advertisers*, something they rely on instead of Google ad campaigns. And my guess is that online advertisers, like TV advertisers, are more interested in 20-35 y.o. men than in any other demographic. It’s even possible that FB’s privacy policies are intended to drive away pesky low-value female users and our cooties, so that they can deliver a higher-value cool dude male demographic to the true customers, the advertisers.

  21. owen rowley

    To me FB and other social sites are more like many of the Empires of the Old World.
    They Rise, they fall. But they do so on a much more accelerated time scale
    than the old Empires. Facebook needs to come to the realization that the people are not just a commodity they are still people. More specifically they are primates, and will follow their evolutionary history moving where the conditions are better when it suits them. We are told that our early ancestors came from Africa. Do the math.
    Every Facebook exec needs to put up a prominent sign in their office that says “It’s the people stupid”

  22. Bertil Hatt

    That’s Industrial Economics: That’s *my* turf! — Grrrr… Back to your interviews with stoners! Grown-up talks about lock-in here!

    (Quite update to fellow commenters: I’ve been working on exactly that question as a PhD in Economics for five years now, so… Thank you danah for bringing that up; finally! Someone cares!)

    Yes and no: Utilities, the large, necessary services aren’t the same as Utility, the odd understanding of happiness. I won’t use the second meaning here because danah doesn’t, at all (but it’s plain impossible to do economics modeling without, which is one of the reasons why they are more often called “essential facilities”).

    You can regulate a non-utility if it is, or threatens to be a monopoly, or abuse its market power; that’s anti-trust and it’s a very incoherent set of laws in any country and between country, so as it is, that’s a Pandora box that you’d rather negotiate away from, instead of opening and give way to many indecipherable lawyers.
    The lines between utility and monopoly can be fine, and usually a utility is something that cannot make sense through competition: social media can be competitive. There are several ‘hacks’ (allow data portability, app platform, standards for activity stream or cross-site friending, etc.); all these can be studied through working equivalents, of proxies (banking services, telephone, e-mail, OS/App, etc.) so we can use economic science and reasoning to demand that Facebook keeps a for-profit approach, but lets competitors have a try too. I do believe they are very good at what they do (scaling, design) and I’m positive there are many improvements to do (filtering, faceted profile) that they won’t try unless someone puts their feet next to the fire—but I’m biased like everyone would be, so the only way to find the best site is to let a thousand flowers bloom, a thousand schools compete. That cannot be achieved the same way with a utility (hence the hatred described by USAers). It’s not that simple, though: shared activity streams need to have standards, and those will limit what entrepreneurs can offer, so having a slow, formal body decide that is limiting. It’s hard to compare the results of that inefficiency framing competition to what a biased leader like Zuck can achieved while trying to flee from MySpace’s fate, but yes, we need to think about this hard.

    Free services tend to monetize through ads: the more ads, the less acceptable is the crappy service so… ad-ratios are treated as a price-like parameter. It’s far from perfect and demands more adjustments than that but it’s reasonable to treat Facebook like a for-pay service.

    After exploring the field for years, the lock-in from “social network effects” are completely different from the challenges that raise a platform or a two-sided market (two other intermediary situations between simple monopoly and a utility): they are much stronger yet fickle, etc. — so we need a new type of regulation, presumably a referee to hear industry complain and suggestion, who can enforce reasonable interoperability standards to a player that has reached too large a market-share to ignore.

    Among the many things to look into for that, your work, danah, is essential: a success like Facebook is greatly helped by hegemonic approach to privacy (I’d love to explain further why and detail what I wrongly call hegemonic—please ask) so “taming” a monopoly also needs to make political sense of what we want to happen to say, gifted yet underprivileged kids who have to negotiate between late-teen ghetto and early university. Economics can consider variety of service and redistribution, but won’t suffice for those questions.

    TL;DR: Utilities tend stay that way and don’t innovate, so I’d rather see a negotiated industry agreement based on anti-trust principles, feasibility and empathy for the users.

  23. Don

    An interesting thing about regulation is that it can sometimes drive standardization and standardization can enable competition and alternatives. The regulation and standardization of the electrical grid is a good example. The rules surrounding running a power utility enable multiple regional utilities to interact [e.g., buy/sell power with each other] to provide a better service. The internet is another example; being dependent on this sort of regulation (provided via the RFC process) so that all of the individual networks that it is composed of can interoperate.

    Perhaps good regulation for Facebook would involve standards for interacting/interfacing so that competitiors can offer their own utilities [perhaps with different privacy models] that interact with the Facebook “utility”.

    Full disclosure:
    I’m Canadian so I have one of those “other” views of regulation. 🙂 I also gave up on Facebook a long time [years] ago because the cost [loss of privacy] of the “utility” exceeded its value to me.

  24. Srinagesh Eranki

    Self-regulation is non-existent/not working. Government Regulation is a double-edged sword & hard for regulators to codify/enforce. We should have a Social Network Charter & Bill of Rights. Social Networks should be assessed on how well they conform.

  25. Blaine Cook

    You’re absolutely right!


    Please, please, please stop saying “Facebook” when you mean “social networks”; the utility argument applies to any “social network” (in the web 2.0 sense: facebook/flickr/twitter/etc). For example, I wouldn’t be happy leaving Geni, which I don’t really interact with on a daily basis, because it provides me with utility, and perhaps more importantly, it provides others in my family with utility that I stay on Geni.

    If we can get beyond “What Facebook should do to fix this problem (or else!)”, and start talking about “What can we do to fix this problem?”, we can start thinking about the world in ways that don’t just end in frustration with what Zuckerberg and co are or aren’t doing.

    I posted this [ http://blog.romeda.org/2010/05/facebook-is-my-new-boatcar.html ] a few days ago, trying to get away from the “Facebook isn’t free, bah, I want a free alternative because free is better” rhetoric. Instead, I think we need to be actively exploring what sorts of things we could envision if we don’t get caught in the facebook-IS-the-conversation trap.

  26. intepid

    Ike said: “Well, as I recall, there is nothing preventing someone else from replicating Facebook’s design or functionality.”

    Except that Facebook already has all the users, so there is a *huge* disincentive to leaving because you leave behind the people you joined to connect with in the first place. If you’re not on Facebook, you don’t exist to a large extent; you can’t follow your friends and they can’t follow you. It stinks.

    “You can always leave if you don’t like it” is the most infuriatingly stupid pat response for Facebook haters like myself, and it’s not good enough.

  27. JP

    I think there are three things at play here. Utilities. Choice. Regulation. I think regulation comes in only where there is no choice available: the regulation is to do with curbing the monopoly and forcing choice.

    Sometimes it takes a wannabe-monopoly to break a monopoly, and this is okay provided that the wannabe-monopoly is contained from birth. This is something we’re only learning about.

    I haven’t given up my facebook account yet; I still have some Apple devices; but other lock-in monopolies have exited my life. Overall, the wannabe-monopolies are not as dominant in my life as they used to be, as alternatives and choices get traction.

    Sometimes it’s a question of timing.

  28. Jordan

    danah, thanks for making an excellent point about the embeddedness of Facebook in everyday social life for many users. i particularly like the utility model as a way of thinking about what an open alternative to Facebook might look like.

    but i don’t entirely agree with your point on regulation. i don’t know why we have so much trouble with this sort of thing in the US, but here in Europe, regulating things like utilities and healthcare has pretty much worked. high-speed internet access in Germany, for instance, is now faster and cheaper than in the US, thanks in part to how regulation prevents monopolies like Comcast. Europe has to an extent leapfrogged past the US in terms of the quality and affordability of internet access. meanwhile, regulation of the health insurance industry has helped prevent anyone from being denied health insurance, while standardizing how much doctors and hospitals can charge for services.

    so i don’t think we should be afraid of regulation, but we should consider what kind of regulatory policies would be beneficial instead of stifling. one of the things that drives me crazy about American attitudes towards regulation is how we end up with large, anti-competitive monopolies as a result of deregulation, where in contrast, in more heavily regulated Europe, you see actual competition in place, which allows the “free market” actually to work much better.

  29. Bertil Hatt


    A detail, if I may :
    > Europe has to an extent leapfrogged past the US in terms of the quality and affordability of internet access.

    Well, no: US has never really been ahead. In spite of its many woes, Minitel put Europe on the forefront of distributed digital access long before anyone dreamt of having InterNet beyond CS academic labs — don’t confuse a global network (easier to set in a large culturally homogenous area with independent institutions) with a distributed-at-home network (easier to set up in a centralized, packed area). The two ideas thankfully merged, but only decades after either were set up.

  30. Lionel Menchaca


    Thanks for continuing this emotionally-charged discussion in a constructive way.

    I still use Facebook for two reasons: partly because I personally benefit from people knowing who I am on the web, and partly because I get value from the platform as your example suggests.

    The reality is that Facebook makes it easy to share information with my friends and family. My mom and dad each have a Facebook account and so do an increasing number of my extended family members. Those same people will probably never have a Twitter account, or join any other social network.

    One reason I may change my support of Facebook is because of my children–right now, one is 5 and the other is 7. They’re why I will continue to work to stay on top of Facebook’s ever-changing privacy policy, or will decide to ultimately pull out of Facebook altogether.

  31. Alex Reid

    If Fb is a utility and indispensable to users, then why aren’t people willing to pay for it? If, instead of trying to monetize by selling user information, Zuckerberg said it’s going to cost you $5-10/month to use this service, how would Fb users react? If many leave, then I suppose Fb really isn’t a utility. On the other hand, if they essentially hold on to their users then I suppose they are a utility that might need to be regulated to prevent them from gouging users. At the same time, if they charged users then they wouldn’t have the economic incentive toward radical transparency.

  32. tim

    Why do a certain segment of people always want to regulate an industry that changes radically every few years? Competition works in the tech industry. And it works well. The players have to continuously evolve in order to simply survive.

    If you have a problem imagining this – go back five years – who was the dominate social networking site? Now imagine five years from now? Who will be the dominant social networking site? Its reasonable to bet it won’t be facebook.

  33. Katherine Warman Kern


    I totally agree with you. And thanks for the link to the Move on Petition. I have signed it.

    Zuck would respond that he has our explicit permission since we agreed to his terms of use when we signed up granting him rights to our content in perpetuity to use in any way he or his investors can imagine to make money.

    Zuck is claiming that he is is our spokesperson. He understands what we want. That’s why Boucher’s bill essentially sanctions what Zuck is doing. http://www.boucher.house.gov/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1579&Itemid=122

    So Comradity is hosting a 4 question survey to make it clear to Boucher that Zuck’s interpretation of anonymous vs. identifiable data, and sharing these data with “affiliates” may not reflect what we think at all.

    So please tell Comradity how you would answer these 4 questions and we will only share the results anonymously with Boucher’s office and any participant who asks for a copy of the results. http://www.comradity.com/comradity/how-do-you-feel-about-sharing-your-information.html

    Katherine Warman Kern

  34. anonymouse

    I just realized an interesting parallel here: the credit bureaus. They’re also nominally private entities, but they control a lot of information about a person, and are relied on by pretty much everyone these days, to the point where a credit bureau can destroy your life if they don’t like you. They’re basically a utility, and the regulators are still trying to figure out how to regulate them

  35. jkd

    @Bertil – I think you’ve got it, and I’d say that Facebook is not actually trying to be a utility but rather a monopoly. They certainly have an effective monopoly on many/most college campuses but I’m not sure what can or should be done about this – that’s actually a feature and not a bug.

    That being said, what I think Facebook has to fear more than people leaving (which I agree in the short term is unlikely in large numbers) is people not caring anymore, and their new-user pool drying up. Their success is a trap here – people still spend the most time on Facebook when they’ve just joined, and less the longer they’re there. And now they’ve got a huge part of their potential audience under 30 – still growing over that, but that’s a trap too. In a year’s time or so, what are the 13-year-olds going to see when they look at Facebook and think about joining – necessary social utility or lame place where old people hang out?

    I’ve actually thought for a while that not Facebook but Google is the one really acting like a utility for many of its services – and moreover, wouldn’t mind several of its areas of business being regulated like utilities. But that’s a different issue.

  36. TaosJohn

    I deleted my Facebook account last month after a year and a half with the bastards. I hated Facebook from the beginning; the opaque interface, the ridiculous complexity, the aesthetic ugliness, AND being bombarded with suggestions and invitations from people I would just as soon not really have anything to do with. The final straw was when three of my outgoing links were flagged as “abusive” in one day. One of these was a link to a story about the oil well disaster in the Gulf!

    As a writer, I simply cannot tolerate publishing (however minor) in an environment where someone else has the power to censor me, particularly when I’m trying to educate and inform my readers. As a human being, I SERIOUSLY question whether this social media BS has any real value. It seems to me that we’re talking about a kind of mental hologram instead–and the last thing anyone needs in this day and age is something else separating them from spiritual reality. There’s also the moral angle: I caught on from the first moment that Facebook was all about mining marketing data, and that the site didn’t give a flaming f**k about its users. Quitting has given me the biggest lift I’ve had in years.

    SCREW Facebook.

    SCREW social media in general, too. I still belong to Twitter, but that’s it. I use Twitter for news and research, not socializing. I may even stop blogging. This isn’t the way to go.

  37. jon

    Yet another great post, danah.

    Facebook’s attitude now reminds me a lot of Microsoft’s about a decade ago, including the total lack of awareness of how their words and actions look to the rest of the world. I joined MS in mid-1999 and was shocked at the reality distortion field at the company … I still remember talking to a friend there after a it came out that a video an MS VP showed during his congressional testimony had been faked, and his response was, “oh, did that look bad?” Hmm. When a company’s caught lying Congress, how do you think it looks? But of course Microsoft folks didn’t see it that way.

    And sure enough, between the US anti-trust lawsuit, an FTC investigation resulting in a consent decree, and aggressive action by the EU, Microsoft wound up bearing the brunt of a lot more regulation.


  38. AJBopp

    Facebook is a utility in the same sense that Excel and WinZip are utilities, not at all in the same sense that Mediacom or ConEd are utilities. This argument is wrong-headed from the outset.

  39. Denis

    Facebook does what it takes to stay relevant. If people share more Facebook adapts and adds new ways to share. It is not about Facebook it is about speed of change in ways people communicate. Truth is those who make new changes in security settings are most of the time not ingenious enough to do it right. Well, please show me who does?

  40. zephoria Post author

    1. I think that other companies can be interpreted as utilities just like Facebook is, but I don’t think that other companies try to sell themselves as utilities in the same sense as Facebook.

    2. There are plenty of monopolies in the tech industry. And they DO get regulated.

    3. I’m not a fan of regulation and anyone who thinks that failed to read my post. There’s a difference between wanting regulation and believing that it will come. I strongly believe it will come because Facebook is not being even remotely deferential to regulators.

  41. Bertil Hatt

    I don’t like being in the guessing intention business, but I think danah is right to point out in her update that what matters is their intentions: something you can’t really do without, but it trying to be rather transparent (unlike a monopoly that would make non-neutral decisions). I haven’t seen the “social utility” line for a while and “making the world more open and social”, albeit sincere and often mocked, doesn’t clarify. I’m worried that Zuckerberg sees systemic transparency as a de-vero trend, and not his political agenda. He is already rather autocratic and the site has the ability to set up self-fulfilling prophecies; and an USAer anti-regulatory preference… I’m not sure “wishing to be a utility” comes with “bowing with reverence to regulators”.

    Google is clearly trying to be a utility: “collect all the world’s information and make it widely available”; the only exceptions to their neutrality that I’ve heard were favored placement for their own on-line App suite and Suicide help-line. I’d love to listen to the same conversation on search engines, probably because it would come from a higher ground; as far as I can tell, they have some of their search engine policies reviewed by a senior CS professor, a form of non-governmental independent oversight.

    I certainly miss key players from afar, but the four musketeers behind the Social Web TV appear to have a significant friendship, technical know-how and design sensibilities; they have an professional experience that span among enough players to make informed decisions to tell what institutions among the Open Web Initiative, the OpenID Fondation, etc. could set up a similarly non-governmental, skilled, independent oversight.

    My goal is to allow skilled parties to challenge Zuckerberg’s preppy assumptions about social constructs, without the imbalance that a 400-million strong network effect gives him, a vast majority of whom have absolutely no social leeway to leave the site. Challenge and fail: I’m not denying I’m a preppy boy who’d love the world to match my taste for pink shirts, blazer jackets and Chuck Bass ties. 🙂

  42. KIm E Landwehr

    I will admit i am going back and forth on this issue. One minute, I tell my self to delete my Facebook account all together, the next minute I decide to make everything public. I will admit I one of those people who joined mostly because my family is on it. I follow my niece and nephews adventures there and keep in contact with them. For that reason I will continue to use Facebook, however I am going to change how I use it and what I connect to it.

  43. Bill Bushey

    Two great posts. This post is especially spot on and put into words a thought I have been having for the last month or so, namely regulating cloud computing. Facebook is obviously a prime case study for this, but the fact is Facebook is not the only cloud service that is at/approaching utility status. As more of our computing facilities move onto the cloud, which has network effects and economies of scale that will likely result in monopolies/duopolies for a number of services, and people become more reliant on those services, we will see the emergence of a giant principle-agent problem.

    As you said, regulation may well come and bite everybody in the ass. And as you said, nobody really wants to be regulated. But I think there is a way to regulate such that a competitive system is created in which, much like a market, user choice is the ultimate regulator of services. If some regulation (lets just say government) existed that forced cloud computing services to use uniform and easily transportable data storage standards then the network effect of a site like Facebook would disappear. Users would be able to move their data (including connections) to other sites that have features and practices that they like, and Facebook would either disappear or be forced to change into something that users will like.

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