BY Matthew Hays
November 24 2009 3:30 PM ET
Facebook has become such a common part of so many lives, it’s easy to take it for granted. Now the most popular social networking site, it has morphed into a standard meeting place for old friends, new friends, business contacts, and sexual hook-ups.
But queer Toronto artist Leif Harmsen is one of a number of former Facebook users who are warning against the possible perils of social networking sites. Harmsen has become a poster boy for the anti-Facebook set, arguing that such sites own the information we hand over and offer the illusion of freedom — while often censoring content. He’s also parlayed his anti-Facebook philosophy into a small business, creating and selling “Shut Your Facebook” T-shirts. Harmsen reports that sales shot up after his anti-Facebook utterances went viral. He argues that the T-shirts “aren’t so much anti-Facebook as pro-human.”
Harmsen says his disenchantment with Facebook began with the issue of censorship, something he sees as ironic, given that “much of my work reflects on issues of censorship and control.” After digital postings of some of his own works were removed from his page, Harmsen removed his profile from Facebook, and now he offers harsh criticism for what Facebook is and how the site operates, getting quoted in The New York Times Magazine and Time.com. Harmsen spoke to Advocate.com about what really rankles him about the most popular social networking website in the world.
Advocate.com: You were an avid user of Facebook. What first made you question your participation in it?
Leif Harmsen: Facebook notified me that it had removed an image but did not indicate which one or why, and gave no option for me to reply or object. Its impossibly vague terms state that they disallow anything "hateful" or "graphic" and that I must remove any such content or my account would be terminated. I never spew anything resembling hate. As for "graphic," there is no way to know what it means, so I was forced to guess. To safely avoid termination, Facebook forced me to imagine the most narrow-minded Facebook censor possible. I replaced all my oil paintings and art movies with an image that read "Censored by Facebook." Then I had to press Facebook's repent button that won't go away until you agree that you have sinned and will in future always obey Facebook. Not long after, Facebook deleted the entire "World Naked Bike Ride: Toronto" group, an annual family-friendly event to protest oil dependency. The two-year-old Facebook group contained nothing untoward other than perhaps the word “naked.” By shutting down the group, Facebook destroyed — with no explanation — the bike group’s established means of assembly. I had thought Facebook would be convenient, but instead it proved worse than useless. Again, Facebook expected me to press the repent button but I did not. I reclaimed my identity, left Facebook, never looked back, and feel so much better.
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