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Shut Your Facebook

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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.

Isn't Facebook just another way for people to connect?
Unlike our own websites and e-mail, where our connections to each other are relatively direct, Facebook positions itself between people and allows us to connect only at its pleasure. As intermediary it can control our discourse and manipulate what we really should have established as our own social networks. Privately owned communities are not communities. LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, Hotmail, Gmail, etc. all have exactly the same systemic flaw: The problem is not social networking, it is proprietary social networking. The distinction is not subtle. We choose not to connect with others at Facebook and the like for the same reason that we choose not to holiday in North Korea.

What are your main privacy concerns regarding the information that people post on Facebook?
Facebook's "who can see what" check boxes will never restrict Facebook. When you upload your entire address book to shenanigans like Facebook, ostensibly to "find friends," it is your betrayal of everyone who trusted you with their e-mail address. They will at the least receive incessant spam-vitations to sign up that all appear to be from you. I post personal information at my website, but I do so at my own domain, Harmsen.net, so no unaccountable body can manipulate, censor, threaten, or banish me. The only real control you have at Facebook.com is to manually transcribe any e-mail addresses, copy any important messages out of Facebook's pseudo-e-mail, remove what you can, "deactivate," and then log out forever. I could find no option to actually delete my account, and even if I had, I would have no reason to trust it. The privacy commissioner of Canada is on Facebook's case about that. Facebook's vague "terms" are not worth the virtual page on which they are written and have no practical meaning or value to you or me.

What has Facebook's response been to your public statements?
Nothing. Facebook is too busy digesting the 600,000 souls who join each day at their peril. As Facebook toys with people's identities, I toy with Facebook in my arguments about the adult topic of ownership. The issue of ownership pervades my artistic practice that includes among other things a series of digital abstracted figurative oil paintings, many of which are based on images from profiles on gay dating websites. Facebook responded to those with censorship.

Many have used Facebook very successfully as a networking tool and a way of getting more business contacts. What are the alternatives to Facebook?
Get your own Internet domain. Keep your website, e-mail, and mailing list(s) at the domain you own. Some things you have to do yourself. To have freedom and integrity online and off, one must own one's bank account, one's vote, one's Internet domain, and have a room of one's own. Identities and social networks established on Facebook and the like are caged. They promise "convenience" and "friends," but the apparent free lunch is served with a dehumanizing hook: You forfeit ownership. Facebook cheapens you. Facebook and the like are the "Web 2.0" straw house alternative. The brick house is the established Domain Name System (DNS) that properly confers domains of responsibility and control to individuals and organizations on the internet. My identity belongs to me at Harmsen.net, whereas at Facebook.com it belonged to Facebook. Everyone should understand why they will do well never to establish themselves anywhere online other than at their own domain. Inasmuch as Facebook is irrelevant fluff, it is merely a time-waster. Inasmuch as it is a "useful tool," you become beholden, so when push comes to shove, you will discover too late that you never really owned anything and are powerless. LinkedIn, Facebook, and the like are as unprofessional as sending letters in transparent envelopes or conducting business under another's name. Subscribing to Facebook or encouraging others to subscribe indicates that you do not understand ownership enough to behave professionally online.

Gay men and lesbians seem particularly drawn to Facebook, given its obvious debt to sex networking sites. Do you think queers should be especially concerned about their involvement with Facebook?
Proprietary social networking is novel and so thrives on widespread naivete. Proprietary dating websites come with the same caution, although they do not come with near the ability to establish an identity in the first place, so your exit strategy is relatively straightforward. You are vulnerable on Facebook in the same way that you are in any jurisdiction where you may not own your sexual identity. You are disenfranchised wherever your person is dependent on someone else's domain, much like my great-grandmother was disenfranchised in Canada until 1919, when women got their own fair vote. Minorities like queers are particularly vulnerable, especially those of us who need to speak on issues that contradict majority privilege. We are vulnerable when the status quo can render us "obscene" through censorship in order to shut down any discussion on our issues and with them our agency for progress. We do not want to devolve into a culture where social networking proprietors have undue influence over what we consider acceptable or with whom we can connect. At risk of prematurely declaring Facebook indispensable, this is the predicament in which we increasingly find ourselves. Facebook will not go away, but you can better our society and your social position if you leave it and instead establish an adult voice that you own.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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