I am not on Facebook, period. I am sure a ton of people would say I am way behind the curve, not hip, or even old fashion. My main reason is security. Since China’s human rights is my main focus as a volunteer of AIUSA, I know far too well about the consequences of being an activist (or a dissident as the general Chinese community would call it). Dissidents in China are constantly harassed, detained, tortured and imprisoned everyday. Their friends and family members are harassed just the same. Take the case of Hu Jia and Chen Guangcheng. Zeng Jinyan (Hu’s wife) is under house arrest with their young daughter. When she leaves her apartment, the police follows her constantly. Yuan Weijing (Chen’s wife) is also under house arrest but she has police surrounding her home 24/7. She has been beaten several times for simply trying to leave her home for some errands, such as going to see a dentist. She has not been allowed to visit her husband in prison for a long time. Combined this type of harassment of family members with the technological advance in internet censorship in China, being on Facebook seems like a huge security risk to me.

My theory came true when Wired magazine published a story about a few Egyptian activists’ attempt to organize a protest backfired through Facebook. It became clear to me that my decision to stay away from the increasingly popular social network is the right decision. But I doubt myself from time to time. A lot of my family and friends are on Facebook. My friends have many times told me they haven’t heard from me for a long time while they chitchat on Facebook regularly. I feel really bad not being able to keep up with family and friends. Believe me, it is a very difficult choice. Recently, one of my uncles passed away. My mom who can barely send an email said my brother found out my uncle became ill through Facebooking with my cousins. Mom (who is not on Facebook) said if I wanted to be kept up to date, go to Facebook. In less than a month, my uncle passed away. I felt a bit guilty. Even my husband’s grandmother is on Facebook. She posts updates all the time.

The main issue of security for me is exposing my social graph that could land in the hands of any authorities. In the digital age, nothing is private. Earlier this week, NPR broadcast a series on online privacy. The Facebook episode highlighted the issue of third-party snooping in which even private Facebook accounts could be exposed. The concluding episode pointed out that if the content is on someone else server, users don’t have as much privacy protection as the physical documents sitting in our desk drawers under the Fourth Amendment. Email is just as vulnerable in this category because messages leave packets of information at every intersection they pass through. And in the case of Shi Tao, he landed a 10-year jail sentence due to an email he sent to a US-based website and Yahoo provided his user account information to the Chinese authorities that became one of the evidence in his conviction.

Putting the security issue aside, I’ve heard a lot of people speaking excitedly about organizing on Facebook. But most of them seem to come from folks who have not done their homework on Facebook activism. Recently, AIUSA held a meeting for a specific group of volunteers. Facebook was proposed as a way to recruit new people to our work on human rights. It is easy to set up a group or cause on Facebook and ask people to join. But after you get 1,000 or even a million clicks, then what? I am convinced on the attention-getting part of Facebook but in terms of turning the hyped attention into real activism (such as sending hard copy letters to foreign governments, calling our politicians about US domestic or foreign policies, etc), I doubt we will get real results. Washington Post calls this the “Click-through Activism”. There is also Ethan Zuckerman’s blog post on this topic reflecting on the short-lived Facebook movement that followed the “Saffron Revolution” in Burma in 2007. DigiActive published a handbook on Facebook activism last year which details what needs to be done after starting a Facebook group.

I had the fortune to attend a presentation by social media guru Beth Kanter a long time ago. She gave examples of nonprofits using social media but she warned that to be successful, an organization needs to assign a staff to spend 2-3 hours a day on this new medium. She quoted Micah Sifry of Personal Democracy Forum:

If you want your organization to become an online activism hub, it takes a deep level of engagement to build a successful socnet. Staff need to spend real-time cultivating people and need to be given real authority to speak on behalf of the organization.

This expert advice is contrary to the proposed strategy of using volunteers to recruit new members on Facebook for a cash-strapped membership organization. Volunteers are rarely given “real authority” to speak on behalf of an organization to begin with. Can we expect a volunteer to spend a minimum of 10 hours a week on Facebook solely for an organization? I am sure there are some die-hard Facebookers ready to do it but can they do it for a long time (a year or longer) without pay? Last year’s election was successful in this volunteer front but long-term membership engagement can’t be done by volunteers only, can it?

All these arguments might not be enough for me to resist Facebook. A recap of a recent event at UC Berkeley titled, “Social Networks Friend or Foe?” pointed out that social networking may one day become as essential as the telephone. New positive arguments for Facebook are showing up everyday. When a new urge or guilt comes to me, I will just remind myself about a TED video featuring writer Evgeny Morozov. In the video, Morozov explained how the internet helps the authoritarian regimes. Facebook might have been very useful for activists in the post-election protests in Iran but:

In the past it would take you weeks, if not months, to identify how Iranian activists connect to each other. Now you actually know how they connect to each other by looking at their Facebook page. I mean KGB, and not just KGB, used to torture in order to actually get this data. Now it’s all available online.