I recently succumbed to a bout of narcissism and decided to check out my own Facebook profile. I found no new flattering photos of myself (one can always hope) or new "likes" on my latest post. I was about to go see what an ex-roommate had been up to lately when a small photo of a skinny, mostly-naked girl caught my eye.
There, in the "Recent Activity" box at the very top of my Facebook profile, was a photo of a leggy woman wearing beige underwear. More specifically, the beige, body-shaping underwear I had purchased from flash sale site Gilt Groupe nearly three weeks before.
"Bianca purchased SPANX Slim Cognito Seamless Control Panty on Gilt," read the status update, which had been posted automatically thanks to the permission I'd apparently given Gilt, at some point in the past, to share my browsing and shopping activity on Facebook on my behalf. Obviously I'd made a miscalculation somewhere in my privacy settings (sort of -- more on that below).
It goes without saying that among all the things I'd want to publicize to my 1,300 Facebook acquaintances, my need for tummy-tucking, industrial-strength granny panties doesn't make the list. Forget sharing the purchase with my friends -- I don't even care to remember it. On the scale of momentous life events, it ranks somewhere between flossing and ordering a side of French fries.
So why were Facebook and Gilt Groupe trying to help me register my underwear buys with the world? Does shapewear really need to be social?
Seeing my underwear end up on Facebook isn't just unsettling. It underscores a fundamental tension plaguing all social media sites: the authentic, human experiences that attracted millions of people to these platforms now risk being polluted by the marketing noise ushered in with these companies' push for profits.
The real voices, real feelings, and real moments from users are being watered down by blathering from a logo with a slogan to share. It's the digital analog of inserting ads next to a family photo album, or having a dinner party crashed by a marketing guru who's got a PowerPoint of "value proposition" bullet-points to get through.
The health of these social media sites hangs in the balance. Will the natural impulses to monetize the creation -- whether it's Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram or any other social site -- end up destroying what made the sites popular in the first place? Will people hang out at a party where companies are replacing users as the distinguished guests?
When I joined Facebook in 2004, it became the place where I was my best self, not my real self; where I curated a life that seemed like one big success, fantastic party and exotic vacation after another. So did you (be honest), and so did your friends. While we might have felt guilty checking up on each other, the voyeurism was enticing enough to attract 900 million people and keep us glued to Facebook.com for hours each month.
These days, my life according to Facebook looks less fabulous and more consumption-filled than ever before. We're encouraged to share not only engagements, birthdays, deaths and births, but also, right alongside them, the equivalent of each time we flip through a catalog or pick up a pair of socks.
Having a record of what sales I browsed or what purchases I've made -- precisely what Gilt Groupe will share with Facebook if you allow it to -- doesn't benefit my social media experience nearly as much as it helps a retailer's.
We're in the midst of a Jekyll-and-Hyde moment in the evolution of online social networks: sharing that will get us to shop is taking precedence over sharing that can strengthen social ties. We're made to share our business because it's good for business. And this suggests a looming identity crisis for "social media" that, more and more, appears to be "marketing media," a tech-fueled hunt for ways to leverage our friendships, interests and activity to produce a "ching" at the register.
Sure, it can be handy to have sites keep a shopping diary on our behalf so they can offer customized tips for items we might like to buy. Amazon.com and Netflix often nail it with their personalized recommendations.
But it's the broadcasting of what we buy, and the attempt to sugarcoat it as something that furthers our friendships, that should make us squeamish. Even as Facebook says it hopes to "strengthen how people relate to each other" and encourages us to view its product as a "virtual scrapbook," the brand is pursuing ways to turn itself into something more akin to a mall.
Research shows many users are reticent to mix shopping with socializing. A survey by Experian, an information services firm, found that while 69 percent of UK consumers were happy to hear from brands via email, just eight percent wanted companies to contact them on Facebook, and just four percent were open to contact with them on Twitter. In 2011, the share of consumers who said they followed retailers on social media sites dropped from 58 percent the year before to 51 percent, according to the 2012 Social and Mobile Commerce study. Why? "Concerns about information sharing and privacy," survey participants said.
People may ultimately be loathe to hear about brands from their friends, too. If money matters are considered taboo among polite company at the dinner table, how will we feel knowing more about what, and for how much, our six hundred dearest acquaintances are buying? This social shopping marks another example of the "continuous consumption" trend: not only can we buy anytime and anywhere, but we're about to get front-row seats to what our friends are buying, all the time and everywhere.
Facebook says knowing what our friends enjoy will help us make better decisions on what baby carriage to buy or hotel to stay in. Perhaps so. On the flipside, it's easy to imagine the one-upsmanship and competitive instinct it breeds, not to mention the resentment. What conclusions would a manager draw from seeing an underling browsing a Chanel sale online, where bags cost $2,000 a pop? Would she be a little less likely to approve her employee's request for a raise?
The companies doing the sharing on our behalf seem more inclined to act first and ask questions -- or apologize -- later. They're vaguely aware there's a line not to be crossed, but those concerns are being drowned out by the irresistible appeal of milking our relationships to broadcast their wares. It's worth noting that even though shoppers who sign up for Gilt Groupe's "Facebook sharing" integration can choose to make their activity private, the default setting, according to our tests, is to have purchases and sale-browsing visible to "everyone."
Still, even continuous consumption champions know there's a limit: the SPANX underwear share prompted an apologetic mea maximum culpa from a Gilt Groupe spokeswoman -- one that suggests, for what comfort it's worth, that the company has drawn the line just before the entrance to our bedrooms and bathrooms. The shopping site promises people who sync their accounts with Facebook that it never posts "intimates, underwear or newborn-related items." Something obviously went awry in my case. According to Gilt Groupe spokeswoman, the SPANX slip-up was "due to an initial omission in our product blacklist when purchase events were first rolled out."
"Our intent was to always filter out all instances of Intimate & Underwear from posts made on behalf of a user," she said.
And my intent was to use social media for people, not products. What are my chances of getting a filter for that, too?
Remember when you were having that really bad day and blasted Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" 23 times on Spotfiy? Yeah... well, we witnessed that low moment via your Facebook profile's ticker, the real-time mini feed located in the upper right hand corner of Facebook pages. If you don't want to share your (possibly embarrassing) musical preferences with your Facebook friends, make sure to turn off the "Share to Facebook" button (at the top right of your Spotify desktop app).
Some Facebook apps, like Socialcam, are designed to make you click on content by using sleazy, eye-catching headlines. "Socialcam's 'trending' videos read like a bunch of crossovers between the 'American Pie' franchise and 'Jackass,'" The Washington Post wrote in June. If you're a SocialCam user, remember that the spam-like titles of videos you view automatically pop up on your profile, so your friends all might know when you've watched "CraZy ThReeSom!" or "Two Wasted Chicks" last week.
Glancing at a juicy article on how Miley Cyrus flashed some sideboob? While this wouldn't phase some Facebook users, others would prefer not to have anything with the word "sideboob" published on their profiles or in friends' News Feeds. Facebook's social reader apps track the articles you read, and with permission you grant when first downloading the app, then post the stories automatically to your wall. So be wary of those scandalous headlines promising half-naked pictures.
Some people love getting birthday wishes via Facebook. But putting your your full date of birth on any social networking site means strangers are privy to information that can be used to steal your identity. If you want to keep your birthday up online, consider taking the safe route and nix the year.
Friends or apps can now tag your location via Facebook. But maybe you don't want everyone to know you're visiting that neighborhood dive bar for the fourth night this week. "There isn't a specific setting to block people from tagging you in a post that includes a location," Facebook's site reads. This means if you don't want your whereabouts known, you'll have to change your Timeline setting to approve all tags before they're posted, or manually remove the tags once they've been published.
Photo-sharing app Instagram is relatively direct in telling you where your pictures are posted. But you might unknowingly be photo-spamming your friend's Facebook feeds by letting the app re-post every picture you "like" onto Facebook. And things could get a little dicey depending on what types of images you view. Luckily this feature is easy to change. Just go into the settings options on your Instagram app, click the "Share Settings" tab and turn off the setting that shares "Liked" photos to your Facebook timeline.
Tagging or naming younger children on Facebook can be a dangerous move. Similar to putting your full birthday on the interent, you could be offering up too much information and enabling a breach of privacy. "If your child isn't on Facebook and someone includes his or her name in a caption, ask that person to remove the name," Consumer Reports advises.
Follow Bianca Bosker on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bbosker