Facebook: Between the Daredevil and the Deep Blue Sea

06/23/2011 06:38 pm ET | Updated Aug 23, 2011

I'm all for liberal policies, but Facebook seems to be getting all a bit liberal with my personal privacy settings.

Maybe it's no big deal. So why does it feel like the East German Stasi have swooped silently into my home at night and re-arranged my furniture?

Like several hundred million others, my morning routine includes coffee and cursory exposure to a litany of images of smiling dogs, travel snaps and random clips from The Big Bang Theory -- all delicately handpicked for my enjoyment, by those nearest and dearest to me, on my favorite social network.

Lately, however, my daily routine has changed. I now find myself suspiciously checking through my Facebook settings each morning to see if they remain as they were from the night before.

Akin to walking into Starbucks only to have your post-graduate, pre-doctoral barista nonchalantly ask you whether you'd like steamed breast milk in your latte, Facebook seems intent on taking things a little further than most of us want to go -- particularly privacy-wise. 

But breast milk?!  

"Sure, we serve that as standard unless you ask for something specific," says the boy genius behind the counter, "In fact, that's what we've been serving for sometime now. We've also rolled out an exciting new Recognition service in all our stores. So, if we see someone who looks like you entering any of our coffee shops, we go right ahead and post your name in the shop window."

- "Of that particular store?"

- "All our stores."

- "Without my permission?"

- "Well we think it enhances the overall customer experience. So, breast milk?" *

Sounds ridiculous, so why is such behavior any more acceptable online? For a company determined to ensure we each share more of ourselves on the web, Facebook doesn't appear to like sharing the fact it changes privacy settings or activates controversial tools such as Facial Recognition on your behalf. That is assuming, of course, that your page hasn't been arbitrarily taken down by the company itself, following an alleged comment you might have made on a platform outside of Facebook.

That's what celebrated American journalist and screenwriter, Roger Ebert, found when he posted a critical comment on Twitter about the death of a popular reality TV star this week. "Friends don't let jackasses drink and drive," tweeted Ebert clumsily, as news broke of the fatal car accident that claimed the life of daredevil Jackass star Ryan Dunn. 

Ebert, the first winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism to now also be nominated for Sarcasm, quickly drew digital fire for the smash-mouth comment. That it was actually critical of Dunn's friends, rather than the late star himself, didn't seem important. That it was a fair comment also appeared to be entirely irrelevant. Ebert's timing was unfortunate and the backlash was swift, sonic and furious. 

#youknowyouareinsh*t... when your name is trending on Twitter.

Here the court of public opinion is always in session and witty riposte is commonplace, as one charismatic user tweeted, "Dear @RogerEbert, T-Spice from Palm Springs says ur a f-ing a-hole, he also hopes the rest of your face falls off.  #rogerebert #ryandunn."

As troubling to Ebert as the poor grammar and syntax might have been, it was the news that his Facebook page had also been taken down that really upset him. Facebook quickly reinstated Ebert's page after an hour, stating it had been suspended 'in error.' Whether it was in response to the offending tweet, we may never know. But, according to reports, this is not the first time Ebert has had his page either deactivated or edited by Facebook.

When the popular film critic described his recent jaw replacement surgery in a sobering piece for the Chicago Sun-Times, he posted a link to the article on his Facebook page. In turn, Facebook summarily removed the link, citing it as 'Abusive Content.' Perhaps the new Ebert had foxed the company's Facial Recognition tool.

Don't get me wrong, I love me some Facebook, but how free is information when much of the world's international web traffic is converging towards, and communicating through, a single, privately owned website? If any digital company should be publicly owned, should it not be the world's most popular networking sites? At their best, social networks are a hive activity, connectivity and personal engagement. At their worst, they are isolated, monopolistic, walled communities capable of fragmenting the web's role as a universal information space. There goes my page then.

Oscar-winning screenwriter and producer Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, West Wing) recently revealed that he was quitting Facebook, "I have a lot of opinions on social media," declared Sorkin,"... that make me sound like a grumpy old man sitting on the porch yelling at kids."

Indeed, vociferous critics of private social media networks can risk being publicly ridiculed like creationists, called out as dinosaurs or, worse still, as 'socialists.'

And Facebook was doing so well too. Cash-rich and sporting a ubiquitous digital brand, this pre-IPO company is the darling of the secondary private share market, experiencing unprecedented growth in its sector: year on year average revenue growth since 2007 exceeds 152% per annum. As such the company is finally expected to overtake Yahoo Inc. as the No.1 name in online display advertising this year. Filleting and grilling Google's cash cow (its text advertising business) is likely to be next on the menu.

Google is said to be rallying to get 'more social' in response. How about 'more moral' instead? This is at a time when brand sentiment is monitored and measured more closely than ever before. For its part, Facebook is said to have recruited countless employees from Google; contracted a PR firm to seed negative stories about the search giant and expanded its own search partnership with Microsoft. As for Google, it needs to get over Facebook and get back to doing what it does best: designing digital solutions for real-world problems.

So with all the aggressive hiring, re-locating and spending that Facebook is undertaking, why is it also dangerously squandering goodwill and risking the ire of its users by unapologetically tweaking personal settings -- something so fundamental to our online identities?

Is it because Mark Zuckerberg and his corporation think they know what's best for us? Hopefully not. History has a way of making an example of such empires. Or is it simply that tools such as Facial Recognition just speak to the core of what Facebook is actually all about (the clue is in the name, see what they did there)?

Either way, despite reports of an exodus of disgruntled users, it is unlikely we will see the multi-billion-dollar California company crumble into the sea any time soon.

Besides, should that day ever come, an IPO would be the perfect flotation device.


*This comparison is meant for educational purposes only. Any resemblance to decent coffee, reputable coffee houses or talented baristas living or dead is purely coincidental. Void where prohibited. Some assembly required. Batteries not included. For recreational use only. Do not disturb. Do not read while operating a motor vehicle or heavy equipment. This is not an offer to sell securities. Apply only to affected area. If condition persists, consult your physician.