When everyone and their little brother (and ultimately Big Brother), started jumping on the Facebook bandwagon, I resisted, at first. Despite its fairly recent expansion into a post-collegiate demographic, the social networking site was known to attract the bored and baby-faced. And, the idea of migrating to yet another online friend network felt like moving to another country.
I had also heard that when you sign up with Facebook, you waive your rights to all content you provide and create on the site. Of course, in the era of "user generated content" (UGC) it is hardly surprising to hear of a thriving corporate entity (Microsoft has a $240 million stake in Facebook) taking advantage of today's consumers' desire for recognition and a voice. In advertising and marketing UGC is practically ubiquitous. However, I figured on outsmarting Facebook's content co-opting by being just 'mildly entertaining' while on their site, and saving my really clever material for my own writings.
After some thought and coercion from my friends, I became convinced that MySpace (the largest online social networking site) was a ghost town and that Facebook, #2, was it. In my mind that 'it site' status would last a year or so -- maybe 15 months -- the 'cool life span' of online social networks in Warholian terms. Until then, as a pop culture journalist and consultant, I owed it to myself to probe the zeitgeist. So I signed up.
After the initial hard campaign drive for friends, I discovered, to my surprise, that EVERYONE was on there, and quite actively so. There were virtual gifts like "flowers" to give, quizzes to take and compare with friends, and virtual walls to write on, among other actions. It was buzzing with the buzzword: 'interactivity.'
Facebook (FB) was launched in 2004 in the Harvard dorm room of then-20-year-old Mark Zuckerberg as an online version of the get-to-know-your-peers face books at colleges. It quickly spread to other universities, then high schools. It seemed to hit the big time when it opened its floodgates to non-students, ultimately boasting 50 million active users. It is believed to have generated over $150 million in annual revenue since its inception.
Within a week of my signing on, there was an uproar amongst users about the introduction of Beacon, FB's new advertising/marketing platform. Through this technology, 44 partnering sites, including eBay, Fandango and Citysearch, would be able to place cookies in a visitor's web browser. If said visitor was a member of the social network, Beacon would then provide transaction info to his/her friends via a running news feed. As a footnote, the news feed itself was introduced last year and created an anti-privacy battle cry in its own right. It announces to a member's friends when he/she plays a game, sends a cyber-gift to someone, writes a comment on a page, etc. In theory you can eliminate this through privacy controls, but the mini-feed appears by default.
I imagined potential news item headlines with the addition of the intrusive Beacon: "Lisa has purchased the book, Incest, by the Marquis de Sade," or "Joe has purchased six vintage issues of Guns & Ammo magazine." This would enable advertisers to use "behavioral targeting" to pull in the right new customers. The reaction from the FB community was combative, to say the least. Many of us, myself included, joined a group by MoveOn.org to petition Little Brother to stop watching (and broadcasting) us. Ultimately, FB caved, agreeing to change the system and give users greater control over what is broadcast.
Though some friends of mine decided to jump ship at that point, I stayed, imagining the worst to be over. A few days later, I was perusing the social network's politics section. Like a good citizen of the New Internet Democracy, I was eager to vote in a slew of their hot topic polls -- everything from No Child Left Behind to Gun Control. Part of the lure of doing so is that it's an anonymous way of making your opinion known. The feeling of contributing to -- and thus being part of -- a community is equally appealing. Like any poll you might see in USA Today or the like, FB's included numbers and bar graphs but, naturally, no names. This wasn't, after all, a Red Scare outing, or was it?
The next day, I signed onto Facebook to check my email. To my horror, there in the news feed were my responses to contentious issues like illegal immigration, gay marriage, gun control...you name it, if it was a topic that could have caused an argument at the Thanksgiving dinner table, it was on there for all my friends and work contacts to see. The thing is, whether online or offline, most people have differing levels of transparency and intimacy with their friends and work colleagues. You may have attended say a pro-choice rally with one friend, yet never even broach the subject of abortion rights with another. But this Facebook feature was preemptively acting as 'the great equalizer' for my network.
In addition, the limited choices the politics polls provided in a check box set-up left no gray area for explanation of the complex issues, just potentially incendiary one-liners. I had a friend of mine not talk to me for a week over one of my stances. I felt like Hester Prynn in cyberia; my scarlet letters branding me with my political proclivities. It's one thing to endorse a candidate in the politics section of FB and have that politician's photo appear on your profile page (you proudly signed up for that). However, polls are traditionally private.
Disgusted, I deactivated my Facebook account and returned to MySpace to recount my debacle on the bulletin board. Many of my friends were shocked to hear of this feature and vowed to sign off Facebook. One friend of mine summed up the experience with a flip yet relevant comment: "Celebrity is the new privacy." Indeed.
This is, of course, the era of reality TV, the blog tell-all and the cell phone play-by-play. Could I have expected a 23-year-old CEO to understand why outing someone's very personal political beliefs (with, as far as I could tell, no opt-out function in the privacy settings, and no warning) was the ultimate faux-pas? With the whole Beacon escapade, Zuckerberg had come dangerously close to becoming a Digital Despot. Google's corporate catchphrase: "Don't Be Evil," came to mind. A decade and crucial ethical boundaries, stood between Zuckerman and Google founders Sergei Brin and Larry Page.
At the core of Facebook's ethos is one seemingly neutral word: transparency. Perhaps -- having grown up in the Bush era of zero-transparency, lies and cover-ups -- FB's predominantly Generation Y denizens feel a deep-seeded yen to bare all -- opinions, flesh, day-to-day activities. And I can attest to the fact that it's seeping into other generational pools.
But Facebook seems to hope to exploit this "celebrity is the new privacy" concept, damaging not just privacy itself but perception and quality of life. Life is no longer a holistic experience, but the sum of innumerable factoids, bullet points and one's purchasing history. Life as a Demographic. Instinct is relegated to the flaky sidelines while all 'solid' decisions and judgments are based on facts and figures.
There's a slang acronym that's oft used to describe the feeling when someone tells you too much about his/her life (usually specific to their love life): T.M.I. (too much information). If tech titans like Google aren't able to set a good example for their corporate generational juniors, the information age will suffer in the most damaging ways, from a terrible case of T.M.I. Easily quantifiable and devoid of mystery and boundaries, we may well become like the very machines that define our information age.