Killer application’ for Facebook turns into dweebish interloper
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 10, 2006
If there is a single quality that separates people now in their late teens and early 20s from previous young generations, it is a willingness bordering on compulsion to broadcast the details of their private lives to the general public.
Through MySpace, personal blogs, YouTube and the like, this generation has seemed to view the notion of personal privacy as a quaint anachronism. Details that those of less enlightened generations might have viewed as embarrassing – whom you slept with last night, how many drinks you had before getting sick in your friend’s car, the petty reason you had dropped a friend or been fired from a job – are instead signature elements of one’s personal brand. To reveal, it has seemed, is to be.
But alas, it turns out that even among the MySpace generation, there is such a thing as too much information.
That threshold was reached, unexpectedly, earlier this week when the social networking site Facebook unveiled what was to be its killer app. In the past, to keep up with the doings of friends, Facebook members had to make some sort of effort – by visiting the friend’s Web page from time to time, or actually sending an e-mail or instant message to ask how things were going.
Facebook’s new feature, a “news feed,” does that heavy lifting for you. The program monitors the activity on its members’ pages – a change in one’s relationship status, the addition of a new person to one’s friends list, the listing of a new favorite song or interest – and sends that information to everyone in your circle in a constantly updating news ticker. Imagine a device that monitors the social marketplace the way a blinking Bloomberg terminal tracks incremental changes in the bond market and you’ll get the idea.
But within hours of the new feature’s debut, thousands of Facebook members had organized behind a desperate, angry plea: Make it stop.
“You pretty much are being tracked with every movement you make on Facebook,” said Emily Bean, a pharmacy major and Facebook user at Ohio Northern University who signed an anti-Facebook petition on Tuesday, when the new feature made its debut. “It’s like someone peeking in on my conversations. People now know exactly when you became friends with somebody. When you hook up with somebody is now documented. Before it took some extra effort.”
While much of the anger was directed specifically at Facebook and its chief executive and co-founder, the 22-year- old Harvard graduate Mark Zuckerberg, some of the site’s users saw the episode in a broader context.
“Because our generation has been so obsessed with putting themselves up on the Internet and obsessed with celebrity, we didn’t realize how much of our personal information we were putting out there,” said Tim Mullowney, a 22-year-old aspiring actor in Brooklyn and a Facebook user. “This really shows you how much is out there. You don’t see it until you get it served on a platter to you.”
Mullowney said the Facebook episode had opened his eyes to a surprising conclusion: “I don’t need to know every little detail of everyone’s life.”
Zuckerberg could be forgiven for not anticipating the limits of his users’ desire for transparency. Since founding Facebook two and a half years ago, he has watched the site grow to more than nine million users, most in high school and college, on its power to help its users stay in contact with their friends.
Those who study social networking sites say that users’ comfort with revealing intimate details about themselves comes in part from a perception that in the din of life online, there is a kind of privacy through anonymity.
Similarly, a couple might feel comfortable having an intimate conversation at a crowded restaurant, for example, on the assumption that even though strangers could potentially tune in, none would care to. The new Facebook feature, though, was the equivalent of broadcasting that conversation over the public address system.
“The issue isn’t transparency but scope,” said Clay Shirky, who teaches in the interactive telecommunications program at New York University. “People are willing to be transparent to friends, as long as they are in control. Facebook violated both of those conditions.”
One perhaps unintended consequence of the Facebook feeds was that it allowed users to see when their friends were joining the rapidly growing anti-Facebook movement. In less than a day, the protest movement had fully galvanized, and had migrated offline as well. Marah Paley, a 17-year-old first-year student at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, was in the middle of sorority bid week when the news hit.
“That’s all anyone talks about on campus, actually,” she said. “My day was totally messed up because of the new Facebook.”
It hasn’t taken very long for Zuckerberg to respond. Only a day after the feature was launched and he was inundated by protests, he acknowledged the outcry on his Facebook blog. He wrote: “Calm down. Breathe. We hear you.”
“A lot of this was a lot of confusion,” Zuckerberg said Friday. “We did a pretty bad job of communicating what we were actually doing with the information. In the absence of information, a lot of times people assume bad things.”
Zuckerberg and his programmers spent two days working on a fix, and stayed up until 5 a.m. Friday on the project. At 2:48 a.m., Zuckerberg published a contrite “open letter” on his blog, which he sent to all Facebook users.
“We really messed this one up,” he began.
“This may sound silly, but I want to thank all of you who have written in and created groups and protested,” he added. “Even though I wish I hadn’t made so many of you angry, I am glad we got to hear you. And I am also glad that News Feed highlighted all these groups so people could find them and share their opinions with each other as well.”
The solution was a page of privacy options that allow Facebook members to opt out of the feed feature, or to shield specific bits of their lives.
“In general, the more control you can give people the better,” Zuckerberg said. “If you give people control over everything they do, you’ll never put them in a situation that’s uncomfortable.”
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