Facebook’s alarming rise to prominence has already reached mythic proportions. In the world of technology, its story is told with a “Sword in the Stone” type of esteem; the same way one tells the story about the time they had sex with two roommates in one night. Launched in early 2004 by Harvard Sophomore Mark Zuckerburg and his three roommates, the site had 100,000 users by June of that year and, as of this November, claims to have over 50 million members. Their numbers catapulted when they altered the registration condition requiring users to have a school e-mail address to access the site. Beforehand, having Facebook meant a bit of pride. Users had had gotten into college and as a reward they had this online community where they could interact with other sophisticates devoid of the distraction of those undereducated brutes who plague the web. This was a source of minor outrage, mostly directed at the fact that high school kids could now use this privileged site.
The first change that threw the Facebook community into real turmoil was the introduction of the vaunted newsfeed. This feature compiled all moves made by users (profile changes, new friendships, acquisition of sexually transmitted diseases) and announced them for all to see on their friends’ homepages. People reacted like Facebook had started typing up their diary and sending it to their friends. It felt like Facebook was trying to teach a course in Stalking 101. The problem was that Zuckerburg didn’t phase in this new development by letting users choose what is displayed; he just threw up the new feature. This resulted in a backlash that was, presumably, unexpected. Or maybe it was. Maybe he was just taking the same approach that my landlords did when we moved into our apartment and found that our rug smelled like it had been used as a sewage transfer station. Sure they knew about the smell, I think people three towns over knew about it, but they didn’t replace it until we complained.
When Facebookers complained Zuckerburg quickly made the needed changes, installed a privacy control and issued a swift and genuine sounding apology. He defended the newsfeed as a tool with endless beneficial possibilities, but said that users should have the ability to control what is displayed. Everyone accepted his apology and actually quickly accepted the newsfeed because, well, everyone kind of likes to stalk their friends.
They apparently learned from their mistakes and their next significant augmentation, Applications, was a feature that users had to agree to use before installing. These independently developed programs can be loaded onto a person’s profile and range from various games to a declaration of fanhood for a team and there’s even one where users can anonymously disclose secrets. I’m sure the dirty rumor and embarrassing childhood story applications are in the works. Or maybe they’ll just have a feature where parents can upload pictures of their young kid naked in the bath tub.
Now it seems they are back to their old tricks, although this time it was much more subtle. At the beginning of November, Facebook launched a new feature called Beacon. Many probably haven’t heard of it because it was not an optional application, nor was it a visible one.
When a computer visits a webpage it downloads ‘cookies’ from that particular site. Facebook’s cookies are not warm and soft. No, they communicate with a third-party site that tracks all of the members’ personal online movements (purchases, tastes, preferences), through a partnership with about 40 other sites, and sends them to Facebook which uses this information to tailor its advertisements to appeal to each particular user. Also, until recently, it put the users’ online purchases into the newsfeed. A person could have bought something on eBay, in a completely separate transaction, and had it announced on the site. There was even a story of a guy buying a ring for his lady and having her find out about it because of this.
The reason Facebook is such a progressive and influential site is not because of its advancements in social networking but because of its advancements in the field of marketing. One of marketing’s main hurdles is reaching the target audience; it is a constant struggle and there is always collateral damage. Anti-marijuana ads aimed at dissuading current smokers inevitably cause some curious children to ask their parents what this weird, forbidden, Mexican sounding substance is. With Facebook, a company can be absolutely sure about who is seeing their ad because of the individual nature of the site.
Most people didn’t even know this was occurring. Obviously, it caused a minor outrage among those in the know. A petition was started, letters were written and finally Zuckerburg issued an apology and made the necessary changes, switching it to an opt-in program rather than an opt-out device.
While the apology again quelled the mob, the bravado with which Zuckerburg has marched around Silicon Valley is remarkable. His continued pattern of going too far and then apologizing has started to become reminiscent of an abusive father who always goes out to contritely get comic books for his son after savagely lashing him with his belt buckle for a couple hours. Their strategy now appears to be one of arrogantly confident risk. The site has become such an addiction that people are primed to forgive them, no matter how far they push the limits, as long as they rectify the mistake.
Facebook, like most other websites, is designed so people will spend as much time as possible on the site. It really is an advertisers dream. The concern with Facebook, and the thing to keep in mind, is that they do not have their user’s interests at heart. They don’t. They are truly and utterly motivated by the business of the internet. It’s the same reason that companies can pay a fee to look at prospective employee’s profiles and check their Facebook history. If it was really a network devoted to college students then this would not occur. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. For lack of a better expression, this is just how the world works. Just remember, Facebook is not your friend.