Has Facebook Become Everyone’s Creepy Friend?
Doug Bernard | Washington DC
We’re taking a two-part look at the dual challenges facing social networking giant Facebook: increased complexity and decreased privacy. In part one, we explored whether the constant addition of new features is complicating the user experience, making it less fun and more work. Today, we look at criticisms that the network’s unprecedented accumulation of users’ private detail is, in the words of some, “creepy.”
There’s an old rule in public relations: don’t use words you don’t want associated with your product. It’s a lesson someone should have mentioned to Sean Parker.
Parker was speaking at the recent Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco, plugging his new firm Spotify. But as a former president of Facebook, there were lots of questions about the social networking giant. “What’s wrong with it?” asked the moderator. “Facebook has taken the mantle, which seems to be passed every few years, of being the company that some people are scared of, or feel is a little creepy. Is this a concern that people should not have?”
Parker shifted in his chair, muttering. The moderator tried again. “So I’m sensing you might have something you’re holding back on, and say ‘Yes, John, in fact it is a little creepy.'” Parker’s leg jiggled nervously. “Look, I mean there’s good creepy and bad creepy,” Parker finally replied to knowing laughs. “And today’s creepy is tomorrows…necessity?” he wondered before quickly dropping it altogether.
“Parker Defends ‘Creepy’ Facebook,” blared the headline in the Huffington Post. “Facebook must pass the ‘creepy’ test,” wrote Britain’s Telegraph newspaper. “Facebook makes us embrace creepy,” began Reuters commentator Kevin Kelleher. (Facebook declined to respond to VOA’s numerous requests for comment for this story.) Parker’s sin was that he had come as close as anyone in his position to addressing what many others are already saying: somewhere along the way, Facebook has become everyone’s creepy friend.
If that sounds extreme, consider the sudden popularity of the site “Take This Lollipop.” Go there, and with a few clicks, you’re suddenly featured in your own personal horror movie. Featuring the always unnerving Bill Oberst as a sweaty stalker, the movie incorporates public images, data and personal references pulled from your Facebook account to create a cautionary tale – starring you – about the dangers of online privacy erosion. (I, for one, found the exercise too creepy, but Liz Klimas didn’t, even going as far as posting her movie on YouTube for all to see.)
If that’s too much, there’s this series of videos posted online titled “If it wasn’t for Facebook, this would be creepy.” Wall posts, pokes, birthday bombs and other aspects of life on Facebook are taken apart with humor, but also an eye to the more unsettling elements of sharing and friending. “When a technology company is considered ‘creepy’ it usually means it is at scale and pushing big boundaries,” writes the Telegraph‘s digital media editor Emma Barnett. “The challenge for Facebook will be whether it can properly shed the creepy label and remain at the cutting edge of the web.”
It’s difficult to determine objectively what people’s subjective reactions are to any technology – including Facebook. But a growing number are responding to something they say they find disturbing about the social networking site. In Europe, where privacy concerns tend to rank slightly higher than in the United States, a group of Austrian students are filing legal complaints against the company, alleging that, among other things, Facebook is creating ‘shadow’ profiles of users who have deleted their accounts. This message board contains hints and suggests for anyone wanting to petition Facebook to turn over the total personal information it has on you. And practically every day, despite continued warnings about its dangers, people break up, get fired or otherwise have their life turned upside down by something posted on Facebook.
“From the very beginning I was suspicious,” says Chris Matyszczyk, corporate creative director and author of the Technically Incorrect blog on CNET. Matyszczyk is also a longtime skeptic of social networks, calling them “a perilous and invasive concept,” and peppers his comments with pungent remarks about Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg, most recently calling him a “cudgel-wielder.” Says Matyszczyk:
“What’s happening is that technology is developing far quicker than laws, or even the human brain it seems. Human beings are beginning to act in ways that imperfectly designed technology wants them to act. So, technology demands of us we do this or do that, and we just happily go along and do it, again without considering the consequences, because it suits our short term. In the end the consequences of that might not just be creepy, but seriously creepy creepy.”
So just how creepy can Facebook, or any online service for that matter, become before a majority of people permanently ‘de-friend’ it? Is there really good-creepy? Google CEO Eric Schmidt alluded to this late in 2010, when he told an audience in Washington, D.C.: “Google’s policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.” Not exactly reassuring. And despite some data that point to falling Facebook user numbers in early adopter nations, there’s little conclusive evidence that users are yet sufficiently troubled to stop using it altogether. They may, however, be using it less, or more cautiously.
Consider the “Timeline,” a new feature Facebook unveiled this year. Timeline assembles all of a users’ private data and composes a personal history, from birth to school to jobs, listing major moments and close friends along the way. Facebook calls it “the story of your life.” Liz Ganne, a writer with Wall Street Journal‘s All Things D blog, says “…the whole idea of a life on display in pixels like some never-ending comic book — with photos and text and video and smiley faces (and frowns, too!) — is, well, more than a little creepy.” Timeline basically bombed.
Then there was the “Facial Recognition” fiasco earlier this year. The actual technology – that makes tagging others in your uploaded pictures easier by scanning other photos and suggesting tags – wasn’t new; Facebook had used it since 2010. However when the company made automatic facial recognition the default, users responded loudly, and Facebook pulled back. Taking a somewhat cooler look, Tech Crunch’s Jason Kincaid suggests it may have been more the idea of “facial recognition” than its actual use that caused the widespread Facebook freak out. But for every dispassioned analysis, there’s something like this study from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, that suggests facial recognition algorithms can sometimes predict a person’s private Social Security number based on just one photo. And with that number comes just about everything else about that person. So, pretty much, creepy. Chris Matyszczyk:
“Of course it’s creepy! It’s creepy because no one can forsee the ultimate consequences. It really is no coincidence that Forbes just decided that Zuckerberg is the ninth most powerful person in the world. That means only 8 people can stop him now! That’s why it feels creepy, because Facebook is able to change privacy terms.”
Criticisms taken, it’s hard to argue with Facebook’s success. Further, it would be difficult to say that 800 million registered users could be wrong. Although Facebook declined VOA’s requests to report their side of the issue, the company asserts on its site that 400 million people are “active” users, and that number continues growing worldwide. Perhaps, as Mark Zuckerberg himself said in 2010, people’s expectations of what ‘privacy’ means in an online world are changing:
“People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time…But we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner’s mind and what would we do if we were starting the company now and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it.”
In the end, the difference between “beginner’s mind” and “creepy” remains in the mind of the user. How close the two come together may determine the fate of Facebook. Until then, it might be best to take the advice of blogger Mishi: “Don’t be creepy Facebook guy. Seriously.”