November 17, 2006

Log off the Facebook for a couple of seconds and read this column!

It was an innocent love affair; several years ago, I signed up for a fledgling service called Facebook.com with my university e-mail. Within days, I was a rising star on the campus network with an impressive portfolio of friends and contacts—I would log in, upload my nightly exploits, poke some strangers, and have a cigarette. Fame had never been this accessible, or electronic.

Several months into our relationship, the routine was comfortable, and I began to feel like a fixture on the social scene. I created the groups “Jewish and Not Cool” as a spin-off response to the group “Jewish and Cool,” whose implications I disliked, and “ODB is gone…please take me too, Lord” in honor of the late rapper. In a finer moment, I also created the group “I like to have a cigarette after I poke someone on The Facebook” to voice some concerns about sexual promiscuity in young people.

I spent hours tweaking my profile for peak humor value, and I ended up with some good memories.

Having said that, I don’t have a lot to complain about: I admire Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg’s pioneering efforts to “reinforce a [college’s] physical community” through networking, as stated in an msnbc.com interview, and I am in favor of pumping social activity into campuses that are devoid of life. I will also admit to having attended several impromptu parties as a result of the service, and fraternities continue to draw recruits from Facebook. A friend from high school, whose brother works at Facebook, even described the organization’s young and progressive culture to me in vivid detail.

My gripes aren’t as recent as the news feed tracking system, either, although I will touch on that later. The bottom line for me is that Facebook made breaking up extremely difficult, and I told my high school buddy as much during a late-night pizza run. As if the social intricacies involved in parting ways weren’t enough, I now found myself avoiding walls, groups, albums, and other friends’ friend lists in order to feel like a human and not a private investigator; friends of mine have experienced far worse. It is certainly easy to say “just get over it,” but the service didn’t help very much during a difficult period.

What is more, the popularity of the service raises another interesting idea: Our generation does not seem to be overly concerned with privacy issues. Domestic surveillance has increased, and programs such as Google Analytics map out untold information to public and private companies alike. Perhaps the lure of celebrity and friendship has driven average folks to compromise their privacy, and it is ironic that we end up seeing far less of these friends than expected after hours of browsing the services.

Particularly eerie is the notion that job recruiters are swapping photos of you right now in scantily clad, less-than-sober positions at Soundbar. One of the most poignant examples of this vulnerability of information can be seen in Alan Finder’s article “Online Persona Can Ruin Your Shot at That Job” in The New York Times. Finder describes Brad Karsh, the president of the small consulting group, as he searches for an intern one summer: Mr. Karsh logged onto Facebook, located his candidate, viewed his interests, which included “smokin’ blunts, shooting people, and obsessive sex” and promptly decided against hiring him.

While the recent news feed is less damaging than corporate reviews such as the one above, it still permits for a great degree of exploitation. It is also not unreasonable to expect these intrusions given the unsavory backgrounds of social networking heads such as Chris DeWolfe, co-founder of MySpace.com. DeWolfe got his start by inserting spyware into users’ computers for a private bank.

It should be clear by now that the service is not a democracy—which, I guess, would make Mark Zuckerberg a timid dictator. It’s about that time where I need to make some explicit points, so here they are: First, create an easy way to wipe away your Facebook history. Sure, the thought is dark and depressing, but it would be quite helpful to wipe one’s slate in a comprehensive way, and any attempt at service is lacking now.

Facebook also needs a democratic component review, and new features should be voted upon at the end of every calendar year.

I have been off the service for close to two years, and I rely on a steady stream of updates from friends and news outlets to know what changes are being made. I admit it has been difficult, and nobody ever remembers my birthday, but I take pride in being off the grid, and I hope to return when my vote counts. By the way, my birthday is July 30.