Facebook is more than a social network. It's the most popular website on earth outside of search engines, and increasingly, it acts as the most important unifying grid where young Americans connect with each other and access information. So when the site launches a new feature automatically enrolling its 500 million active members in an elaborate geographic surveillance program, it's kind of a big deal.
I could try to explain how Facebook's new Places program puts the stalking in "Facebook-stalking" -- a once-hyperbolic bit of Internet slang that has now caught up with reality—but the company launched its own creepy video to share the innovation (below).
The short version is that it's like FourSquare, a site that enables people to "check in" to locations and see if their friends are nearby. Well, it's like FourSquare if FourSquare forced you to join without telling you, and allowed other people to broadcast your location without your consent. Like so many other Facebook "innovations," this program looks like a bait-and-switch from the site's original offering (or promise) to users.
"Like most great new ideas from social media networks," notes blogger Cindy Casares, "you're already signed up for Places and you have already given your permission for your friends to tag you if they see you out at some place where they've checked in." According to the Facebook commercial, "now we have an opportunity to connect these two people who are just separated by a few yards or a few blocks and allow them to have a serendipitous meeting," a prospect that is "really exciting and cool." While guiding readers on how to opt-out, Casares disagreed:
"No, Facebook. It's not 'exciting and cool.' It's annoying and creepy. If we wanted to connect with that person, we'd call them or text them or Facebook email them or any of the other 9 million ways we have of getting a hold of people we actually want knowing where we are. Also, you know what it's called when you're out on your own and someone you know is nearby and not knowing that you're around? It's called living your life."
Many of the pat responses to this kind of problem don't cut it, either.
"Quit Facebook," says some of the older set, when dropping Facebook today is like getting an unlisted telephone number. (It's an option, yes, but most people can't afford to be that hard to find.)
"Just opt out," say many techies, without acknowledging how that solution discriminates against millions of users who don't even know the what (or the how) of the issue. (I opted out this morning, h/t ValleyWag.)
Facebook has become a powerful utility, and as I argued in The Nation three years ago, it should be regulated accordingly, with disclosure and transparency requirements that warn users about their exposure in advance, and a default opt-in program for new features that impact their privacy and security. And that goes for all new features, not just the stalkerish ones.