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Do You Own Facebook? Or Does Facebook Own You?

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Portraits, clockwise from top left, by Rodrigo Corral, Karen Hsu and Alice Chung, Jason Lee, and Mark Korsak.  

With the vote, though, Zuckerberg set a high bar—perhaps an impossibly high bar—for user voices to be heard: It will be binding only if 30 percent of members cast a ballot. That’s about 60 million people. “You can’t get 60 million people to agree on anything, so the fact that Facebook is requiring it makes this all seem a little fake,” says Harper, over lunch at a Hawaiian fast-food restaurant near his office in Burbank, California. Harper is stiff and proper, with a pressed shirt and a silver cross around his neck, yet now he shifts his eyes downward uneasily. Facebook listened to him, and he is uncomfortable judging it. “I have to think that they are showing good faith here,” he says, then nods his head. “I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt.”

If there were one word to describe what Facebook has added to my life, I would use it. It’s a multidimensional pleasure: It’s given me a tool for exceptionally mindless, voyeuristic, puerile procrastination; crowd-sourced pesky problems like finding a new accountant; stoked my narcissism; warmed my heart with nostalgia; and created a euphoric, irrational, irresistible belief in the good in men’s hearts among the most skeptical people I know—people who should know better. As the dominant social network on the web (the Internet began, essentially, as a social network, with Usenet in the late seventies) Facebook has created a space similar to a college quad, where members can check each other out, talk about culture, gossip, and pass mash notes. Users really like Facebook; they believe in it so strongly that they want to protect it from itself. That much is clear from the anger over the redesign, released a couple of weeks ago, meant to outmaneuver Twitter in the realm of speedy exchange of information—a redesign that, ironically, created a much louder protest, at two-and-a-half-million users and counting, than Harper’s protest about the security of one’s personal information. As of now, Harper’s group has around 148,000 users. Organizing has basically come to a standstill. “We’re waiting to see what Facebook does next,” he says.

This is a crucial moment for Facebook, and a delicate one, because We, the users, are what Facebook is selling. “Facebook is walking a fine line of keeping the trust of its members, and wanting to exploit them for profit,” says Nicholas Carr, author of The Big Switch. “It’s having a tough time balancing the two.” In 2007, the company was valued at $15 billion, after Microsoft bought a 1.6 percent stake for $240 million, but profit has been elusive. If they can solve this problem, come up with a viable business model—one might note that if they charged $1 a month for the service and even half its users stuck around, it would take in $100 million each month—it could go public and even become the first big IPO to reinvigorate the market; if Facebook doesn’t, Zuckerberg & Co. will struggle to resist a takeover by a very rich tech company (well, Microsoft) for a fire-sale price of a billion or two. After CFO Gideon Yu announced his exit last week, the company claimed that it was looking for a replacement with public-company experience, but the way forward is far from clear. The history of social networks is an absurd one of missed opportunities, from Tripod to Geocities to AOL, though Facebook thus far has avoided their pitfalls. It’s been unaffected by Friendster’s technical glitches and its taint of uncoolness; Facebook’s antiseptic design clears away the lascivious, spam-ified, knife-wielding clutter of MySpace, a site that was double Facebook’s size in the U.S. eight months ago but whose technological innovation has been stymied by News Corp until recently.

Facebook is exceptional at public relations. Harper may think that it’s impossible to get millions of people to join hands, but Facebook’s particular genius has been convincing 200 million people to color within the lines, to behave a certain way without being told to. When it moved the lines a bit with the redesign, the company issued a statement that it only meant well—“Whenever we build something new or tweak something old, our motivation is the same: to help you share with the people you care about,” it said—which wasn’t strictly true; advertisers seemed to be more prominent on the home page, for one thing, and group pages were redesigned to look like “friends.” For users, it can feel like information is rushing toward us as through a beer funnel, too much information about too many people, much as on Twitter, though that’s part of why Twitter is still largely used by tech-heads, nerds, and those who work in marketing or want to market themselves (though all bets are off regarding Twitter when the war over social networks on mobile heats up).


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