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Do You Own Facebook? Or Does Facebook Own You?

Portraits, clockwise from top left, by Alpha Lubicz, Jason Lee, Jennifer Daniel, and Serge Bloch.  

This safe and happy community is very much a product of design. The old web, the frontier world of autonomy, anarchy, fantasies, and self-made porn, is being tamed. The flaming, snarky, commenter-board culture that dips in periodically to bang heads against the floor and foster self-hate among humanity’s ranks has been deemed not good for business. Facebook’s relentless emphasis on literal representation—the site maintains a “blacklist” of celebrity names to discourage impersonation and reserves the right to delete anyone who claims to be someone he is not, or who creates multiple accounts—turns out to be the weapon to quell the web’s chaos. Now online life is a series of Victorian drawing rooms, a well-tended garden where you bring your calling card and make polite conversation with those of your kind, a sanitized city on a hill where amity reigns, irony falls flat, and sarcasm is remarkably rare. We prepare our faces, then come and go, sharing little bits of data, like photos, haikus, snippets of conversations—the intellectual property that composes our lives.

Sharing is actually not my word. It’s the most important Newspeak word in the Facebook lexicon, an infantilizing phrase whose far less cozy synonym is “uploading data.” Facebook’s entire business plan, insofar as it is understood by anyone, rests upon this continued practice of friends sharing with friends, and as such it is part of the company’s bedrock belief, as expressed in the first line of its principles: “People should have the freedom to share whatever information they want.” “A lot of times users—well, I don’t want to say they undervalue sharing, but a lot of times they don’t want to share initially,” said Chris Cox, Facebook’s 26-year-old director of products. “And then eventually, they say, ‘Okay, I’ll put a profile picture up here. I’ll do it.’ Immediately, their friends comment on it, and there are no tacky, weird strangers around, and suddenly they start to realize, ‘Hey, wait, this is different. I am on the Internet, but I am in a safe place.’ ”

We, the users, are what Facebook is selling.

Cox, a dropout from Stanford’s graduate program in symbolic systems, is known professionally as Zuckerberg’s better half and twice as handsome. We were talking at the Facebook offices in Palo Alto earlier this year, when I spent three hours in a windowless conference room meeting with executives in one of the company’s ten small buildings near the campus of Stanford University (the company is moving to an office park next month). Colorful graffiti of Facebook-cap-wearing kids waving Facebook flags line the corridors, and semi-ironic signs like THANKS, SILICON VALLEY, FOR INVENTING THE INTERNET! hang on office doors. It’s all very Facebook-y: intimate, twee, and above all friendly, like the research offices of a well-funded postdoctoral project.

I took a trip to visit Facebook because I was interested in the way it is remaking social groups of old friends, so I mostly wanted to talk about that, but all these executives wanted to talk about was sharing. And privacy. And control. (Although I did learn the biggest user complaint on the site: the inability to remove unflattering photos of themselves posted by friends.) They said this kind of stuff: “People have been traditionally too scared to share on the web,” that from another executive, Chris Kelly, the company’s chief privacy officer at the moment, though he is widely rumored to be leaving soon to run for attorney general of California. “They lost all control because they were too open with sharing information,” he continued. “We give them back that control, so they will share again, and we think people will soon be much more comfortable about sharing more with more people.” He cleared his throat. “Ultimately, human beings are very social,” said Kelly. “They want to share. They just want to share with people that they know and trust.”

For all the talk of sharing, it was a slightly tense environment, a little like being in a capsule, hurtling into the great unknown, which is the future of the web. It was all a little vertiginous. In our conversation, we marveled at Facebook’s runaway growth of about a million new members a day, which Kelly called an “explosion.” It’s an astonishing number, but things are moving and changing incredibly fast on the web right now. They know that Facebook’s massive cultural footprint could be washed away tomorrow by forces not yet understood, not least by the micro-choices and preconscious perceptions of its users.

Then again, these are smart guys who have thought deeply about the ways their little planet can perish. They’re not wicked corporate invaders; they’re behaviorists and lawyers, psychology majors and big thinkers. There’s a moral undercurrent to their pronouncements—this is what they’re selling, of course—and they talk the talk so well, it’s hard to imagine they’re not walking the walk, too. “I don’t think of our users as customers,” says Cox. “That reminds me of someone coming into a store and buying a sandwich. We’re all Facebook users here, and our parents, friends, colleagues, and loved ones are Facebook users. This is a much more intimate relationship, frankly. We take it very personally.”