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Do You Own Facebook? Or Does Facebook Own You?

I get his point, but I still don’t like it. Kubrick dreamed of villains like this: nerds in fleece, controlling the information, calling their cult a family. It was an image, a kind of inchoate anxiety about the future, rather than anything you could put your finger on. In many conversations with privacy experts, it was hard to see what, specifically, was upsetting them so much; part of their strategy is clearly to pressure the big dog to set good policies now, so that others follow them later. Twenty years down the road, as algorithms and filtering mechanisms are significantly stronger and we’ve moved from PCs to home monitors with information stored in remote locations—“the cloud”—we will entrust ever more of ourselves to large data centers, many of which are already built around the Columbia River. Facebook already has tens of thousands of servers in a few data centers throughout the country, but this pales in comparison to Microsoft’s facility in Quincy, Washington: Their data center is the area of ten football fields, 1.5 metric tons of batteries for backup power, and 48 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 40,000 homes. An uncanny simulacrum of your life has been created on the web. It may not be too hyperbolic to talk about a digital self, as a fourth addition to mind, body, and spirit. It’s not the kind of thing that one wants to give away.

To get to this endgame, though, Facebook has to get through the current phase, which involves keeping people interested. I enjoyed myself on Facebook until a couple of months ago, when I went to a dentist with a little dog in her office, which she put in my lap during my exam. I found this odd enough to justify writing a status update. Several of my friends commented appropriately—“Not so hygienic, I’m thinking, LOL”—but my friend Judd took offense. “And then what happened, Vanessa?” he sneered. “I mean in a moment like that, there’s you, the dentist, the dog. It puts dog-lovers and dental fanatics and probably some perverts on the edge of their chairs. So go on, WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?”

“This is why you have 100 friends on Facebook and two in real life,” I replied, somewhat lamely. “Oops—now you have one!”

He quickly chastised me. “Suggestion,” he shot back. “Start a group called Everybody Please Hate Judd. I’ll join it! Or rehabilitate me, via Facebook: Encourage me to share, with the kind of warm, dull, 12-steppish type comments that real Facebookers offer each other every day. The truth is, everyone here has gone back to high school, but now they’ve read some books, got some cool corporate skills, and this time, they’re going to win this game. You go girl!”

This was the beginning of the end. Suddenly, Facebook began to irk me—the way friends always posted about procrastinating, being stuck in traffic, needing a nap or a vacation, or seemed to formulate their updates in declarative yet vague form, like “Michelle is upset” or “Roya is pouting,” thus coming off like a needy jerk and making us take time out of our day to plead with them to answer the burning question: “Why are you pouting?” There was the day someone posted about bowel movements. There were too many days when friends, in pathetic attempts to rattle their cages, posted joke updates like “I’m gay!” or “I just got arrested!” There was the day that a friend of mine posted the passport of their newborn, because it was supercute, but I thought of the jpeg finding its way into one of Facebook’s servers and it was just … creepy.

Friends of mine began to freak out, like a guy with intimacy issues who dropped his girlfriend after reading a list that she had posted on Facebook about her favorite memories; another woman became so addicted to the site that she appeared blank-faced and wobbly in the real world, suddenly uncomfortable with unmediated experience. Other friends started to react poorly as well. “One day, I finally sent a Facebook message to the guy who is the love of my life, even though technically I broke his heart,” says a friend, 38. “I said, ‘I know you work at IAC, and I’ve just moved down the street from where you work—do you want to get coffee?’ He wrote me back, ‘I think it would hurt too much. Plus you and I were never the coffee kind of people anyway.’ ” Because he had responded to her message, Facebook allowed her to see the guy’s profile—and, for the first time, she found out that he was married. “I had no idea, and I was so devastated,” she says. “I cried for days.”