Facebook makes us embrace creepy

The opinions expressed are his own.

Facebook makes us embrace creepy

Sean Parker was looking edgy. Maybe it was because he was sitting in for Mark Pincus, who bowed out of this week’s Web 2.0 Summit because of Zynga’s pre-IPO quiet period. Or because this was a chance to show a large gathering of his peers that Justin Timberlake, no matter how smooth, could never be a Sean Parker. Or maybe it was just because he was Sean Parker.

He shifted nervously on a black leather sofa as he was asked about Facebook’s new power, a power that leads many to see the company as fearsome and a little creepy. His posture hunched, his expression murine, his black wardrobe gothic porn, his eyes shifting around the room as he hunted for the precisely evasive word. Parker’s reply finally came in the form of a couple of sentences that might stick with him for some time: “There’s good creepy and there’s bad creepy,” he said. “Today’s creepy is tomorrow’s… necessity?”

It sounds so unpalatable coming from Sean Parker, but it’s true. After all, more people are sharing more information on social networks than they were a few years ago. In a way, Parker was just channeling Zuckerberg, who said in early 2010 that people will grow more comfortable with sharing information about themselves; and more recently that people will want to share more of their lives as each year passes, and that “it’s going to be really, really good.”

But whatever Zuckerberg proclaims, Sean Parker oozes. And in that ooze lives a truth of Facebook that Zuckerberg – and any profitable social media – doesn’t want you to know.

Parker, an early Facebook shareholder, said something that most of us don’t want to admit to ourselves: We are learning to love Facebook’s invasion of our private lives. We’re learning to stop worrying that our faces, our thoughts, our conversations with family and friends – the little moments that accrete into our everyday lives – are becoming data-mining fodder for advertisers and anyone else Facebook forges a revenue-generating partnership with.

We are learning to love creepy. If we don’t learn, we’re going to be left out of the party. We won’t know, for example, what our friends look like, in their far-flung residences, as they grow older. Or how adorable their kids are as they grow up. We won’t know what they just read, or what movies they love, or what new artists they are listening to – unless we phone them up or sit down to lunch with them.

Which isn’t bad … at first. But soon you soon start to feel like you’re the 21st century Luddite buddy who has a weirdly obsessive need to hear news of your life in person, at lunch or whatever, rather than on Facebook. You’re a beloved oddball at first. Then just an oddball. Then just the odd man out. It’s not that you’re crazy, or even creepy – it’s that you’re just not creepy enough. You still object to Facebook’s advertisers and marketing partners collecting, sniffing and algorithmically analyzing every online confession of your personal life.

And yet, why shouldn’t you feel that way? Online corporate snoopers may be getting smarter about you than you are about them. In 2010, a company called The Astonishing Tribe unveiled an app called Recognizr, which let you point an Android app at someone’s face and learn – as fast as your mobile carrier will let you – the online personas they’ve created through public Facebook updates, Twitter feeds, and so on. Suddenly, your public self was much more publicly available that you had imagined.

More disturbingly, there are facial-recognition algorithms – developed under the adorably named yet still creepy (that is, bad creepy) PittPatt – which can scan a photo of you walking down the street and compare the pixels to a Facebook profile photo, and all the innocently adjacent data: birthday, birthplace, friends, family, political affiliation, etc. The things people take for granted are just the starting points of an investigation into the rest of their lives:

[I]t is possible to start from an anonymous face in the street, and end up with very sensitive information about that person, in a process of data ‘accretion.’ In the context of our experiment, it is this blending of online and offline data – made possible by the convergence of face recognition, social networks, data mining, and cloud computing – that we refer to as augmented reality.

So maybe Sean Parker is right. The necessary future is creepy. It used to be you applied for a job at a company, and some HR rep used a search engine to scour your past. Maybe, like most college students, you had our share of ungainly college moments; and maybe, like most college grads looking for work, you’ve deleted those terrible glories from the web.

But starting several years ago, your online life became something permanent. Anything you said, did, shared on a social network began to be preserved – according to the privacy policies of companies like Facebook – indefinitely. And it began to proliferate, into the databases of Facebook’s partners.

In other words, our lives will be uploaded by, and observed by, and written on some server by, and remembered by some engineer who, at the end of the day, doesn’t really know us, or who we are. Of course, most engineers won’t care who we are. But what if that engineer isn’t someone we trust? What if they just do what they’re told, so they can get paid like the rest of us?

It’s never been easier to express ourselves. We live in an era that demands self-publishing so much there must be something wrong with us if we don’t. It’s a great thing – except for one thing: We can’t control what we publish, what we express. There is no deleting of ungainly moments anymore, there is just the power to counter those juvenile moments with more mature, adult perspectives. In a way, it’s a lot like your high school or college friends who remember your youthful indiscretions – only now those memories belong to corporations as well. Friends forgive and forget, but corporate data mines never forget.

Managing who sees what data about you online is becoming an increasingly impossible task. The first 20 years of the web were about users expressing themselves, deciding what parts of their lives they published online. Increasingly your online identity belongs to a company like Facebook or Google. You either deal with that creepy fact, or you just don’t exist online.

PHOTO: Napster founder and former Facebook president Sean Parker gestures during the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, California October 17, 2011. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith