By Josh Quittner
Yesterday, I considered opting out of Beacon on my Facebook account. I pulled up the Privacy page, and looked at the tick box, which would turn off the controversial feature that broadcasts a user’s purchases at participating websites everywhere. But I didn’t pull the trigger. It was still on an open tab in my browser this morning.
Partly, I didn’t do it because I was too busy dealing with e-mail and phone calls from people about my recent Facebook rant. John Perry Barlow once said that “the media is a blunt instrument” — somehow my column was being used as a sledge hammer, and suddenly, I was the Jerry Lewis of the Facebook Hate-A-Thon. Nearly 200,000 people had swung by fortune.com to read that piece in the first day it was up. One of them was my colleague at Fortune, David Kirkpatrick, who, not surprisingly, wrote an excellent rebuttal. (I say “not surprisingly” because David wrote, as far back in October 2006, the first story I had read that convincingly explained why Facebook mattered.) With his counter-point now online, I also had to spend a part of the day yesterday fending off the excitable editors in New York who wanted me and David to argue our positions via video for the site. (One of them suggested I wear a luche libre suit.)
I am not that stupid. Nor do I look good in a Speedo. If I could do video, why would I waste my time with the other low-paid mutts in the print world? No, there is, sadly, a reason my medium is words. David is far better looking than me and infinitely more charming (though I think I have better legs.) And besides, the thing that had gotten me riled up in the first place — Facebook’s ongoing contempt for its users — had been addressed by the time David weighed in. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had issued a mea culpa and made it simple for anyone to opt out of Beacon.
But beyond all that, I didn’t want to be forced into the position of being a Facebook hater, mainly because I don’t hate it. I use the thing a dozen times a day to play Scrabulous, Texas Hold ‘Em, and to harry my daughters, wife and friends. And that’s why, in the end, I decided not to opt out of Beacon. Facebook is a great social experiment and I want to see how it turns out.
Besides, the idea of Beacon doesn’t really bug me. Reid Hoffman says that “privacy is an old man’s concern” and I tend to agree with him. I had reached the same conclusion when writing a cover story for Time about online privacy many years ago. The joy of a social network is the shared experience — the give and take among friends. I like the peripheral view I get of my friends when I log in, and I don’t mind publishing personal artifacts in exchange. Further, I’d argue that most of us get a kick out of sharing personal details within our networks. That’s what humans do in real life. It makes sense that we should crave it online, too.
What I adored about Facebook, and blathered on about endlessly, was that it gave us near-perfect control over our online relationships. (e.g. You can block jerks.) The few people I loathe, or who have spammed me, can no longer contact me on Facebook. The creation of the Innernet was an important step in the evolution of the social web: Now I can define not only who I am online, but who I want to hang out with. That’s why Facebook grew so quickly. At 50 million people, it’s about the size of South Korea and ought to overtake the UK in population within the year — if the current growth rate holds.
It won’t grow, though, if Facebook messes with its users’ right to control their social graph. It’s tough to build something this big and takes a fair amount of finesse. But it’s far easier to lose it all. Facebook’s response to the events of the past few weeks has mainly been, If you don’t like it, leave. That kind of customer service was also found on Delphi, Prodigy and AOL. If I were Zuck, I’d craft a simple Bill of Rights guaranteeing members that they own their own relationships. With Facebook’s users in control, the company is free to try anything it wants.