Monday, April 20, 2009

Facebooked faces lawsuit

By Alexander Maugeri

Staff Writer

Published: Monday, September 20th, 2004

The over 200,000 users of — an online directory system that services 37 colleges and universities nationwide — may soon have to find other means of networking. This month — a rival website — filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts alleging that founder Mark Zuckerberg stole programming codes in late 2003 for use on his own website.

Chris Hughes, a Harvard junior and press secretary for refuted the claim and said Zuckerberg's relationship with the ConnectU team was confined to a few hours of programming in December.

One of's three owners, recent Harvard alumnus Cameron Winklevoss disagreed, explaining, "It doesn't logically add up. Usually a project will take much longer to complete than the meeting to plan it."

He described meeting with Zuckerberg on at least three separate occasions to discuss his work on the website and exchanging 52 email correspondences. The transcript of many of these emails can be found on the ConnectU website.

The dates on the emails span from November 2003 to January 2004. In an email dated Jan. 8, Zuckerberg wrote, "I'll be available to discuss the site again starting Tuesday," according to a copy on the ConnectU website.

The plaintiffs in the case, Cameron Winklevoss, Tyler Winklevoss and Divya Narendra, are seeking at least $75,000 in damages and the forced shutdown of

"The whole idea started as fun. We have all tried to act in good faith but one guy happened to get greedy," Tyler Winklevoss said.

One of the nine complaints in the lawsuit alleges that uses the very same sourcecode as Sourcecode is the internal programming of a site that makes it run properly.

When asked how he could tell the programming codes for the two sites were identical, Winklevoss would only say, "Mark had total access to the programming guts of our website, the sourcecode."

Before turning to the courts, ConnectU founders brought their complaint to Harvard's Administrative Board, a panel similar to the Honor Committee at Princeton. The board ruled that the matter was out of their jurisdiction.

"The president of Harvard University advised us to take our matter to the courts," Cameron Winklevoss said. The defense has not yet filed papers and thus no trial date has been scheduled.

Though does not have the name recognition of, it would likely be one of many alternatives for students if were to be closed.

"There are other sites that are similar to, maybe I'd use Friendster," Eleni Azarias '08 said. Friendster currently boasts 10,000 users.

Without Robert Bernstein '08 said "life wouldn't be harder." But he added, "Facebook certainly is a nice convenience. I use it to check up on people's names and phone numbers."

Original URL:

Facebook, ConnectU settle dispute
Case an intellectual property kerfuffle
By Michael Levenson, Globe Staff | June 27, 2008

They were three Harvard students with a bright idea but not a lot of computer expertise, so Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and Divya Narendra enlisted a sophomore named Mark Zuckerberg to help them build a social-networking site for college students.

The students said they had an "oral contract" with Zuckerberg to help them build their site, ConnectU. But Zuckerberg dragged out the work for several months, they say, and eventually began ignoring their e-mails. A month later, in February 2004, he launched Facebook, which has since become the world's largest social-networking site.

Contending that their idea had been ripped off, the ConnectU founders launched a battle that started at Harvard's disciplinary board and eventually reached federal court. Yesterday, after a protracted battle, a judge finalized a settlement that will require Facebook to give Narendra and the Winklevoss twins an undisclosed sum of cash and stock.

The settlement, approved by Judge James Ware of the US District Court for the Northern District of California, appeared to end for now a bitter dispute that pitted young and ambitious Harvard-educated entrepreneurs against one another, with millions of dollars at stake.

The Winklevoss twins and Narendra, all of whom graduated in 2004, could not be reached for comment.

Facebook released a statement saying it was happy the settlement had been finalized and gratified that the court rejected ConnectU's allegations that Facebook had lied about its value during settlement talks. The statement said ConnectU's founders were suffering from buyer's remorse, after they made the allegation and tried to back out of the settlement in February.

Facebook's statement added that "we now consider this chapter closed and wish the Winklevoss brothers the best of luck in their future endeavors."

A final hearing July 2 will consider any objections to the settlement.

The case underscores the difficulties in pinpointing the originators of ideas on the Internet, particularly for social-networking sites.

"One thing about the Internet is that most ideas are developed collaboratively in the Internet space, and one thing that was difficult in this matter was trying to parse what was an original idea they had and that somebody else had taken advantage of," said John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard. "That was going to be awfully hard to show."

Palfrey said both sides should be happy the case was settled. Zuckerberg and Facebook "have a bright future ahead of them that did not need the cloud of litigation hanging over them," he said.

And ConnectU's founders, he said, were making assertions that were broad and "extremely hard to prove."

The battle dates to 2003, when all four men were undergraduates and social-networking sites were a relatively new phenomenon.

At the time, Zuckerberg was a 20-year-old computer science and psychology major well known on campus for launching a website called Facemash that allowed users to rate who was "hotter." The site eventually landed Zuckerberg on probation for unauthorized use of Harvard photos.

Narendra and the Winklevoss twins asked Zuckerberg to help them launch ConnectU.

In a 2004 interview with the Globe, Zuckerberg said he did about six hours of work on the site but had no business relationship with ConnectU.

"I was a student who agreed to help a fellow student," he told the Globe. "I did not agree to complete their project."

In December 2003, he e-mailed ConnectU's founders, telling them: "I'll keep you posted as I patch stuff up and it starts to become completely functional."

But in January 2004, they say, he stopped e-mailing them, abandoned the project, and launched Thefacebook, which eventually became Facebook.

As Facebook exploded in popularity, drawing more than 250,000 users at 99 colleges within its first seven months, ConnectU's founders were incensed. Their website, which they launched in May 2004, had drawn just 15,000 members in its first few months and is to this day a small player in online social networking.

Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard and moved to Silicon Valley a few months after launching Facebook, which currently boasts 80 million users worldwide.

He is now believed to be worth $1.5 billion, according to Forbes magazine's rankings of the world's richest people. At 24, he is the youngest person on the list.

"You feel robbed," Tyler Winklevoss told the Globe in 2004. "The kids down the hall are using it, and you're thinking, 'That's supposed to be us.' "

Michael Levenson can be reached at

What Facebook Knows That You Don't

By Catherine Rampell
Saturday, February 23, 2008; A15

So you've sworn off Scrabulous. You've given up on poking and SuperPoking. Never again shall you be newsfed, attacked by Zombies or be one of 1 million strong. You're done with seeing your friends' exhibitionism, and you're done with exhibiting yourself.

In other words, you've given up Facebook.

But as recent articles have pointed out, even if you "deactivate" your account, Facebook holds on to your profile data. This disclosure has gotten privacy groups and consumers up in arms. All the commotion about how Facebook hoards outgoing users' data got me wondering whether we're missing the more important privacy question: What happens to all the data we active members choose to delete, for privacy reasons or otherwise?

Facebook's privacy policy is disturbingly cryptic on this issue. It says the company "usually keep[s] a backup copy of the prior version [of updated profile information] for a reasonable period of time to enable reversion to the prior version of that information." Facebook declines to enumerate how many days (or centuries) constitute a "reasonable period of time." Facebook users do not have access to this information, so it's unclear who exactly would be doing the proposed "reversion."

Sure, Facebook archives must construct fascinating personal narratives. Anyone privy to my Facebook history, for example, would discover that my banjo lessons were embarrassingly short-lived and that my three most recent boyfriends are all named David. They would find the "Law and Order" episodes I've cycled through, the friends I've fallen out with and the music I've now gotten too cool for. And, my future biographers, take note: If you hacked into this treasure trove of information, you'd find a full dossier of my "status updates," the information Facebook users provide about what they're "doing right now." You might learn my diet, my sleep habits (or lack thereof, during college) and my emotional, or at least emoticonic, moods.

Of course, my imminent fame notwithstanding, those interested in the trajectory of my tastes and tempers are more likely to be advertisers than biographers. Facebook already uses profile information to target ads within its site -- and possibly outside of Facebook, through partner and minority-stakeholder Microsoft, which declined to directly answer questions about how it uses the data. Third-party advertisers also can see information about oblivious Facebookers; Facebook specifies only that such advertisers have "no access to your contact information," presumably leaving the rest of users' "private" information accessible.

The greatest potential for privacy violations, however, comes from the applications that have been developed by outsiders for the Facebook platform. Users who install these games and quizzes must agree to share all their information with unmonitored strangers, who can keep the data for any period of time, "reasonable" or otherwise. Tucked in its Platform Application Terms of Use is Facebook's absolution of itself of all liability should developers decide to do something mustache-twirlingly nefarious: "YOU USE SUCH DEVELOPER APPLICATIONS AT YOUR OWN RISK."

At my own risk, then, I choose not to use any applications, preferring more limited social interaction over greater exposure to snooping. (But even so, the default setting on Facebook allows my private data to be accessed by applications my friends have installed. In other words, a deceitful "Which Disney Princess Are You?" quiz my editor adds could pilfer my prom photos.) Facebook seems to be betting that none of these applications will go rogue -- or at least go rogue and get caught -- and thereby discredit the entire social network.

So what, you say. Idiots like me and Facebook's 65 million other users are publicizing our personal lives voluntarily. Corporations aren't exactly sneaking into our bedrooms; we're inviting them in. The problem is that most people who perfunctorily fill out social networking forms don't understand the privacy risks. It's not just the publicizing of data that endangers privacy, after all; as other analysts have articulated, it's also the ability to search, aggregate and find uses for that data. Unlike newsfeeds and Beacon -- controversial features that broadcast users' activities to their friends -- data mining by Facebook, third-party advertisers and applications is hidden.

Consumers, plain and simple, are too unsophisticated to realize what can be done with their data. Besides, users may have offered up information before even Facebook realized what it could do with the data, since the company only recently developed a coherent plan for making money through advertising. If advertisers (and biographers) were to research my profile archives, they would notice that it's not just my more sophisticated tastes in movies and men that transformed my profile over the years. It's also my more sophisticated understanding of how Facebook could sell me out. Unfortunately, for at least a "reasonable period of time," my wily revisions may prove worthless.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff. Her e-mail address ....

Facebook Founder Apologizes In Privacy Flap; Users Given More Control

Founder Mark Zuckerberg says the social networking site "really messed this one up."

By Antone Gonsalves
September 8, 2006 04:03 PM

Facebook on Friday tightened privacy controls for a controversial news feed feature, as founder Mark Zuckerberg apologized to hundreds of thousands of angry users, saying the social-networking site "really messed this one up."
While apparently well intentioned, the feature launched this week sparked protests among Facebook users who objected to its automatic broadcasting of members' activities on the site to everyone in their social circles. Two online petitions gathered a total of more than 700,000 signatures from members demanding that Facebook pull the plug on the new feature. In addition, a one-day boycott of the site was called for Sept. 12, and members were organizing a Monday demonstration at the company's Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters.

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Whirlwind travelogue through Salesforce (NYSE: CRM).com's Cloudforce tenth anniversary event, starring chairman Marc Benioff, a CRM product demo, Starbucks CTO Chris Bruzzo, and more.Facebook initially underestimated the anger over the feature, saying early this week that it involved only a small percentage of its more than 9 million members. The company believed protesters didn't fully understand the use of their privacy settings. That opinion, however, changed as the anger grew.
"We really messed this one up," Zuckerberg said in a Facebook posting. In releasing news feeds, "we did a bad job of explaining what the new features were, and an even worse job of giving you control of them."

Zuckerberg acknowledged that "this was a big mistake on our part, and I'm sorry for it."

To make amends, the company changed the privacy controls in the new feature by giving members the option to remove activities they did not want broadcasted over the news feeds, which protesters said violated their privacy and made them feel like they were being stalked. Such activities included posts on a discussion board and whether a person had left a group or network, or was single or in a relationship.

Organizers of the largest petition drive, Students Against Facebook News Feed, were cautiously supportive of the changes. The group said its initial impression was that Facebook had implemented most of the privacy changes petitioners demanded.

"Time will indeed tell if the new privacy options are satisfactory to the demands of this group," organizers said in a Facebook posting. "If the new privacy options do not indeed go all the way, do what you did before: complain."

Organizers, who gathered more than 600,000 signatures, according Reuters news agency, said they would decide in the next few days whether to disband.

The size of the protest drew the attention of major media outlets, and reflected the impact the Internet can have on a company that runs afoul of customers. The Facebook troubles also comes at a time when it and other social networks are looking to use their millions of members as a draw for advertising dollars.

Last month, Facebook said it would allow Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) to sell and display banner ads and sponsored links. The exclusive deal followed by about two weeks Google's agreement to pay News Corp. $900 million over three years to provide search and distribute advertising on MySpace.

Facebook in May was the third largest social network on the Web, followed by No. 1 MySpace and, according to ComScore Networks.

Why you should beware of Facebook

January 20, 2008

The global rise of Facebook is a matter for concern rather than excitement, writes Tom Hodgkinson.

I DESPISE FACEBOOK. THIS enormously successful American business describes itself as "a social utility that connects you with the people around you". But hang on. Why on God's earth would I need a computer to connect with the people around me? Why should my relationships be mediated through the imagination of a bunch of supergeeks in California?

And does Facebook really connect people? Doesn't it rather disconnect us, since instead of doing something enjoyable such as talking and eating and dancing and drinking with my friends, I am merely sending them little ungrammatical notes and amusing photos in cyberspace, while chained to my desk? A friend of mine recently told me that he had spent a Saturday night at home alone on Facebook, drinking at his desk. What a gloomy image. Far from connecting us, Facebook actually isolates us at our workstations.

Facebook appeals to a kind of vanity and self-importance in us, too. If I put up a flattering picture of myself with a list of my favourite things, I can construct an artificial representation of who I am in order to get sex or approval. ("I like Facebook," said another friend. "I got a shag out of it.") It also encourages a disturbing competitiveness around friendship: it seems that with friends today, quality counts for nothing and quantity is king. The more friends you have, the better you are. You are "popular", in the sense much loved in American high schools. Witness the cover line on Dennis Publishing's new Facebook magazine: "How To Double Your Friends List."

It seems, though, that I am very much alone in my hostility. At the time of writing Facebook claims 59 million active users, including 7 million in Britain, Facebook's third-biggest customer after the US and Canada. That's 59 million suckers, all of whom have volunteered their ID card information and consumer preferences to an American business they know nothing about. Right now, 2 million new people join each week. At the present rate of growth, Facebook will have more than 200 million active users by this time next year. And I would predict that, if anything, its rate of growth will accelerate over the coming months. As its spokesman Chris Hughes says: "It's embedded itself to an extent where it's hard to get rid of."

All of the above would have been enough to make me reject Facebook for ever. But there are more reasons to hate it. Many more.

Facebook is a well-funded project, and the people behind the funding, a group of Silicon Valley venture capitalists, have a clearly thought out ideology that they are hoping to spread around the world. Facebook is one manifestation of this ideology. Like PayPal before it, it is a social experiment, an expression of a particular kind of neoconservative libertarianism. On Facebook, you can be free to be who you want to be, as long as you don't mind being bombarded by adverts for the world's biggest brands. As with PayPal, national boundaries are a thing of the past.

Although the project was initially conceived by media cover star Mark Zuckerberg, the real face behind Facebook is the 40-year-old Silicon Valley venture capitalist and futurist philosopher Peter Thiel. There are only three board members on Facebook, and they are Thiel, Zuckerberg and a third investor called Jim Breyer, from a venture capital firm called Accel Partners (more on him later). Thiel invested $US500,000 in Facebook when Harvard students Zuckerberg, Chris Hughes and Dustin Moskowitz went to meet him in San Francisco in June 2004, soon after they had launched the site. Thiel now reportedly owns 7% of Facebook, which, at Facebook's current valuation of $US15 billion ($A16.65 billion), would be worth more than $US1 billion. There is much debate on who exactly were the original co-founders of Facebook, but whoever they were, Zuckerberg is the only one left on the board, although Hughes and Moskowitz still work for the company.

Thiel is widely regarded in Silicon Valley and in the US venture capital scene as a libertarian genius. He is the co-founder and CEO of the virtual banking system PayPal, which he sold to eBay for $US1.5 billion, taking $US55 million for himself. He also runs a £3 billion ($A6.5 billion) hedge fund called Clarium Capital Management and a venture capital fund called Founders Fund. Bloomberg Markets magazine recently called him "one of the most successful hedge fund managers in the country". He has made money by betting on rising oil prices and by correctly predicting that the dollar would weaken. He and his absurdly wealthy Silicon Valley mates have recently been labelled "The PayPal Mafia" by Fortune magazine, whose reporter also observed that Thiel has a uniformed butler and a $US500,000 McLaren supercar. Thiel is also a chess master and intensely competitive. He has been known to sweep the chessmen off the table in a fury when losing. And he does not apologise for this hyper-competitiveness, saying: "Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser."

But Thiel is more than just a clever and avaricious capitalist. He is a futurist philosopher and neocon activist. A philosophy graduate from Stanford, in 1998 he co-wrote a book called The Diversity Myth, which is a detailed attack on liberalism and the multiculturalist ideology that dominated Stanford. He claimed that the "multiculture" led to a lessening of individual freedoms. While a student at Stanford, Thiel founded a right-wing journal, still up and running, called The Stanford Review — motto: Fiat Lux ("Let there be light"). Thiel is a member of TheVanguard.Org, an internet-based neoconservative pressure group that was set up to attack, a liberal pressure group that works on the web. Thiel calls himself "way libertarian".

TheVanguard is run by one Rod D. Martin, a philosopher-capitalist whom Thiel greatly admires. On the site, Thiel says: "Rod is one of our nation's leading minds in the creation of new and needed ideas for public policy. He possesses a more complete understanding of America than most executives have of their own businesses."

This little taster from their website will give you an idea of their vision for the world: "TheVanguard.Org is an online community of Americans who believe in conservative values, the free market and limited government as the best means to bring hope and ever-increasing opportunity to everyone, especially the poorest among us." Their aim is to promote policies that will "reshape America and the globe". TheVanguard describes its politics as "Reaganite/Thatcherite". The chairman's message says: "Today we'll teach MoveOn (the liberal website), Hillary and the left-wing media some lessons they never imagined."

SO, THIEL'S POLITICS ARE not in doubt. What about his philosophy? I listened to a podcast of an address Thiel gave about his ideas for the future. His philosophy, briefly, is this: since the 17th century, certain enlightened thinkers have been taking the world away from the old-fashioned nature-bound life, and here he quotes Thomas Hobbes' famous characterisation of life as "nasty, brutish and short", and towards a new virtual world where we have conquered nature. Value now exists in imaginary things. Thiel says that PayPal was motivated by this belief: that you can find value not in real manufactured objects, but in the relations between human beings. PayPal was a way of moving money around the world with no restriction. Bloomberg Markets puts it like this: "For Thiel, PayPal was all about freedom: it would enable people to skirt currency controls and move money around the globe."

Clearly, Facebook is another uber-capitalist experiment: can you make money out of friendship? Can you create communities free of national boundaries — and then sell Coca-Cola to them? Facebook is profoundly uncreative. It makes nothing at all. It simply mediates in relationships that were happening anyway.

Thiel's philosophical mentor is one Rene Girard of Stanford University, proponent of a theory of human behaviour called mimetic desire. Girard reckons that people are essentially sheep-like and will copy one another without much reflection. The theory would also seem to be proved correct in the case of Thiel's virtual worlds: the desired object is irrelevant; all you need to know is that human beings will tend to move in flocks. Hence financial bubbles. Hence the enormous popularity of Facebook. Girard is a regular at Thiel's intellectual soirees. What you don't hear about in Thiel's philosophy, by the way, are old-fashioned real-world concepts such as art, beauty, love, pleasure and truth.

The internet is immensely appealing to neocons such as Thiel because it promises a certain sort of freedom in human relations and in business, freedom from pesky national laws, national boundaries and suchlike. The internet opens up a world of free trade and laissez-faire expansion. Thiel also seems to approve of offshore tax havens, and claims that 40% of the world's wealth resides in places such as Vanuatu, the Cayman Islands, Monaco and Barbados. I think it's fair to say that Thiel is against tax. He also likes the globalisation of digital culture because it makes the banking overlords hard to attack: "You can't have a workers' revolution to take over a bank if the bank is in Vanuatu," he says.

If life in the past was nasty, brutish and short, then in the future Thiel wants to make it much longer, and to this end he has also invested in a firm that is exploring life-extension technologies. He has pledged £3.5 million to a Cambridge-based gerontologist called Aubrey de Grey, who is searching for the key to immortality. Thiel is also on the board of advisers of something called the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. From its fantastical website, the following: "The Singularity is the technological creation of smarter-than-human intelligence. There are several technologies … heading in this direction … Artificial Intelligence … direct brain-computer interfaces … genetic engineering … different technologies which, if they reached a threshold level of sophistication, would enable the creation of smarter-than-human intelligence."

So by his own admission, Thiel is trying to destroy the real world, which he also calls "nature", and install a virtual world in its place, and it is in this context that we must view the rise of Facebook. Facebook is a deliberate experiment in global manipulation, and Thiel is a bright young thing in the neoconservative pantheon, with a penchant for far-out techno-utopian fantasies. Not someone I want to help get any richer.

THE THIRD BOARD member of Facebook is Jim Breyer. He is a partner in the venture capital firm Accel Partners, who put $US12.7 million into Facebook in April 2005. On the board of such US giants as Wal-Mart and Marvel Entertainment, he is also a former chairman of the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA). Now these are the people who are really making things happen in America, because they invest in the new young talent, the Zuckerbergs and the like. Facebook's most recent round of funding was led by a company called Greylock Venture Capital, which put in the sum of $US27.5 million. One of Greylock's senior partners is called Howard Cox, another former chairman of the NVCA, who is also on the board of In-Q-Tel. What's In-Q-Tel? Well, believe it or not (and check out its website), this is the venture-capital wing of the CIA. After 9/11, the US intelligence community became so excited by the possibilities of new technology and the innovations being made in the private sector, that in 1999 they set up their own venture capital fund, In-Q-Tel, which "identifies and partners with companies developing cutting-edge technologies to help deliver these solutions to the Central Intelligence Agency and the broader US Intelligence Community (IC) to further their missions". The US defence department and the CIA love technology because it makes spying easier. "We need to find new ways to deter new adversaries," defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in 2003. "We need to make the leap into the information age, which is the critical foundation of our transformation efforts." In-Q-Tel's first chairman was Gilman Louie, who served on the board of the NVCA with Breyer. Another key figure in the In-Q-Tel team is Anita Jones, former director of defence research and engineering for the defence department, and — with Breyer — board member of BBN Technologies. When she left the defence department, Senator Chuck Robb paid her the following tribute: "She brought the technology and operational military communities together to design detailed plans to sustain US dominance on the battlefield into the next century."

Now even if you don't buy the idea that Facebook is some kind of extension of the American imperialist program crossed with a massive information-gathering tool, there is no way of denying that as a business, it is pure mega-genius. Some net nerds have suggested that its $US15 billion valuation is excessive, but I would argue that if anything that is too modest. Its scale really is dizzying, and the potential for growth is virtually limitless. "We want everyone to be able to use Facebook," says the impersonal voice of Big Brother on the website. I'll bet they do. It is Facebook's enormous potential that led Microsoft to buy 1.6% for $US240 million. A recent rumour says that Asian investor Lee Ka-Shing, said to be the ninth richest man in the world, has bought 0.4% of Facebook for $US60 million.

The creators of the site need do very little bar fiddle with the program. In the main, they simply sit back and watch as millions of Facebook addicts voluntarily upload their ID details, photographs and lists of their favourite consumer objects. Once in receipt of this vast database of human beings, Facebook then simply has to sell the information back to advertisers, or, as Zuckerberg puts it in a recent blog post, "to try to help people share information with their friends about things they do on the web". And indeed, this is precisely what's happening. On November 6 last year, Facebook announced that 12 global brands had climbed on board. They included Coca-Cola, Blockbuster, Verizon, Sony Pictures and Conde Nast. All trained in marketing spin of the highest order, their representatives made excited comments along the following lines:

"With Facebook Ads, our brands can become a part of the way users communicate and interact on Facebook," said Carol Kruse, vice-president, global interactive marketing, the Coca-Cola Company.

"We view this as an innovative way to cultivate relationships with millions of Facebook users by enabling them to interact with Blockbuster in convenient, relevant and entertaining ways," said Jim Keyes, Blockbuster chairman and CEO. "This is beyond creating advertising impressions. This is about Blockbuster participating in the community of the consumer so that, in return, consumers feel motivated to share the benefits of our brand with their friends."

"Share" is Facebookspeak for "advertise". Sign up to Facebook and you become a free walking, talking advert for Blockbuster or Coke, extolling the virtues of these brands to your friends. We are seeing the commodification of human relationships, the extraction of capitalistic value from friendships.

NOW, BY COMPARISON with Facebook, newspapers, for example, begin to look hopelessly outdated as a business model. A newspaper sells advertising space to businesses looking to sell stuff to their readers. But the system is far less sophisticated than Facebook for two reasons. One is that newspapers have to put up with the irksome expense of paying journalists to provide the content. Facebook gets its content for free. The other is that Facebook can target advertising with far greater precision than a newspaper. Admit on Facebook that your favourite film is This Is Spinal Tap, and when a Spinal Tap-esque movie comes out, you can be sure that they'll be sending ads your way.

It's true that Facebook recently got into hot water with its Beacon advertising program. Users were notified that one of their friends had made a purchase at certain online shops; 46,000 users felt that this level of advertising was intrusive, and signed a petition called "Facebook! Stop invading my privacy!" to say so. Zuckerberg apologised on his company blog. He has written that they have now changed the system from "opt-out" to "opt-in". But I suspect that this little rebellion about being so ruthlessly commodified will soon be forgotten: after all, there was a national outcry by the civil liberties movement when the idea of a police force was mooted in Britain in the mid-19th century.

Futhermore, have you Facebook users ever actually read the privacy policy? It tells you that you don't have much privacy . Facebook pretends to be about freedom, but isn't it really more like an ideologically motivated virtual totalitarian regime? Thiel and the rest have created their own country, a country of consumers.

Now, you may, like Thiel and the other new masters of the cyberverse, find this social experiment tremendously exciting. Here at last is the enlightenment state longed for since the Puritans of the 17th century sailed away to North America, a world where everyone is free to express themselves as they please, according to who is watching. National boundaries are a thing of the past and everyone cavorts together in freewheeling virtual space. Nature has been conquered through man's boundless ingenuity. Yes, and you may decide to send genius investor Thiel all your money, and certainly you'll be waiting for the public flotation of the unstoppable Facebook.

Or you might reflect that you don't really want to be part of this heavily funded program to create an arid global virtual republic, where your own self and your relationships with your friends are converted into commodities on sale to giant global brands. You may decide that you don't want to be part of this takeover bid for the world.

For my own part, I am going to retreat from the whole thing, remain as unplugged as possible, and spend the time I save by not going on Facebook doing something useful, such as reading books. Why would I want to waste my time on Facebook when I still haven't read Keats' Endymion? And when there are seeds to be sown in my own backyard? I don't want to retreat from nature, I want to reconnect with it. Damn air-conditioning! And if I want to connect with the people around me, I will revert to an old piece of technology. It's free, it's easy and it delivers a uniquely individual experience in sharing information: it's called talking.


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