My my estimation, the World Wide Web owes me exactly £25 sterling—the exact amount I’ve forfeited since my dear-hearted Scottish grandma stopped sending me cat-adorned birthday cards enclosed with £5 notes for my birthday, instead opting for a 24-point font e-mail wishing me happiness and love on my special day. Absent that, and maybe the hundred-or-so hours of my life I’ve wasted YouTube-ing funny cat videos, the Internet owes me nothing.
If anything, I feel like I owe the Internet a little something. Thanks to Google’s search, mail, and document-management systems, I have effectively outsourced the task of remembering useless trivia and important dates alike to a faceless entity that demands no remuneration or polite notes of thanks. If I wake up restless at 3 a.m. with the burning desire to hear some inane Billy Joel song that’s rattling around my head, I need only plug a name into the upper right-hand corner of my browser, and there are a dozen versions of “Just The Way You Are”. And Facebook, that all-knowing encyclopedia of humanity—sure, I may have to endure constant updates on happenings at virtual farms, or suffer the ignominy of having the site’s “friend finder” recommend I drop a line to an ex-paramour, but all this is a small price to pay for not having to actually call people on the phone.
I suppose I’ve made peace with the pros and cons of Internet-dependence a long time ago, and so the recent fuss about Facebook and user privacy was initially baffling to me. Nearly every media outlet, from the New York Times to Fox News has run panicky stories on the issue in the past few weeks, complete with appropriately terrifying graphics, decrying the “byzantine” system of user controls. Nearly every article took pains to point out that Facebook’s revised Terms of Service were “longer than the U.S. Constitution”, something I gather is the very nadir of crimes against brevity.
Coupled with users’ status updates on Facebook itself, which did everything but use “Halloween” font to invoke fear of the site’s omniscience, you’d be excused for thinking Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg might be outside rummaging through your garbage right this minute.
I must confess, I didn’t get it. Hadn’t everyone willingly signed up for Facebook? Could they not quit, if they didn’t like the rules? Wasn’t Facebook a free service, provided by a privately owned company, which could operate as it saw fit? And, more perplexingly, when did the U.S. Constitution become the de facto unit of measurement for fear mongering? What happened to football fields?
A few weeks ago, I was all set to write a mocking reply to forwarded chain e-mail I received, which waxed horrified at Facebook’s incursion on user privacy. I had all my arguments lined up: you could leave at any time, or just take 15 minutes to adjust your profile settings to prevent unwanted peepers from prying into your online life—something I had done a few months ago.
Just before hitting send on this deliciously condescending e-mail, full of les mots justes, I realized I sounded like a self-righteous apologist for a multi-billion dollar company. Right on wrong, I hit “discard” instead.
And that’s when I realized how valid my panicked friends complaints were. Yes, it would be smarter if people just refrained from posting potentially embarrassing information in the first place, but the fact is, we are just as prone to lapses in judgment online as we are in the real world. More so, even. But whereas a pompous rant or goonish behavior in person recedes from memory, the Internet never forgets.
In shifting to an “opt-in” system of privacy for users, deciding that information obtained under the promise of confidentiality was theirs to make public, Facebook executives have demonstrated either extreme ignorance or an extreme arrogance. That they’ve since responded to user complaints and reinstated some original privacy terms is beside the point—once information is free online, there is no putting it back. Just ask my embarrassing LiveJournal from 2003.
It may seem trivial to get angry about something as inherently ludicrous as a social networking site, but as we continue to offload our most private selves on to the Web, just who we’re trusting with our online lives is well worth pondering.