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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Facebook's Newest Blight: The Ticker

Posted By on Tue, Sep 27, 2011 at 12:50 PM

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Recently, to check to see whether my keyboard was working, I randomly slapped some keys. I happened to have Facebook open at the time and I ended up entering what I typed -- "jmjyttyj"-- into its people search. I got three hits.

There is no member named jmjyttyj, but Facebook helpfully pointed me toward some members it thought I might be looking for: Jmyjtyj Kujytmm, Ujgyjy Hjyttyj, and Yjhtyj Rjyttyj.

Along with the massive changes it will soon make to the site, Facebook announced last week that it now has 800 million users. But I wonder how many of them are like our friends Jmyjtyj, Ujgyjy and Yjhtyj  --which is to say, nonexistent.

While it seems safe to assume that there aren't actually 800 million Facebook users in the world, it's impossible to pull the real number. Still, Facebook is by far the most popular social network, and maybe that's why it seems to feel more invulnerable lately. It seems like Google Plus will be an also-ran, though it has 50 million users already, but Facebook could cause big trouble with the major changes it's making. It won't go away, and it likely won't be surpassed any time soon. But it could lose people to a social network that doesn't piss off its users on a regular basis.

Every time Facebook makes changes, people complain -- loudly, and often with vows that they're going to stop using it. But they rarely do, and they usually adapt to the changes within a few days. That happened again last week, when Facebook combined its "Top News" with "Recent News" in users' news feeds. At first, this change got the most complaints, but it's ultimately not that annoying, since although the "Top News" items are chosen by an algorithm and seem arbitrary, they're easily enough ignored.

It took a day or so for people to realize that the other new Facebook feature, the Ticker, is much worse. That's the thing on the right side of the page that tells you in real time every time one of your friends updates his or her status, comments on someone else's page, listens to a song on Spotify, breathes in, or breathes out.

The problem here is that there's no way to opt out of it. You can "unsubscribe" from friends (and still see their status updates in your regular news feed as usual), but that's a tedious process. And that doesn't stop your each and every move from showing up in the other people's Tickers, which is why at least a quarter of my friends have posted a boilerplate plea for all of their friends to unsubscribe from them. That's the only way to prevent your friends from seeing that you're listening to "Afternoon Delight," or that you made a bawdy comment on some friend's update that maybe you don't want your Catholic-nun aunt to see.

If your privacy preferences had been set, like mine were, to prevent Facebook from broadcasting all this stuff to all your friends all the time, too bad. Facebook has in effect arbitrarily deleted those preferences. "I know better than you do what your friends should see," seems to be Mark Zuckerberg's stance on this issue.

From what I can tell, the forthcoming "Timeline" feature will simply supersize this forced sharing, and make all our past oversharing even easier to search.

I'm not a privacy zealot. My default position is that if you don't want people seeing what you do on the Internet -- a public network, after all -- don't do it. But I still prefer to have some control over who sees what on Facebook. Before the Ticker, the only ways a Facebook friend could see what I posted on another friend's profile was if he or she was a common friend with both of us, or if he or she went looking for on that other friend's page. Now, that comment is broadcast to all my friends. I already have resisted posting several things for just that reason. And I'm much less likely than I was before to sign up with Spotify because I know that everybody on my friends' list would see what music I'm listening to, when, and how often. I have to imagine lots of people will do the same, which seems counter to Facebook's goals, which are to get us to share more.

Farhad Manjoo of Slate notes an even deeper problem with Facebook deciding that we must share everything we say and do. "Facebook is killing taste," he says.

It has, he explains, "somehow eluded Zuckerberg that sharing is fundamentally about choosing. You experience a huge number of things every day, but you choose to tell your friends about only a fraction of them, because most of what you do isn't worth mentioning."

And if you're forced to share everything you do, you might end up doing less. Or just signing up with Google Plus.

Dan Mitchell has written for Fortune, the New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, and many others.

Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF and @SFWeekly

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Dan Mitchell

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