Friends don’t stalk friends, even on Facebook

“Like” buttons on Web pages make life more like high school

May 01, 2010|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

There's one question that makes me cringe and instantly start doing the la-la-la, I-can't-hear-you thing with my ears:

"Can I tell you how I really feel?"

No, dear God, no! Anything but that!

It's not that I don't care what other people think. In fact, being a reporter, I've spent a good deal of my life asking people what they think about something. (Well, usually I'm asking what they know, but people generally want to tell you what they think — big difference.)

So my point is when I want someone's opinion, I'm not shy about asking for it. But that's not the problem these days — no one waits to be asked, the atmosphere is filled with unprompted opinions, entire clouds of thoughts and feelings wafting about, inescapable as pollen.

And now, the latest irritant: Those blue "like" buttons that started popping up online this week like so many digital dandelions. They come courtesy of Facebook, which invites its 400 million members to click on the web pages, blog items, videos and such that they like.

As a result, the next time you happen to wander over to those sites, you're told how many people — or, rather how many Facebook people — like what you're looking at.

Great. As if life wasn't already enough like high school.

I spent way too much of my youth worrying about the people I liked, the people who liked me, the people my friends liked, whether I liked the people my friends liked and otherwise wallowing in the bottomless pit of liking and not liking. (And don't get me started on the whole adolescent concept of like vs. like-like, as in whether you just like a boy or like-like him.)

If there's anything good about getting old, it's that you get to care less and less about who likes whom. And yet now, the online world increasingly is turning into one big high school cafeteria.

Facebook recently announced something called "Open Graph," which would further its obsessive connecting beyond the walls of its own social network. Now, websites can put a little blue button next to their content, and any Facebook member can register a personal me-likey.

Within a week, 50,000 websites had added the "like" option to their pages, although it's unknown whether Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerman met his goal of a billion like buttons sprouting up overnight across the Internet landscape.

But it instantly did became very meta — web articles about the "like" button got lots of likes. Or so it seems: there isn't a companion dislike button, so it's hard to know what percentage of the viewers of a page ultimately clicked their approval.

Of course, many websites have similar feedback devices — The Baltimore Sun, for example, lets readers give star reviews to articles, and a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on each comment that's left on them. But Facebook's reach, of course, is much more global and interactive.

And therein lies the unease that the "like" button has generated. As with all things Facebook, it's a two-way street: You get to say what you like, and Facebook gets to use that information. If you're not a Facebook member, you just see that a certain number of people liked a particular piece of content, but members see which of your Facebook friends or connections liked it. And whatever you like can become part of your profile.

"Likes and recommendations you make are public information," Facebook says on its own website about its "social plugins."

Even if you're not on Facebook, and I'm not, the experience of scrolling around on the Internet these days reminds me of walking down dark alleys. I'm constantly looking over my shoulder, feeling like someone's following me.

Because someone, or something, is. There's something slightly creepy about going on, say, Amazon or eBay and seeing their recommendations for what I might be interested in buying based not just on what I've bought in the past, but what I just looked at last time I was there. Hey, sometimes I'm just browsing — stop coming to conclusions about my tastes!

There's a thinner and thinner line between feeling welcomed back as a regular customer and, well, being stalked.

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