Facebook makes us embrace creepy

October 19, 2011

By Kevin Kelleher
The opinions expressed are his own.

Sean Parker was looking edgy. Maybe it was because he was sitting in for Mark Pincus, who bowed out of this week’s Web 2.0 Summit because of Zynga’s pre-IPO quiet period. Or because this was a chance to show a large gathering of his peers that Justin Timberlake, no matter how smooth, could never be a Sean Parker. Or maybe it was just because he was Sean Parker.

He shifted nervously on a black leather sofa as he was asked about Facebook’s new power, a power that leads many to see the company as fearsome and a little creepy. His posture hunched, his expression murine, his black wardrobe gothic porn, his eyes shifting around the room as he hunted for the precisely evasive word. Parker’s reply finally came in the form of a couple of sentences that might stick with him for some time: “There’s good creepy and there’s bad creepy,” he said. “Today’s creepy is tomorrow’s… necessity?”

It sounds so unpalatable coming from Sean Parker, but it’s true. After all, more people are sharing more information on social networks than they were a few years ago. In a way, Parker was just channeling Zuckerberg, who said in early 2010 that people will grow more comfortable with sharing information about themselves; and more recently that people will want to share more of their lives as each year passes, and that “it’s going to be really, really good.”

But whatever Zuckerberg proclaims, Sean Parker oozes. And in that ooze lives a truth of Facebook that Zuckerberg – and any profitable social media – doesn’t want you to know.

Parker, an early Facebook shareholder, said something that most of us don’t want to admit to ourselves: We are learning to love Facebook’s invasion of our private lives. We’re learning to stop worrying that our faces, our thoughts, our conversations with family and friends – the little moments that accrete into our everyday lives – are becoming data-mining fodder for advertisers and anyone else Facebook forges a revenue-generating partnership with.

We are learning to love creepy. If we don’t learn, we’re going to be left out of the party. We won’t know, for example, what our friends look like, in their far-flung residences, as they grow older. Or how adorable their kids are as they grow up. We won’t know what they just read, or what movies they love, or what new artists they are listening to – unless we phone them up or sit down to lunch with them.

Which isn’t bad … at first. But soon you soon start to feel like you’re the 21st century Luddite buddy who has a weirdly obsessive need to hear news of your life in person, at lunch or whatever, rather than on Facebook. You’re a beloved oddball at first. Then just an oddball. Then just the odd man out. It’s not that you’re crazy, or even creepy – it’s that you’re just not creepy enough. You still object to Facebook’s advertisers and marketing partners collecting, sniffing and algorithmically analyzing every online confession of your personal life.

And yet, why shouldn’t you feel that way? Online corporate snoopers may be getting smarter about you than you are about them. In 2010, a company called The Astonishing Tribe unveiled an app called Recognizr, which let you point an Android app at someone’s face and learn – as fast as your mobile carrier will let you – the online personas they’ve created through public Facebook updates, Twitter feeds, and so on. Suddenly, your public self was much more publicly available that you had imagined.

More disturbingly, there are facial-recognition algorithms – developed under the adorably named yet still creepy (that is, bad creepy) PittPatt – which can scan a photo of you walking down the street and compare the pixels to a Facebook profile photo, and all the innocently adjacent data: birthday, birthplace, friends, family, political affiliation, etc. The things people take for granted are just the starting points of an investigation into the rest of their lives:

[I]t is possible to start from an anonymous face in the street, and end up with very sensitive information about that person, in a process of data ‘accretion.’ In the context of our experiment, it is this blending of online and offline data – made possible by the convergence of face recognition, social networks, data mining, and cloud computing – that we refer to as augmented reality.

So maybe Sean Parker is right. The necessary future is creepy. It used to be you applied for a job at a company, and some HR rep used a search engine to scour your past. Maybe, like most college students, you had our share of ungainly college moments; and maybe, like most college grads looking for work, you’ve deleted those terrible glories from the web.

But starting several years ago, your online life became something permanent. Anything you said, did, shared on a social network began to be preserved – according to the privacy policies of companies like Facebook – indefinitely. And it began to proliferate, into the databases of Facebook’s partners.

In other words, our lives will be uploaded by, and observed by, and written on some server by, and remembered by some engineer who, at the end of the day, doesn’t really know us, or who we are. Of course, most engineers won’t care who we are. But what if that engineer isn’t someone we trust? What if they just do what they’re told, so they can get paid like the rest of us?

It’s never been easier to express ourselves. We live in an era that demands self-publishing so much there must be something wrong with us if we don’t. It’s a great thing – except for one thing: We can’t control what we publish, what we express. There is no deleting of ungainly moments anymore, there is just the power to counter those juvenile moments with more mature, adult perspectives. In a way, it’s a lot like your high school or college friends who remember your youthful indiscretions – only now those memories belong to corporations as well. Friends forgive and forget, but corporate data mines never forget.

Managing who sees what data about you online is becoming an increasingly impossible task. The first 20 years of the web were about users expressing themselves, deciding what parts of their lives they published online. Increasingly your online identity belongs to a company like Facebook or Google. You either deal with that creepy fact, or you just don’t exist online.

PHOTO: Napster founder and former Facebook president Sean Parker gestures during the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, California October 17, 2011. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

This is Sean Parker. If you go back and watch the original video, as it seems you have, you’ll realize that the “good creepy” statement was said ironically, as a joke. The audience laughed. We moved on. There is obviously a grain of truth to it which is what makes it funny. But to blow it up like this is really unfair.

Posted by SeanParker | Report as abusive

I don’t think it’s unfair at all. It’s creepy and I don’t think there is such a thing a good creepy.

Posted by breezinthru | Report as abusive

I choose to exist selectively online, that is why I do NOT have a Facebook account. People will learn this the hard way and Facebook will fade away……

Posted by 123987 | Report as abusive

This is a frightening article. I hate what it says. I also don’t like Facebook and wouldn’t — ever.

Doesn’t anyone think about consequences anymore?

Or, is that “creepy” too?

I don’t much like the world you’ve created. Glad I’ll be leaving it fairly soon.


Posted by dwilliams3 | Report as abusive

The bottom line:


So if you dont want your pics/info/data/friends/whatever advertised throughout the Internet, then dont use faceboook.

Social online services are giant billboards to the world so dont be surprised that your personal info is being mined.

Posted by HAL.9000 | Report as abusive

Yes it is creepy. period

Posted by douthink | Report as abusive

Creepy is fast becoming the most overused word in the country. But that said, what Facebook, Google, and all the data collectors — even Reuters asking for what you’re interested in — is wrong. And it’s unnecessary. I know people with thousands of Facebook friends, Twitter followers. They don’t need to communicate anything to these people. I’m not sure what individuals think they’re doing but it cannot be terribly important. I also doubt that artificial intelligence can make much use of the information as it’s collected now, but and the whole deal may become a lot more sinister tomorrow and it will be too late. It’s like the Zuckerberg character said in the movie when asked why all those people were giving him their email addresses. He answered, “I don’t know.”
— unbiasedeye.com

Posted by CultureCritic | Report as abusive

Yes fb has become creepy and scary, way too much power for a “social” network site to have. And this is why I have deactivated my account and never to return.

Posted by JadedintheOC | Report as abusive

Speak for yourself. “We” are not getting used to it. The vast majority are unaware because the app just functions, to the perception of the user, as if they’re just sharing with friends and family.

Little do most users suspect that Facebook, Google, et al have constructed vast, notorious marketing webs that put old fashioned pyramid marketing to shame.

Posted by PapaDisco | Report as abusive

I’m too creeped out to even comment!

Posted by 1AmericanGuy | Report as abusive

@SeanParker. I’m sorry you thought it was unfair. Yes, there was laughter in the audience but it was a nervous kind of laughter, as when someone tells a joke that has more than a grain of truth in it. Of all of the comments you made at Web 2.0, this was the quote that appeared the most frequently on Twitter. So others felt it resonated with them as well.

Posted by kpkelleher | Report as abusive

Kevin, thanks for your well written article. For CMO’s this needs discussion and debate. This type of activity runs contrary to the ethics policies of major corporations and ordinary Americans.

Maybe creepy is overused. I believe irresponsible, intrusive and sub-human will become the words of choice. In the end customers will vote with their dollars using channels that respect their privacy and request permission, versus channels that indescriminately use their data, their lives and their metrics for personal gain.

I will follow this thread with great interest.

Posted by CreateCustomers | Report as abusive

Your Facebook profile is your epitaph.

Posted by JoshHawj | Report as abusive

There was a reason for the Fifth Amendment. There is still a reason for the Fifth Amendment. There will always be a reason for the Fifth Amendment.

Mr. Zuckerberg and Facebook users forget that. People seem willing to accept third or even nth party snoops online and yet they would be outraged if they found their phones were tapped.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

And when your privacy is tattered in shreds and your boss is fully aware of your politics, and you are sitting on a starbucks stool wondering why you suddenly have no control over your own life, do not come crying to me. Stupid is as stupid does.

Posted by EQReynolds | Report as abusive

It is childish and naive to think that online profile can represent a persone in way that has any depth and meaning. There is far more to a human being that a collection of posts. I think the fools are not the ones who spill trivia of their lives on social media but those who think it has any significance.

Posted by spandas | Report as abusive

Someone pointed out that nobody makes you use Facebook. But that’s not quite accurate. The author of the article pointed out that if you don’t, you’re eventually left out in the cold. There are tacit social pressures that can be very powerful and compel you do to certain things just because others are doing them, even if you don’t really agree. Mirror neurons at work. Nobody chooses to be the “21st century Luddite buddy.” I’m practically already in that position just by choosing not to have a cellphone. Phone companies are also tracking you all the time (they have to, just to give you a signal) but people use cellphones anyway because of convenience and connection – the same reasons that people use Facebook, despite the concerns.

Regarding ads, anybody with Firefox or Chrome should just install AdBlock. Instant ad-free Facebook experience. Granted, they’re still harvesting your data but you don’t have to see creepy ads like “28 years old? Meet singles in [Your Georeferenced Town].”

Posted by Nullcorp | Report as abusive

“We won’t know, for example, what our friends look like, in their far-flung residences, as they grow older. Or how adorable their kids are as they grow up. We won’t know what they just read, or what movies they love, or what new artists they are listening to”

And this is bad … how? I grew up in the ’70s — before anyone had computers. Guess how I watched my cousins and aunts and uncles scattered across the four corners of the country grow up? We wrote letters. Mailed pictures. Called each other on the phone. Or, for those less communicative members of the family, went without. Either way, I don’t recall feeling deprived.

Sure, in the 21st century it’s nice, it’s convenient, it’s trendy, to know that my cousin is *at this very moment* dining at Luby’s, or watching “House”, or playing with his cat, or stuck in traffic (and, if his GPS is on, exactly where, thanks to the miracle of Google maps). But is it essential? Is the quality of my life somehow less for not knowing? Heck. I didn’t even know that much about my own best friends.

Nevertheless, as social media grows in pervasiveness, the social pressure on those of us who choose not to fully immerse ourselves will grow. And there may eventually be real consequences. A job recruiter, for example, who finds it somehow strange or creepy that you DON’T have a FB profile; an employer who requires its employees to have one to keep up with company announcements; a bank which refuses access to its online services because it can’t verify you through a reputable online identity manager such as FB or Google+.

It may be, as @123987 argues, that FB will fade. But social media is here to stay. Sure, for now it’s easy to say “If you don’t like Facebook, don’t use it”. But it’s not at all difficult to imagine the time when there will be real costs for opting out of an online presence. When social media will become not just an entertainment but a necessity. And the choice will no longer be ours.

Posted by Nathanael | Report as abusive

Data mining fodder for those pesky advertisers!

(And for the Orwellian global thought-control dictatorship.)

Posted by Bill.W | Report as abusive

fb can tell you who your common friends with another persons are. I see photos on my fb page of people that i hardly know. how did that happen? fb must be searching my and others’ email lists without our knowledge. also, i do not think i agree to tell people my birthday, why people are sending me bd greetings? fb is annoying.

Posted by asusual | Report as abusive

I’m waiting for a competitor to “facebook” that does NOT allow my private information to become available to anyone that asks. Until then, I’ll stay in the dark ages.

Posted by Dena | Report as abusive

Yep and people though george orwell was a twit. who’s laughing now. actualy its not just facebook, its facial id systems tied through your drivers liscenses and state id’s that have the most potential for harm through identity theft.
Yet facebook and social networking sites have a hypocritical stance on identity when allowing actors, porn stars and musicians fake stagenames.
I like the article but generaly creepy is a word obnoxious 20 something females use on dating profiles refering to men writing them more than 5 years thier age lol.
why information sharing is abusive is when technology is hidden and lied about and misused. privacy and freedom of speech are a joke online.

Posted by alanonetron | Report as abusive

Security settings are for your own protection. If you are too dumb to post inappropriate content on facebook that is your responsibility. Get to know your security settings. Play safe, and have fun. I LOVE FACEBOOK!

So far so good! :)

Posted by doclil | Report as abusive

I am one of the people who use fb as a way to keep up with family and friends. Although this may not be exactly the way I choose I know that this is how it has to be for now. You see I too am from the 70’s and know exactly what it was like,but things change and this we all know. The only thing that doesn’t is the word of God. I am glad that some one made it possible to communicate with those we care about. Think of all the people out there who can’t get around like we can who need to communicate this way,so you see there is something positive that can be obtained from this.Yes important information is being shared and all I can say for that is if you don’t want to share it on a social network like fb then don’t. Our children and their children are going to be a large part of this new age of multimedia communication so we just need to inform them how to it properly and try to conduct ourselves to be more positive role models. We all have skeletons in our closets,none of us are perfect, including those that use our information to for financial gain, however just pray that they too will someday choose to use in a more positive way.We all some day have to answer to a higher power. What will your reason for what you have done be?

Posted by Fantastia | Report as abusive

Facebook is an addiction. We all know it, but Facebook is keenly aware of how we’ve gotten hooked in.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

I hate the modern world. Just watch the movie THX-1138 to see where we’re headed with all of this facebook and smartphone nonsense.

Posted by laotzu | Report as abusive

All of this social media revolution was impossible without cloud computing and management, cloud technology helped facebook a lot in handling such a huge data

Posted by EvabrianParker | Report as abusive

I cancelled my FB account 6 months ago. I had about a 1 week “withdrawl” and now I barely think about it until I see articles like this.

Much like watching television, FB is for people that want to sit on the sidelines and watch other people live. Everyone else can sit on their phat a$#es watching DWTS. I’ll be the one they are watching…..

Posted by inverse137 | Report as abusive

So what — be the quirky outcast.

If someone sends me a text message asking a question that requires more than a three or four word reply, I simple respond, “Call me.”

When old friends contact me on Facebook and want to catch up, I give them my number and ask for theirs.

My life is richer than those who keep their face buried in a screen. I see the way it changes them — they lose some of their humanity.

Posted by Larz0 | Report as abusive

The answer is simple: Don’t post real personal data on Facebook or any other social networking site. Give ’em a fake profile,fake name, fake photo and let ’em deal with it. Go ahead and mine my “data” Mr. Zuckerberg, for all the good it will do you.

Posted by user8192 | Report as abusive

I really dislike Facebook, twitter; basically all social media. Privacy settings mean absolutely nothing. The real threats to your privacy are the websites that you give your information to. People wouldn’t stand to have their phones tapped, why should the internet be any different? All social networking is merely a conduit for advertising.

Posted by br319 | Report as abusive

These goons are willing to risk other’s reputation and mental health (cyber bullying etc.) in the name of advertising profits.

Greedy, selfish goons.

Posted by gordo365 | Report as abusive

In the world of the near future, all obey the omnipotent god of ‘peer pressure’. Those who do not conform to the group mentality of mass-marketed material gratification and etiquette of lowest-common denomitator social correctness will be ostracized, persecuted and excommunicated from the collective global tribe. True individuality will be dealt with by modern-day inquisitors bent on hellfire retribution and eradication of ‘the other’

Posted by 1mz1 | Report as abusive

@kpkelleher: There’s no evidence that the commenter “Sean Parker” is the Sean Parker being discussed here. Look – I’m “Sean Parker2″. IMO, the creepiest thing about the internet is the willingness of people to believe everything and anything they read.

Posted by SeanParker2 | Report as abusive

the truth is FB is a FAILURE!

It has been a success at collecting your information and selling it and a total 100% advertising and marketing failure with No ROI!

Posted by internetguru7 | Report as abusive

The majority of people in the world today like creepy and they like the idea of someone watching them. That’s why there’s a billion people on Facebook. Creepy things like being monitored, tracked, and spied on appeals to the specialness of the ego and our fear-based race mind. Who ever thought all this up was a genius. The next piece of genius will be to convince all these billions of people to implant RFID chips into their brains so they can interact better with the Matrix…err, I mean internet.

Posted by gruven137 | Report as abusive

1mz1 – True. We’re pretty much already there. Just look at how parents have to obey their kids these days and what happens to them if they don’t. And how we have to “obey” the TSA, big corporations and the Fed.

It’s all straight our of the movie “They Live”

Posted by gruven137 | Report as abusive

I was a 16 year old when I first got online over a decade ago. My parents spoon fed me fear of the internet so I created false identities and personas to use instead of my real info. Very few bits of real info is on my facebook. My name, my husband, my city – all of it is fake. I only have 3 pictures on there that actually have my own face on it but everything else is screencaps from anime or tv shows. Whatever info advertisers might dig from my account wouldn’t lead them very far. However it still disgusts me to see Facebook and to see people use facebook. I only use it because it is the only place where most of my friends are now located and I can keep up with them. But I will never support facebook and never eeeeeeever be its fan. Facebook is disgusting and I do look forward to the day that it is destroyed and deleted from the internets and I do believe the day will come!

Posted by UberTuna | Report as abusive

“If you go back and watch the original video, as it seems you have, you’ll realize that the “good creepy” statement was said ironically, as a joke. The audience laughed. We moved on. There is obviously a grain of truth to it which is what makes it funny.”

Funny today, reality tomorrow. The frog in the pot of water never knows it’s slowing being boiled to death until it’s too late …

Posted by The_Traveler | Report as abusive

If you think Facebook “Privacy Settings” protect you, you’re an idiot. They don’t stop advertisers, companies or phone applications from mining your data anonymously. There is no “safe” way to use Facebook. Just don’t use it. Stop being a gullible sap; Facebook is teh Evil.

Posted by McBob08 | Report as abusive

It would be easier to accept the argument “if you don’t like the risk, don’t use FB” if all users were mature adults. People with enough life experience to weigh the social costs of having your every foible exposed to strangers who don’t know enough about you to put individual incidents or missteps into context. When I was in high school or college, just like most any kid that age I figured that the opinion strangers may form of me through rumor and hearsay meant less than nothing. Now I know that alas, it’s not true. Underinformed idiots do have power to ruin a life for no good reason. Fortunately for me, whatever past awkward moments I may blush to admit of now have left no trace. For my own children, it will not be true. And as a parent, I don’t delude myself that any lecture I may give about being prudent online will outweigh peer pressure from friends and classmates. So yes, I am worried. Any parent of teen or young adult should be.

Posted by CecileR | Report as abusive