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Is Facebook our Big Friend or Big Brother?

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Facebook, the funky little social media operation that began as a way for horny Harvard guys to meet girls, has turned into an Internet juggernaut. On its way to an initial public stock offering that will probably bring in $100 billion, Facebook has decided to spend one of those millions on a tiny company with a staff of just 13 people.

That tiny company is called Instagram, purveyor of a photo sharing and enhancement application for smartphones. Instagram’s app has become so popular that it has morphed into an alternative avenue for communicating with family and friends. Hardly a rival to the 845-million-user Facebook, it had still threatened to be a pest, so Facebook chose to gobble it up and make those 13 Instagram employees very, very wealthy.

Even though Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he intends to maintain Instagram as an independent unit run by the very same people who made it a hit, some Instagram fans are acting as if this is a tragedy. They liked the idea that there was a little corner of the online world where they could gather and be outside the reach of the Zuckerberg empire. It’s not that Zuckerberg is a bad guy, it’s just that he and his particular vision of how humanity should interact in the digital universe seems increasingly inescapable.

Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon are the masters of this new universe. Each dominates an overlapping realm of activity and enterprise on the Internet – social media, search engine, hardware design, software and online commerce. And each is now so huge that they can kill or buy most competitors and set the standards for online engagement for us all.

The good news is the folks who created and run these companies are generally trying to do useful things with their power. Still, not everyone is happy that the wild frontier of cyberspace has been tamed and divided up by such a small cadre of billionaire geniuses.

For years, personal computer owners have complained about the occasional infuriating glitches in the Microsoft operating system. Even those who admire the supple brilliance of Apple products, sometimes resent the closed world of Apple technology. Many are outraged by Google’s cavalier use of other people’s creative content. And the publishing world lives in mortal fear of Amazon.

Of the five giants, Facebook has fewer detractors simply because people think of it less as a business than as a cool way to contact friends. Zuckerberg and company have generally been quick to respond to complaints when they have pushed the boundaries of privacy too quickly. And, yet, they have never stopped enticing users to give up just a little more information day after day.

Now, each person’s Facebook page is being revamped to appear on a timeline stretching back to birth and it is more tempting than ever to tell all to an ever-increasing number of friends. I found myself doing exactly that a few nights ago when I converted to the new Facebook format. It was simple to figure out and soon I had posted a baby picture of myself, a shot of me in college, a photo of my wife at the time we got married and pictures of my children as babies.

At first I could not quite imagine anyone being particularly interested in these scenes from my younger days, but I was wrong. Almost as soon as I posted the pictures, I got messages from friends “liking” what I had done. Facebook, of course, had instantly notified them about what I was doing.

In George Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother’s watchful, totalitarian eye is omnipresent. It is a terrifying story of a world without privacy. Today, we live with the Big Friend of Facebook and he seems to be a much nicer guy than Big Brother – so nice, that nearly a billion of us show little reluctance telling him more than we probably should.

Facebook will only grow and become more pervasive. It is not hard to imagine that humans will eventually have their lives recorded from birth to death on the pages of Facebook. It is a type of immortality, I suppose. But, there will be moments when we long for a place to hide, a refuge where no one is watching what we do and no one is insistently asking to be our friend.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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