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Facebook executives lacking decency


By Alexander Comisar

Daily Trojan
November 9, 2007

Anyone who has entered the library at USC knows students are in love with their flashy laptops. Sometimes, large lecture classes on this campus can feel like live Mac commercials. But for all the useless features, hard drive space and processing speed, students really only use their computers for three things: instant messaging, writing papers and checking Facebook.

Facebook began its rise to cyberstardom only a few years ago, becoming nothing short of a cultural phenomenon.

The social networking site has even become a verb. We don't send messages to our friends through Facebook; we Facebook them.

The site now has more than 50 million active users, none of whom would be caught dead associating with a nonuser.

Many students use Facebook like it's crack: logging on dozens of times a day to become delighted by new comments, messages and pictures (I know, I am an addict, too.)

Recently, however, students are not the only ones enjoying Facebook.

Social networking sites are an advertiser's fantasy: The sites provide easy, simultaneous access to millions of members of a normally hard-to-reach demographic.

Naturally, as Facebook's popularity has continued to spread like the plague, marketing executives from corporate giants worldwide have been watching curiously with ear-to-ear smiles. I don't think we have seen middle-aged men this excited about reaching kids online since the last episode of "To Catch a Predator."

Now, with their ducks in a row, corporate America's money mongers are ready to pounce.

Wednesday, Facebook launched its new plan to team up with dozens of companies, including Blockbuster and Coca-Cola, and turn its users into human billboards. From now on, whenever a Facebook user shows any activity on the website of a participating company, the networking site will send a message to that user asking if he will permit ads for that company, coupled with his personal endorsement, to be sent to all of his friends. If he accepts, everyone connected to that user receives a nice little ad. Now, unwanted spam will come not only from creepy strangers, but from best friends as well.

As this generation journeys deeper into the digital age, many ethical lines continue to blur. This should not be one of them. But this new campaign does not cross the line between effective advertising and exploitation - it takes a flying leap over it.

Facebook's creator, Mark Zuckerberg, told The New York Times, "Nothing influences a person more than a recommendation from a trusted friend." This is true. But, as Zuckerberg must know, these are not recommendations from friends. They are manipulative forms of persuasion. Using its growing group of corporate cohorts, Facebook is monitoring our Web activity and badgering us until we personally endorse ads.

Outside of cyberspace, advertisers have shown they can use similar practices slightly more ethically. In many cases, alcohol companies assign good-looking bar-goers to approach the bar and order their brand of alcohol as an undercover form of advertising. But advertisers pay these people. As Facebook users, we won't even be compensated for the free advertising we provide.

Unfortunately, the cheap attempt at milking its users for free ad money is not even Facebook's worst ethical failing. This new campaign demonstrates that Facebook is actually willing to exploit the concept of friendship to sell movies and soda. These companies know we are tired of hearing their tired pitch, so they are giving the same pitch behind the masks of our friends. If this is not deception, I don't know what is.

When we are very young, we are taught the Internet can be dangerous because of the highly impersonal nature inherent in it. The Internet makes communication infinitely easier, but there is no real person with whom to communicate. This makes acting immorally much easier on the conscience.

A standard needs to be set. And, if Zuckerberg does not possess enough decency not to exploit his users, we need to let him know we will not be exploited.


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