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Reasons to Dislike Facebook's 'Like'

For someone keynoting a business conference watched by thousands, Mark Zuckerberg looked disarmingly casual. He shambled onto the stage at the San Francisco Design Center in rumpled jeans and a black hoodie. The conference was f8, an annual gathering of Facebook developers, and the CEO was here to proclaim its plan to push the Web to its next level.

Yet here he was, telling a charming story about something that happened to his girlfriend in medical school. What was not to like?

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To many developers, not much. Zuckerberg was announcing Facebook’s latest attempt to achieve its ambitious vision: “Building a Web where the default is social.” The Web has always been a big mess of not-so-social pages—tethered with hyperlinks, bundled inside domains, and navigated by search. More recently, social networks emerged, but largely as a feature within sites. What Zuckerberg wants to do is make much of the Web as intuitively social as Facebook itself. With Facebook’s technology.

A worthy enough goal, but will it work? Facebook has tried this before, with very mixed results. In 2007, it launched Beacon, an ad system that sent data from partner sites like Fandango back to Facebook. Privacy advocates howled, leading to a class-action suit. Facebook retreated, returning with Connect, which let its members log into other sites with their Facebook IDs and share stories they liked with friends. Connect didn’t cause a privacy uproar, but it didn’t catch on like wildfire either.

Now Facebook is back again with Open Graph, an effort to weave itself much more tightly with any number of sites. Open Graph and new Facebook plugins let users share people, brands, and pages they like in their news feeds, and lets the sites they visit tailor themselves to those users and their friends. In most cases, this involves adding in a single line of HTML. There is a plugin that adds a “like” button that will record the “like” on their profile pages when Facebook users click on it. Users can install a tool bar that runs along the bottom of the page, including other plugins and Facebook chat.

Or they can use what is likely to be the most controversial feature, the auto-login, which to some sounds an awful lot like “the dreaded and draconian Beacon advertising system,” as Om Malik described it. Techcrunch noted that the feature uses your Facebook cookie to ID you on partner sites, allowing those sites to “display your friends and other key information. It’s possible that these sites will also be able to display any data you’ve shared with ‘everyone,’ which is of course now the default option on Facebook.” The EFF detected a change in Facebook’s privacy controls even before f8 began.

For my part, I’m not a developer, and although The Big Money was one of the logos flashed behind Zuckerberg as he discussed the partners in Open Graph, I don’t run a site that will benefit from the promised boost to readership. But I do use the Web a lot, so I suppose I’m a good example of one of the “users” he kept talking about. And as a user, I was left feeling skeptical. I have a hard time seeing this resonate with most other users.

The devil is in the details, of course, and the details will be worked out by developers. But a couple of things stand out. First, the “like” buttons resemble the existing “share” buttons on Facebook Connect, with two important twists: They are designed to be ubiquitous, and they allow Facebook to collect data on where its members surf. Facebook is also lifting its demand that all data its partners collect about Facebook users be erased after 24 hours. They can now keep it an undetermined length of time, as long as they disclose how they use it to users.

Behavioral-data collection is a tricky thing, and, in my view, a value proposition shifting more toward the Web giants and away from the users. Collecting data is fine if it’s gathered with clear-minded consent and offers something of equal value in return. Which brings me to my second reservation: What’s in this for me?

Or rather, us. Facebook’s 400 million users fall into three camps. One group visits the feed several times a day, updating their status religiously. These tend to be people with something to gain from promoting themselves on the Web, or who just love being seen there. The second group created accounts, reconnected with friends but don't use the site obsessively. The third group won’t have anything to do with Facebook. Here’s the thing: The first group is the one that talks about Facebook the most, but the latter two are the ones that seem to be growing fastest. Facebook’s new plans don’t seem to take that into account.

Instead, here’s what Zuckerberg said to developers and partners at f8: “There’s a good chance that most of your users are already on Facebook. And for the ones that aren’t, they probably will be soon.” While the audience snickered at this line, Zuckerberg looked down and laughed like someone who has just gotten away with an off-color joke at a bar. (It’s here at 2:40 on this video.)

Facebook’s burning desire to unite our online selves into a single social platform overlooks one big reality: Human nature is fragmented, layered, and contradictory. Privacy or publicity isn’t a matter of all or nothing. No one bares everything to everyone, or even some things to all people the same way. A social platform will fail if it doesn’t account for this nuance.

For some reason, this is hard for Web executives to understand, as we saw when Eric Schmidt tsk-tsked everyone who had something to hide from Google (GOOG). But privacy is less about keeping secrets; it’s more about respecting discretion. And nothing I heard at f8 on Wednesday made me think that Facebook, at this point, understands the difference better than Schmidt does.

This isn’t a problem for most people inside Facebook. It’s a single enterprise, with its own rules. But things get far more complex if Zuckerberg succeeds in stitching many social networks together, and nonsocial news sites (like this one) are grafted into Facebook’s network, too. Privacy issues become a platform-wide affair. It’s opting in or out of the Web itself.

And that brings us back to Zuckerberg’s charming anecdote. When his girlfriend was in medical school, a dean talked about how medical students could always recall a formative childhood memory in which taking care of people was paramount. The dean then discovered that law school students had a similar formative experience, revolving around justice and fairness. This anecdote got Zuckerberg to wondering what concepts drove developers and entrepreneurs like himself.

Then he concluded: “There’s an old saying that says, when you go to heaven all of your friends are there and everything is just the way you want it to be.” He looked down again with a pensive expression, waited a rehearsed beat. “So together, let’s make a world that’s that good.”

Okay, Zuckerberg didn’t quite come out and say Facebook was heaven on earth and that he was its creator. Or I hope he didn’t. But the comment wasn’t quite the zesty note of inspiration he wanted to end on. It inspired a lot of smirks and eye-rolling.

Because there’s a catch to his charming anecdote: Patients sometimes die. Injustice sometimes prevails. And sometimes developers latch onto dreams that will never take root in the world of adults. Facebook’s eerie stairway to heaven is one of those ideas. Heaven, for those who believe in it, is something that people get to, or not, on their own. It’s not something you can have built for you.