Helen Popkin
updated 12/2/2007 5:11:43 PM ET 2007-12-02T22:11:43

Way back in the early 90s, this well-read pot-smoking hippie conspiracy freak friend of mine predicted the mainstreaming of mullets, the return of burlesque, and an all-intrusive advertising technique in which individuals are paid to walk around 24/7 holding a product next to their faces and smiling.

When this came to pass, my paranoid pal assured me, he’d be safely off the grid, well-hidden in the rainforests of Costa Rica where Madison Avenue would never find him.

More than 15 years later, my friend’s insanely accurate divinations are true — with a few exceptions. Hardly ensconced in Costa Rica, Hippie Conspiracy Freak still resides in the living Pepsi commercial that is now Williamsburg, Brooklyn. And thanks to Facebook , people virtually hold products at eye level at all times — only they’re not getting paid for their services.

If you’ve been too busy hitting the post-Thanksgiving Day door busters to pay attention, Facebook’s new internal marketing program Beacon, tracks member purchases made at 40-some odd participating e-commerce sites and shares them with your social network buddies via profile news feeds in a passive form of brand endorsement.

Users are provided the opportunity to “opt out” by clicking a prompt each and every time he or she makes an online purchase from a connected e-merchant. Ignore the prompt, like so many of the millions of pop-up opportunities provided to Internet users each and every second of the day, and it conveniently disappears. Silence equals consent!

One might point out that a classier social networking site would offer its users the more ethical opportunity to “opt in,” or failing that, an “opt out” prompt that obnoxiously doesn’t allow you to move forward until you make an active choice. You know, like the “Terms & Agreement” box you have to click on to track the location of your UPS package.

But more cryptically than your friends finding out your gift purchases, Facebook is free to share your very personal and potentially lucrative information with so-called trusted third parties that use it to personalize ads for even more crap they now know you’re pretty likely to buy. What’s more, while more attentive Facebook members can opt out of having their info shared with friends, there’s no way to keep the social networking site from sharing your business with outside companies.

In its very American pursuit to find new and exciting ways to make money, Facebook (not to mention me and you and everybody else) knows that nobody ever reads those “Terms & Agreement” legalese diatribes, let alone Web site privacy statements or even return policies. In our gym-memberships-and-gift-cards-we’re-never-gonna-use society, can you really blame 'em for trying?

MoveOn.org can and is. The activist group accuses Facebook of ruining Christmas for everyone, and means to put a stop to the social networking site’s Grinch-like insistence of telling the world about the case of Dymo guns on Overstock.com and giving away your privacy to its business partners. It’s organizing a petition of Facebook users unhappy with the new practice. And bully for them. 

That said, there shouldn’t be a single Internet enthusiast out there surprised at this progression of events. This train’s been coming down the track for a long time, and you don’t need to be a trend-spotting savant to hear that whistle. My paranoid hippie friend contends that we’ve all been mollified to this eventuality by social networking sites which make sharing our private information the hip thing to do.

Whatever. More interesting is the larger issue of plenty of information you thought was fairly private being available for viewing by anyone. Drunk dialing isn't gone, but it's been preempted by the much more satisfying drunk Facebooking/Flickr-ing/YouTube-ing etc. Your business is out there, and you’re the one who shared it .

While browsing online the other day, my Flickr-addicted friend Daniel came upon a celebrity's Flickr set. Maybe it was fake, but who cares? The point is, there's a special type of voyeurism available now. We don’t have to wait until someone’s dead and their stuff ends up at the local thrift shop — we can now look at the random people's photo albums of the living. Wondering what your crazy ex-girlfriend from high school was up to? Well, turns out she's fat and doing community theater. Awesome!

Regarding online privacy, there are no easy answers — not any that are going to appease everyone any time soon. But the question is probably more interesting anyway. We've already spent a lot of time grappling with the drift of information from private to public. Facebook ruining MoveOn's Christmas is just the latest iteration.

Meanwhile, if I could find out the name of the person at MoveOn most annoyed at Facebook, I could probably tell you if they look pleased by the latest changes they've wrought on the Internet.

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