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Making it WorkFacebook and the Evolution of Stalking@MIT

By Ruth Miller
STAFF COLUMNIST

Rarely do MIT students keep up with current events, but in the last week, the universal conversation starter (“Man, I’m so hosed”) has been replaced by “Have you seen the Facebook News Feed? It’s so creepy!”

People I never considered fervent Facebook users were up in arms about the newest addition to the two-year-old Website. When you log into Facebook, the first thing to come up now is the News Feed section — a detailed list of the most recent actions taken by all of your friends. A girl from your high school left the group Gay Rights. Guy from 3.091 is working in the music library. Phil Vasquez is now in Boston.

Innocent enough, right?

The nearly one million members of Students Against Facebook News Feeds (The Official Petition) and Mark Zuckerberg’s personal letter of apology suggest otherwise. Somehow, News Feed managed to cross the line between convenience and sketchiness. Suddenly, the formerly most blas of Facebook users are screaming privacy violations. Even the recently added privacy controls aren’t sufficient to completely turn off the feature — who knows what the final News Feed will resemble?

The Facebook and privacy are, at best, an unstable marriage rife with alcoholism and spousal abuse. “It’s so cute and personalized, and it’s on the Internet! I’m going to put all my information on there and be 100 percent accessible to all my friends!”

The Boston Globe ran a story several months ago about an area college student whose nursing-home bound grandmother found out about the student’s pot-smoking through a friend and Facebook. Yeah, sucks to be her, but “duh!” It’s difficult to muster sympathy for someone who could be so na ve. If employers are screening applicants on Facebook, that’s just one more chance for the portion of the applicant pool with common sense to shine. The moral: if you don’t want the whole world to know, don’t put it online.

But what I find most shocking is how the perception of “stalking” has changed in my short time at MIT. Now, anybody can look up a class schedule, hobbies, interests, favorite media, etc. Forget stalking — some marketing gurus are probably already exploiting this.

When I was a freshman, we didn’t have the Facebook to investigate people. We had to walk through 15 inches of snow and risk frostbite to get to an Athena cluster and finger people. At best, we’d Google someone, and hope the subject’s name was obscure enough to provide relevant search results. (For example, I am neither as well-worded as Ruth Miller the South African poet, nor as comely as Ruth Miller the silent film star).

Beyond these rudimentary stalking techniques, there were more advanced tools. I know a girl who was stalked by a fifth-year undergrad. He purportedly beat his ex-girlfriend and his senior project was on stalking — he wrote a program that recorded Athena log-ins to determine patterns and recommended locations and times for potential “interaction”. Of course, she only learned all this by stalking him a bit. All this occurred in the archaic days before Facebook.

This only goes to show that true stalking is a serious matter, and that it is only made less serious by free and easy access. News Feed was designed to make this information access casual — thus further desensitizing users to privacy concerns.

I realize that my class is the last class of undergrads at MIT to have entered college without the Facebook. And maybe I’m old-fashioned, crusty, or both, but it’s just a little appalling when freshmen arrive at MIT with over 700 friends. Or when people save themselves the time to personally catch up with friends by saying, “just check my Facebook.” Or when people ask out other people on Facebook, or worse, consider “poking” to be flirting.

Facebook is just so warm and inviting that people have dropped their guard. News Feed is shocking them back into the reality that they may have exposed more private information online than they intended. So in this way, News Feed might actually be a positive, because if people are willing to boycott over the change, they might realize they’re spending too much time online as it is.