Facebook gifts the world a brand new religion

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When last I wrote about Facebook and religion, it was to note that the website seemed to be consciously restricting its users’ expressions of faith to a small number of preset choices. What you’re about to read takes this practice one step further.

I wanted to document it before it inevitably gets fixed — and also, perhaps, provide some free advice to those of my friends interested in maintaining the integrity and accuracy of the information shared on their Facebook profiles.

I was on a friend’s Facebook page — I’m supposed to be writing a memo so I was procrastinating, plus I had a good reason (I probably should have led with that last thing) — and specifically on his About page, when I noticed said weird thing. See if you can spot it:

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Does Facebook intentionally limit who you can love?

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I have better things to be doing, and I’m really behind on a lot of serious topics I want to write about, but Facebook doesn’t give its users fifty six different ways to describe their gender identity every day. My first pass, titled Are Facebook’s relationship status options a little bit sexist?, garnered the following comment on — appropriately enough — Facebook:

Let’s be real here: what the author’s upset about is the third gender, and is using the widow thing as a pretense B)

I wasn’t sure if this was a fair characterization, so I took the opportunity to interview the author and evaluate his true intentions for myself. As it turns out, the widow thing was, indeed, a pretense – however, the commenter got the rest of his/her/variant assertion wrong. The author is not upset that Facebook added a “third” gender — assuming he is “upset” at all — but simply miffed that the service deigned to limit its options to a mere fifty six.

Since when does Mark Zuckerberg get off on being the arbiter of what qualifies as a legitimate gender identity? The author’s point, he told me, is that if Facebook can give fifty six options for gender, why not do the same for relationship statuses? Better, why straightjacket us into those preselected categories? Why not just let everyone choose whatever the hell gender they want?

In the course of our interview, the author admit that he felt a shred of remorse about the article — not because he felt it belittled or diminished the tremendous achievement of the gender-interested community, but because his focus on relationship statuses as a foil to gender was a strategic and rhetorical blunder. A better option would have been to highlight the strict binary Facebook foists upon its users when it comes to their sexual preferences:

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Are Facebook’s relationship status options a little bit sexist?

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[Editor's note: Granted, everyone's a little bit sexist. But because the headline might imply otherwise, I should really tell you upfront I'm only talking about one of them.]

Facebook made a lot of headlines today with the announcement that it will now allow its users to choose from among fifty different descriptors of gender:

In a nod to the “it’s complicated” sexual identities of many of its users, the social network on Thursday added a third “custom” gender option for people’s profiles. In addition to Male or Female, Facebook now lets U.S. users choose among some 50 additional options such as “transgender,” “cisgender,” “gender fluid,” “intersex” and “neither.”

[Editor's note: Gender fluid certainly does sound like it would go nicely with a seafood dinner and a box of chocolate.]

The new options appear to be quite progressive, but is Facebook really just trying to cover up some of the other ways in which it is insensitive to gender differences? Just take a look at the various relationship statuses from which the service asks its users to choose:

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The Great When-was-Jessica-Chastain-a-baby Mystery of 2013

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According to the The USA Today, Jessica Chastain allegedly has a birthday — but she’s never gonna tell:

Age is a sensitive topic for actresses. Jessica Chastain has gone on the record saying that she will never reveal her age because she’s an “actress.” (It’s widely speculated she is 35 years old.)

If true, I would certainly consider this secrecy somewhat regrettable. I, for one, had been planning to play her a powerful piano (oxymorn?*) rendition of Deutschland über alles** to mark the anniversary of her birth.

*Not a typo

**In honor of my favorite (brief) scene in The Debt, in which Ms. Chastain receives star billing.

Despite the potential for personal disappointment, as a (somewhat) notorious birthday grinch*, I was also (somewhat) intrigued: Chastain wasn’t born in a third-world country and the year is 2013. It should be next-to impossible for famous people to get away with these shenanigans in this day and age.

*See, Paranoia doesn’t mean Facebook isn’t really out to get you for the story of how Mark Zuckerberg outed my birthday decoy

So I decided to take a look for myself:

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Facebook translations are truly the best

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Exactly five months ago, I shared Facebook/Bing’s very special translation of יחי אדוננו מורנו ורבינו מלך המשיח לעולם ועד. I owe that stellar discovery to my sharp-eyed brother, who is also responsible for the post to come.

Some quick background: A friend of ours recently attended a wedding and posted a photo of the event on Facebook. I share this information because it is not immediately obvious from simply looking at the heavily-image I am about to post. Aside from the blurry names and the [redacted] photo, notice anything funny about it?

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McDonald’s Bacon, Ranch, and Sweet Chili chicken wraps for Passover

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“Passover?” you’re probably asking yourself. “Wasn’t that like a month ago?”

Indeed, it was exactly one month and one day ago, and it is thus no accident that I chose to write this post on Shushan Pesach Sheni.* [To those who don't get this joke immediately: don't even bother trying to figure it out. Of course, feel free to ask, and if you manage on your own, mad props, but seriously -- don't waste your time.]

The inspiration for this piece comes by way of a Sponsored Ad Suggested Post that appeared in the middle of my Facebook newsfeed in the middle of Passover, and it took me a month to convert that inspiration into actual written material because this isn’t my full-time (or even part-time) job. Without further ado, here’s the ad:

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Rachels, Rachels everywhere…

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I know enough people named Rachel that if you ever try to tell me a story featuring “Rachel” and don’t also mention some unique identifier (e.g. last name, prominent feature), you’d probably have been just as well off skipping the name altogether.

In fact, that very sequence of events once transpired, prompting me to point out that “I’d be surprised if I had less (sic) than 20 Rachel friends on Facebook.” 20 was a wild, uncarefully-considered guess — but I was, of course, quite proud when I checked the actual number of Facebook friends I had who were named Rachel… and the correct answer was exactly 20.* Heroic feats of guesstimation aside, the point of my narrative so far is simply this: we all know no shortage of people with Rachel for a first name.

But Rachel for a last name? I’d personally never heard of it (and Idan Raichel doesn’t count). Until, that is, I glanced up at my Facebook newsticker, and discovered Mark Zuckerberg had given me an early Passover present (yes, I’m easy to please):

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My favorite thing about allegations of an anti-Semitic purge at The New Republic

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Let’s start out — appropriately — with the article that started it all:

Hughes Drops Jews

BY: Washington Free Beacon Staff January 28, 2013 6:03 pm

The New Republic has quietly dropped at least five prominent Jewish writers from its masthead in a move that may signal the publication’s continued drift away from a staunchly pro-Israel standpoint.

The magazine has launched an aggressive new editorial direction under the ownership of wealthy socialite Chris Hughes, who is best known for sharing a room with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard University.

Jonathan Chait appropriately took the Free Beacon piece down in an article for New York Magazine, Hitler Alive and Well, Owning Liberal Magazine, which was forwarded to me as “your style reportage” (I presume, for the exquisitely to-the-point headline):

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Why you want to believe the Facebook hoax

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You’re probably over the Facebook privacy notification debacle of this past week. So was I — back in June, the last time a similar Newsfeed disclaimer made the rounds — until, that is, I came across an article on CNN, How did viral Facebook privacy hoax capitalize on privacy fears? The article itself is unremarkable. It describes the hoax, and includes a statement from Facebook and a link to Snopes confirming its hoax-like nature.

But one excerpt just tickles me:

While many Facebook and Twitter posts snickered about the hubbub, concerns about online privacy linger.

“It may have been a hoax, but it did not hurt!” wrote one Facebook user.

Yes, in an article about Facebook privacy, and in connection with a quote from someone sufficiently concerned about it to post the fake notice, CNN publicly linked to the profile of “one Facebook user” Ira Goodman. Now, I imagine CNN asked for permission before quoting him (lest it risk a violation of the Rome Statute), but my favorite part about all this: Goodman’s profile appears completely public. I see his original post, I see what CNN quoted, I see his other status updates, I see his ongoing kitchen renovation, I see dead people.

Basically, I see everything.

His concern, coupled with his wide-open profile, makes for a perfect illustration of the inherent contradictions of Facebook: you share because you want to, and you hope to share with only the right people — but you know it’s impossible to keep what you publish inside the protective bubble of your privacy settings. Some things will get out to Friends of Friends. Some things will get out over someone’s shoulder. Some things will get out when your account is hacked. Some things will get out when a potential employer also employs one of your friends.

One way or another, things will get out. Information wants to be free.

The real threat to your privacy on Facebook isn’t Facebook itself — I promise Mark Zuckerberg isn’t poring over your newsfeed — it’s those Friends of Friends, those over-the-shoulder glancers, those hackers (duh), those employers. There’s no use pretending that anything you post online can be truly private.

But we also want control. Or, we want to feel control.

I don’t think the hoax capitalized on fear, as CNN suggested, but on the desire for control. When you know anything you post on Facebook will eventually get out — moreover, when know there’s nothing you can do about it — you resort to “the law” in an attempt to control Facebook the only way you can, even if Facebook itself is the wrong target, and ” the law” is powerless to protect you.

As Israeli social media mastermind Sacha Dratwa put the problem two years ago:

Facebook is basically an enormous avenue on which every user opens a shop with a window display on their private life. With all the information you upload onto the platform — photos, interests, occupation, hobbies, favourite books, films and music, marital status, political leanings, dress sense — you’re handing over your electronic DNA….

We no longer have a private life. We’ve reached a stage where our bosses can find out what we do at home, where our children can follow our adult relationships, our colleagues can spy on us and advertisers can find out exactly what makes us tick. We’ve lost our freedom and the ability to do the things we like without anybody’s knowing about it.

The quote comes to me by way of an overly-lengthy ‘expose’ in the New York Times regarding an online photograph of Dratwa posing in blackface “Obama style” he once shared publicly — where else? — on Facebook.

Is Facebook messing with the conversation about the Middle East?

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I’ve already explained that Facebook is a passive-aggressive control freak. I’ll now try to explain why that matters.

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Last night, I noticed something funny. Facebook was doing its usual aggregation thing (see the link above and/or read on and figure out what I mean), but something seemed a little off:

Here’s what I was looking at:

For some reason, Facebook thought it would be a good idea to put together a series of posts using Izzedine al Qassam Forces — that is to say, Hamas — as the organizing element, and even link to the organization’s fan page.

On the one hand, I appreciate that Facebook is hard at work cleaning up my Newsfeed. Don’t get me wrong: the ongoing conflict in the Middle East is obviously important and troubling, but related posts should be bunched together to make room for everything else.

On the other hand, careful inspection reveals that not a single person on my Newsfeed actually used the term ‘Izzedine al Qassam Forces’ — and a few articles classified beneath that heading didn’t even use the term ‘Hamas’ — so why is Facebook going out of its way to collect these posts under a term their authors probably don’t even recognize?

Before I pretend to answer anything, I’ll introduce one more data point:

To aggregate these — and other — posts, Facebook could have easily used ‘Israel’, ‘Israelis’, ‘Hamas’, ‘Gaza’, ‘Israeli-Palestinian Conflict’ etc. — instead, it settled on ‘Izzedine al Qassam Forces’ and ‘Palestinian People’.

I’ve been checking in periodically ever since I first noticed ‘Izzedine al Qassam Forces’ — Newsfeed is sticking with its terms of choice. And in case it occurred to you that they might have been randomly generated, I would remind you that nobody – but nobody — is actually writing about the ‘Izzedine al Qassam Forces’. Someone, somewhere made the decision that this term would appear on my Newsfeed, and ‘Hamas’ wouldn’t.

And so Facebook has successfully defined the conversation taking place on my Facebook wall.

According to my Newsfeed, what’s going on isn’t a war between Gaza and Israel, or the IDF and Hamas: it’s about the IQF. And it isn’t about two civilian populations caught between relentless missile attacks and targeted killings. It isn’t even about two civilian populations at all: it’s about the Palestinian People.

The terms are important. I don’t need to rehash the world of difference between “the rich” and “job creators,” or between the “Independent Payment Advisory Board” and “death panels.” And it’s the same story here.

When you make the debate about “Palestinian people” — and not “civilians” or “Israeli and Palestinian civilians” — you define the conflict by the suffering of one people. And when you make the debate about the “Izzedine al Qassam Forces” — for one, you use an innocuous term most readers don’t recognize as the military wing of Hamas — and for two, you present “Izzedine al Qassam Forces” as an independent actor, and not as part of an organization the United States considers a terrorist organization in its entirety, i.e. you’re giving the rest of Hamas a free pass.

The point is not that Facebook is anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel or anti-Palestinian, though I have no doubt someone will walk away from this post with his conclusion of choice — or even that this is all silly and doesn’t really matter. For all I know, others have been fed a different set of terms by their own Newsfeed. But I would point out that — in defining the terms of debate — Facebook is asserting its ability to subtly shape that debate, and perhaps influence what people take away from a brief scroll through their Newsfeed… in case Mark Zuckerberg’s ability to control what makes it into your Newsfeed in the first place wasn’t scary enough.