Facebook was about sex from the start.
It might not seem that way today, between your grandma’s inexplicable comments on the page for Applebee’s and those extended musings on the sorry state of our politics these days from the high school classmate you never much cared for. But Mark Zuckerberg’s first site was Facemash, a “hot or not” girl-ranking haven. And when Facebook itself debuted, thefacebook.com didn’t have photo postings or groups or all that much else. It had only profiles, and on those profiles was something that lured in university students across the country: relationship status.
You didn’t go on Facebook just to look at who people were – you went here to look at who they were with. And when you wrote on someone’s wall, or hit that big blue thumbs-up on one of their pictures, or sent them that consummate indication of interest known as the poke, you were telling them that being with you was an option, too.
So Facebook Dating, which launched for Americans at long last this week, isn’t so much a bold foray into the future as it is a trip back to the beginning.
Facebook Dating, according to Facebook, “makes it easier to find love through what you like,” which presumably is how people try to find love generally. The difference here is you’re not the only one who knows what you like. Facebook knows, too. It knows a lot. The site collects what you click, what you view and much of the rest of what you do so it can serve you the targeted advertisements you’re mostly likely to engage with. Now, it will also serve you the eligible singleton you’re most likely to go home with. If you disagree, you simply select “not interested.”
We’re left asking the same thing we wondered just months ago about Facebook’s plunge into cryptocurrency: What could go wrong? What couldn’t?
If you choose to let Facebook play matchmaker, your profile will be separate from your old-fashioned one on the blue app. That’s supposed to help with the privacy problem. So is the company’s promise that it’s all about the love, baby – your feelings are a powerful sales weapon, certainly, but Facebook won’t monetize whatever it learns about you from its dating apparatus – at least for now. Facebook also says it won’t display your friends for potential wooing. (Unless, that is, you add them as a “Secret Crush.” Then you’ll both be notified in the event of mutual fancy.)
Still, Facebook is really putting itself out there. The company has gotten in trouble for vacuuming up too much personal information and then spewing it back out to unsavory third parties – and now it’s asking to hold on to information that’s even more personal. The company has a famously awful track record on keeping stuff secret, and now it’s rolling out a feature with “secret” literally in its name.
But Facebook is going to do it anyway, because it has to.
People in their 20s are starting to delete Facebook; people in their teens hardly know what it is. Facebook is tying itself to the mast of its other properties to secure its own survival – establishing end-to-end encrypted integration with WhatsApp because people want to communicate securely, creating a cryptocurrency because people want to spend money on the Web, building a dating app connected to Instagram.
And yet even as this gamble reflects Facebook’s fear of becoming less and less essential, it also recognizes how inexorably it has altered us already. The you matching with boyfriends-to-be on Zuckerberg’s latest product isn’t you, you. It’s Facebook-you, a personality honed over the years you’ve been wall-writing and thumbs-up tapping and poking and RSVPing “yes” to colleagues’ housewarmings.
Facebook began as a way to graft the real world onto an Internet space. Students at Harvard University connected with each other simply because they were other students at Harvard; neighbors with neighbors and cousins with cousins. Now, Facebook is grafting its digital world onto the space we physically occupy. Facebook-you, created with the platform’s help in the course of all your time not-so-well spent on the service, will be designated compatible with Facebook-someone-else – and then actual you and actual someone else will go out for a drink.
Facebook Dating is the most obvious, most solid example of a phenomenon that’s been around for a while now: Your offline life aids Facebook in building your Internet avatar. But your Internet avatar lets Facebook build your offline life, too.
Data is the new dating. Are you interested?
Molly Roberts writes about technology and society for The Post’s Opinions section. Kathleen Parker is on vacation.