The Facebook Bureau

This past weekend, I saw the film The Adjustment Bureau. It’s an entertaining movie — not great, but sort of fun and interesting. The plot (and I’m not giving anything away that the trailer doesn’t) involves a man who stumbles upon a shocking reality: he’s not in control of his destiny. Instead, there’s actually a secret group, the Adjustment Bureau, that runs the show behind the scenes.

The story is actually a somewhat rehashed one in movie lore (The Matrix, Dark City, etc). And it’s even older in the science fiction realm (this one is loosely based on a short story by Philip K. Dick). But reading over the blogosphere the past couple of days, I feel like I’m still watching the movie. It’s as if some people on the web truly believe that Facebook is this Adjustment Bureau. Increasingly, they control the network, and thus, our lives, and maybe even our fate.

So while we’re all having this discussion about Facebook Comments, let’s be clear what this is really about: Facebook. It has very little to do with the actual commenting side of things. That’s becoming more and more apparent.

(For a good discussion on the actual commenting angle, see Laura June’s editorial tonight on Engadget. She makes several excellent points, many of which I agree with — though maybe not for TechCrunch, specifically.)

The fact is that Facebook Comments are just the latest extension of the fear of the growing power of Facebook. This backlash seems particularly heated because the comments are seen as spreading over parts of the web previously free of the Facebook Bureau’s reach, like TechCrunch.

The reality, of course, is that this is bogus. Facebook sharing buttons have been on this site for years, just like everywhere else on the web. (If we sold out, we did it years ago.) This commenting situation is perceived as different because it’s more directly being tied to visible identity and is being forced upon the very, very small percentage of TechCrunch readers who ever actually leave a comment.

The truth is that there’s a lot going on behind the scenes here. Some people hate the commenting system because they don’t use Facebook and prefer to login through another method (they apparently don’t use Yahoo either). Others hate the system for deeply conflicted reasons related to who they work for or who they invest in. And still others hate the system because they alter the time-honored tradition of (perceived) anonymous commenting on the web. Yadda, yadda.

The common thread shared by every one of these groups is the same: they’re all scared shitless of Facebook.

Again, the underlying notion is that Facebook is the Adjustment Bureau and out to get us. This is nothing new, every few months there’s some level of Facebook backlash during which dozens of very loud people threaten to quit the social network — and never quite seem to. This undercurrent of paranoia is hardly exclusive to Facebook: Microsoft, Google, Apple — they’re all evil and out to screw you depending on what day it is and what article you read. But the sentiment seems the strongest with Facebook. And it’s clear why: they’re currently winning.

At first, I too thought this latest episode was simply about wanting the option to log in with Twitter or Google. But now I’m really not so sure. Those were going to be offered by Facebook, but I suspect that wouldn’t have been good enough. People still would have been screaming bloody murder because it’s Facebook. It’s fascinating. People really are afraid of them.

As frequent TechCrunch contributor Steve Cheney wrote in his own post on the matter:

And forcing people to comment – and more broadly speaking to log-on – with one identity puts a massive stranglehold on our very nature. I’m not too worried about FB Comments in isolation, but the writing is on the wall: all of this off-site encroachment of the Facebook graph portends where FB is really going in pushing one identity. And a uniform identity defies us.

What Cheney leaves out is that this is also exactly what Google and just about every other tech company large enough hopes to do. How do I know? Google CEO Eric Schmidt has matter-of-factly said it numerous times. In fact, his vision may even be a bit more extreme than Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s.

But the cold hard truth is that Facebook is getting all the attention because they’re they ones in the best position to make this actually happen. And again, that scares the crap out of some people.

My immediate reaction is that this is sort of silly — especially because this will naturally shift in a few years (if not sooner). And if Facebook were to do something to screw their users over, those users would just leave. Facebook is not actually the Adjustment Bureau. But hey, who am I to tell people what to be paranoid about?

While we’re on the subject, I thought it would be fun to also address some of the other conspiracy theories about the Facebook comments on TechCrunch. I’ve already seen a few references to this being a decision made to bolster traffic. Here’s more or less the way this decision was actually made (which I know, because I was there):

MG: Facebook has been talking to us about maybe being a launch partner for their new commenting system.

Mike: Oh really? Will it be hard to implement Vineet? [our lead engineer]

Vineet: Nope, it will just take a few minutes.

Mike. Cool, let’s do it.

Yep, it really is that simple. No layers of AOL bureaucracy. No TPS reports. No extensive testing. We do it live.

And, as we’ve said from day one, that may mean switching things up again. We’ll see. It’s just fascinating to watch the blogosphere twist itself into a knot over such a seemingly small thing. Right now, if you want to comment on TechCrunch, you can to log-in with Facebook. Or if you don’t like/have Facebook, you can use Yahoo. That’s it. No biggie.

But it’s very clear it’s not a small thing to at least .5 percent of you reading this right now. And certainly not to those that see the Facebook Bureau approaching in matching fedoras.

[images: Universal Pictures]