Facebook breakup notifier should make us reexamine our relationship to the site
From Sunday's Web Insite column.
Friending might be the popular nomenclature at Facebook. But sometimes users have something more in mind when they take a spin through other people's photos or scroll their walls.
Searching for romance might have gotten a little easier with a new application for the social Web site. The Breakup Notifier delivers an e-mail straight to your inbox when a "friend" changes his or her relationship status to "single." In its first week, more than 3 million people signed up for the application, putting a spotlight on just how rampant relationship checkups are on Facebook.
"It's an unspoken way people use Facebook. It's a glorified dating site," says Dan Loewenherz, who developed the Breakup Notifier.
Loewenherz says he developed the app as a way to help would-be lovers find out when their secret crushes are free to date again. But it also inspires the question: When is too much information too much? Few secrets are sacrosanct on Facebook -- even the most painful ones. And increasingly, even information we don't want widely shared is up for grabs by app developers.
Loewenherz created the Breakup Notifier on a Saturday afternoon. He had listened to his fiancee and her mother plot a potential love match for a friend, only to discover on Facebook that the man in question was already in a relationship. He told them he would build an application so they could find out when the man was back on the market.
A 24-year-old programmer in California, Loewenherz put the application out to a few friends a couple weeks ago, and it instantly went viral. Within a day, 100,000 users had signed up. The application was suspended after it triggered an automated spam-blocker on Facebook. Although Facebook chose not to comment on the situation, Loewenherz said that after some negotiation, Facebook let him relaunch the program last Sunday. It is now being translated into Chinese, French, Portuguese and Hebrew.
Although some critics have accused him of helping stalkers, Loewenherz says that his program just makes it easier for users to do what they were already doing. But he admits that its popularity has made some people more aware of just how public their Facebook information is.
"Zuckerberg and Co., they really want to push the idea that there is no privacy anymore," Loewenherz said. "They use the term 'openness.' Openness sounds like a really good thing, but I don't think everyone realizes how much of their lives are chronicled by machines."
He calls his program tame by comparison with how some developers could use information on Facebook. They're not all trying to spark romance, he says.
Facebook has been dogged by privacy complaints for years, but it came under pressure from the government this year after it let third-party applications access users' phone numbers and current addresses if users clicked an "Allow" button. Although Facebook disabled that feature in January after users complained, the company sent a letter to members of Congress recently saying that it planned to allow developers to access that information at some point in the future.
"People have been trained to click the 'Allow' button," Loewenherz said. "You need to be careful about what you put out there."
Every good relationship needs to be examined every now and then. Perhaps it's time to think about your relationship with Facebook and its applications. You might start with your relationship status.
| March 7, 2011; 1:00 PM ET
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