Yesterday, Facebook rolled out an unabashedly nosy new feature that no one asked for and — we can only hope — no one will use: the ability to pester your friends and acquaintances for more personal information than they already divulge.
This creepy addition is called “Ask,” and you’ll see it in your Facebook friends’ “About” tab next to every field they’ve left blank. If your friend hasn’t chosen a relationship status, for instance, you’ll now be able to ask that they share that information, either publicly or just with you. The same idea applies if they haven’t specified their college, hometown, current company and location.
Many are interpreting “Ask” as a kind of 2014 update to Facebook’s old Poke button — you know, that ambiguously flirty/annoying feature that let you ping Facebook friends to remind them you exist. (PSA: Poke itself still exists. Sorry/you’re welcome.) But while Poke came off as playful, Ask is far more presumptuous — as I discovered last night, when I sent Ask requests to a dozen or so random Facebook friends, many of whom I haven’t spoken to since college.
First off, here’s what happens when you send an Ask request. After clicking “Ask,” a pop-up asks you to explain yourself. (I obviously told my friends I was testing the feature for a blog post. I’m not that creepy.)
After you send it, your Facebook friend gets a notification that says “[Your Name] requested your relationship status” — or whatever it is you requested.
If your friend chooses to share that information with you, you’ll get a notification that says “[Friend’s Name] updated her relationship status on her profile. You requested this info [however many hours or minutes] ago.” If your friend chooses not to share that information with you, you won’t be notified.
The updated status will then display on your friend’s profile, and in your timeline, as a life event — although depending on the privacy settings she selects, it may only be visible to you. The photo at top shows the notification I received when my friend Ashley shared her relationship status with me. Per Facebook, she and her boyfriend of two years are a brand-new thing. Clearly, big data has its limits.
But clearly, the Ask button is also an attempt to circumvent those limits — to fill in whatever blanks remain in Facebook’s vision of you and your life. Regardless of whether you share your relationship “privately” with just one other friend, of course, you’re also sharing it with Facebook. And while the social network was circumspect in statements to Buzzfeed and Ars Technica, it’s clearly able to use data like your relationship status and current location for targeted ads. So, with apologies to my friend Ashley et al, I just set them up for more of that.
As to how this all plays socially, people in my random sampling were generally unreceptive of the Ask. One college friend said he would “feel okay” getting an Ask request, but would also suspect it might be spam. Another said he’d feel “very put-upon” and annoyed that the Ask-er couldn’t bother reading the rest of his profile, where his relationship status, current location and other details are clear. (“If Facebook is marketing this as a way to get closer to your friends, the move is wrong-headed,” he wrote. “It doesn’t close a gap, it creates more distance and leaves a really unpleasant aftertaste.” That sentiment was echoed by another of my testers: “Close friend or not, I don’t really want someone asking me about my dating life through a button on Facebook.”)
But perhaps the most on-point review came from a college classmate I haven’t seen since graduation:
My first thought was … why in the hell does Caitlin care where I live? I think it’s a weirdly invasive way to ask people who you are friendly with, but haven’t spoken with in a while uncomfortably personal information. I believe you can also ask about relationship status, which is so incredibly rude I wouldn’t know how to respond.
Welp, so there you have it: Ask with extreme caution. I’m personally relieved I wasn’t asking for real.