Remember the Marlboro Man? He was a sexy vision of the American west, created by a cigarette corporation to sell a fatal product. People knew this and used that product anyway, at great detriment to themselves and those around them who quietly inhaled toxic secondhand smoke, day into long night.
An agreement between states and tobacco companies banished the rugged cowboy at the end of the 1990s, but the symbol is useful even 20 years later as we contend with a less deadly but no less frightening corporate force.
Social networks that many of us signed up for in simpler times — a proverbial first smoke — have become gargantuan archives of our personal data. Now, that data is collected and leveraged by bad actors in an attempt to manipulate you and your friends.
The time for ignorance is over. We need social responsibility to counterbalance a bad product. The public learned in alarming detail this weekend how a Trump-aligned firm called Cambridge Analytica managed to collect data on 50 million people using Facebook. All, as the Guardian put it, to "predict and influence choices at the ballot box." Individuals who opted into Cambridge Analytica's service — which was disguised as a personality quiz on Facebook — made their friends vulnerable to this manipulation, as well.
There were better days on the social network. When you signed up for Facebook, it's likely because it was an alluring way for you to connect with old friends and share pictures. You hadn't ever imagined "Russian trolls" or "fake news" or, lord knows, "Cambridge Analytica."
Zuckerberg may have been assaulted from all sides, but we - his users - took more of a licking than he did.
That's because Facebook's past two years have been all about ethical and technological crises that hurt users most of all. A favorite editor of mine hated that word, "users," because it made it sound as though we were talking about something other than people. I can agree with that, but also see now that "users" is the word of moment: Facebook's problems extend forever out of the idea that we are all different clumps of data generation. Human life is incidental.
But just remember: There's no precedent for a social network of this size.
We can't guess what catastrophe it sets off next. Will a policy change someday mean it's open season on your data, even if that data has limited protections in the here and now?