When the Facebook Portal, a video chatting device, was announced in October 2018, BuzzFeed News wrote, “Portal’s debut comes at a time when Facebook is struggling to reassure the public that it’s capable of protecting users’ privacy and sensitive information.” Other reviews of the device were less restrained. The Verge’s reviewer said, “when Facebook’s new Portal and Portal Plus were announced a month ago, my response was a firm ‘no thanks.’” The headline on Gizmodo’s review: “The Big Problem With Facebook’s Portal Devices Has Nothing to Do With How Great They Are.”
Six months after the device was critically panned over privacy concerns, I set up an experiment with two Portals in the BuzzFeed News office to talk to each other. As a journalist, I wanted to investigate if these things were truly evil, but the idiot in me just wanted to see if it was fun.
Sure, the video and sound quality of the calls are crystal clear, and it’s incredibly easy to use — but no one with two healthy brain cells would trust an always-on Facebook video device in their homes.
Lucky for me, I only have one brain cell, and it skipped leg day. So I’m here to tell you: I fucking LOVE the Portal.
Our team of developers at BuzzFeed News wanted to probe the suspicion everyone had: Was this thing just spying on you? Based on our limited test, we found that when a call was not in session, outbound traffic from the Portal ceased. In essence, Mark Zuckerberg is not watching you pick your nose in your kitchen. It was off when it said it was off.
Calls are also encrypted. A representative for Facebook told BuzzFeed News, “Portal was built with privacy and security in mind. It’s important that people know their Portal calls are private. We shared a blog detailing our approach to privacy and ads on Portal when we began shipping last Fall with additional detail, here.”
If you don’t take Facebook at its word on this, well, fine, I’m not the boss of you. You might have a point, since Facebook actually CAN use data on who you call or what apps you use for ad targeting. And Facebook built its own basic voice controls into the Portal (“Hey, Portal, call Joe Smith”), which can be reviewed by humans as part of training Facebook’s voice recognition. You also can activate Alexa on Portal — which allows you to do the things Amazon Alexa normally does — play music, add products to your Amazon cart, or ask for the weather — and Alexa records this stuff and also might send bits for review to train the tech.
Hey, I can’t tell you how to live your life or what to believe. I believe Facebook when it says it’s not using facial recognition or spying on my calls, but I also believed in Santa Claus until I was 9 years old, so take my opinion with a grain of salt.
While everyone else feared Facebook’s new device, I immediately thought the Portal looked really fun, and I wanted one desperately for myself. So when BuzzFeed’s developer team offered up their test unit, I snatched it up like Gollum. Precious. Finally, my dreams were coming true. Or so I thought.
Like I said, I have one brain cell and it looks like this:
Since I don’t know anyone with a Portal, I tried using it to video chat with people’s Facebook Messenger phone app. Only one coworker, out for his lunch break in another city, answered. (Fair enough, would you answer a random video Messenger call out of the blue?) My colleagues in our San Francisco office also had purchased a test Portal, but they had forgotten how to log in and refused to bother turning it on, despite my pleading.
Despondent and lonely, I did what anyone would do: I tweeted. Facebook’s PR team saw my lamentations and offered to send me another free unit to try out in New York (I should be clear here: I didn’t request the free unit, and this article is not #spon. BuzzFeed News will send back the device when we’re done testing it). Now I had two units in my office that could talk to each other. My single brain cell was twitching like a teen eating Tide pods.
I set up one Portal at my desk, and logged into my personal Facebook account. I set up the other near the coffee machine with a dummy Facebook account and had them call each other. I left the call running so that anyone who passed by to get coffee or water would be forced to video chat with me at my desk.
Was this a horrible invasion of privacy on my coworkers in a shared office space? Sure. Did they love it? ABSOLUTELY!
I am not joking here. Everyone LOVED the Portals. It was an afternoon of pure joy as people walked past the screen, were confused for a second, then chuckled, waved, chatted, and tried out different filters. Ah, the filters! The filters are simply sublime. The cat on the head? Hilarious! The mouse ears that multiple people can use at once? Adorable! The hair in a towel and green face mask? Everyone loved it! Give us a few funny filters and we’re pisspigs for privacy!
People crowded around my desk and the unit at the coffee machine, giggling and whooping it up. Others got up from their desks to see what all the fun was about. “I love it, but I hate that I love it,” one coworker said. Our boss and editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, came by to test some filters and declared, “This is the best new piece of technology I’ve seen, and you can quote me on that.” Sir, I’m quoting you, and quite frankly, I agree.
It reminded me of something I hadn’t felt in years: pure joy over a piece of technology. The closest feeling was the weekend in early 2010 my roommates and I discovered Chatroulette — the video chatting site that connected random strangers. It seems almost everyone has a Chatroulette story of that one day of pure bliss, just loving the frivolity and weirdness of being able to use the internet to see random other humans.
At the time, New York magazine wrote, “ChatRoulette is, in this sense, a blast from the Internet past. It’s the anti-Facebook, pure social-media shuffle.” This was nine years ago!! We’ve been hating Facebook and being exhausted by the unrelenting burdens of digital life for THAT long!
Remember when the internet was fun? Remember when the idea of a social network — Facebook, even — was fun and awesome? Getting to look at pictures of your friends online? That fucking RULED. It’s mind-boggling to remember that at one point, Facebook was something that genuinely sparked joy.
I’m mad that Facebook ruined a good thing by fucking up so much with constant privacy fumbles. I’m mad that it isn’t fun anymore, that instead of a place for a cool time with buddies it’s literally destabilizing democracy and enabling genocide. I’m mad that Facebook has diarrhea-shat all over itself so often that all reasonable people hate and distrust the company so much that no one in their right mind would EVER buy a Facebook video chatting machine, no matter how amazing and good it is. I’m mad that Twitter took a platform that’s the perfect joke vessel and let it become a place people don’t feel safe on. I’m mad Tumblr was left to die, I’m mad about Flickr, I’m mad that the promise of an internet that seemed bursting with possibilities turned out to be bursting with horrors. I’m angry that a million tiny bad things and wrong turns have happened to erode our trust in the internet, and now “the internet” is shorthand for “bad place.” Most of all I’m pissed that Facebook’s constant stream of unforced errors is ruining my ability to have a Good Time Online.
For my next Portal experiment, I set up one unit in the company lunchroom and the other by a coffee machine on a different floor to get different coworkers from other departments of the company to try it out.
This lunchtime experiment lacked some of the merriment of the first one. The feedback I heard from coworkers was mostly positive. “I thought it was super fun to get to see people on a different floor,” a colleague from another department wrote to me over Slack. But at least one person DM’d me to say she thought it felt creepy and didn’t like that it was just sitting in the office out of concern it was using facial recognition to identify her (it does not). On the device logged into my personal account, I turned on the option to have a slideshow of my friends’ Facebook photos as a screensaver, and several people told me seeing their own photos on device creeped them out.
A few hours into the experiment, our company lawyer emailed me. There had been some complaints about my, uh, experiments and she told me if I was going to leave the Portals up for a story, I needed a sign explaining more about what the device was and what the purpose of the test was.
By the next day, someone had taped up a sign over the coffee machine Portal of Elaine from Seinfeld throwing George’s toupee out the window and saying, “I don’t like this thing and this is what I’m doing with it.”
Am I an annoying coworker who probably pissed off some people? Yes, and I do feel bad about that (my brain cell says “sowwy”). Do I recommend you set up several Portals for your office? Only if you work in an office full of idiots or people you hate. I can’t in good conscience recommend you get one for your home. But I can tell you that I loved it, and it brought me and my colleagues immense delight for a few hours on a slow Friday afternoon. But also, I’m very, very stupid. ●
Video calls on the Portal are encrypted, not end-to-end encrypted.