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Time to worry about Facebook’s data?

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Kai Ryssdal: I don’t know if you saw “Saturday Night Live” this weekend, but Betty White gave Facebook a big shout out for helping her get the hosting gig. Something like a half-a-million people on the social-networking site clicked on the “like” button on her fan page.

You can use button, “like,” to flag all kinds of preferences that will then be shared with your friends and possibly the whole Internet. Your favorite music, what political or social causes you follow — pretty much anything.

Commentator Farhad Manjoo explains the upsides and the down.

Farhad Manjoo: Every one of those “likes” — a billion statements of preference every day, 365 billion every year, at least — will get filed back at Facebook HQ. It is difficult to overstate the value, to Facebook, of all this activity. Remember that the social network already has the world’s largest database of connections between people.

Now, very soon, it will also have the largest database connecting people to the things we enjoy, whether those things are news stories, restaurants, songs, books, movies, jeans, cosmetics, or anything else. No other company will have anything like Facebook’s towering database of human intentions and desires — not even Google.

Should we be worried about all this? Yes and no.

I suspect that Facebook, like Google, will use its stash of data in ways that are wonderful and in ways that are creepy. This is the double-edged sword of a digital life. Big companies are tracking you all the time, and they’re doing a lot of things you don’t like with that information — including serving you ads.

But all the data is also extremely useful, too. Google and Amazon, for instance, are powerful precisely because they know so much about you. It’s only by keeping mountains of data that Google can predict when flu season will start, or describe the traffic conditions on your morning commute. We’re bound to see similar benefits from all of Facebook’s personalized data.

Think of how much more useful you’d find a shopping site if it made consistently good recommendations based on your known likes and dislikes. Or consider how much safer you’d feel signing up to a new tax-preparation company if you saw that your friends had “liked” it. Thanks to Facebook’s data, we can expect better movie-recommendation apps, better dating sites, better online games, and probably a lot more.

From now on, none of us will surf alone; people you trust can help you organize and vet every corner of the Web. And Facebook will be at the center of it all.

RYSSDAL: Farhad Manjoo covers technology for Slate.

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