Despite Instagram's propensity toward over-curated fakery (#blessed) and the fact that it's a Facebook company (irony abounds), it's still largely considered the "good side" of social media. It's the place guaranteed to have adorable puppies, drool-worthy food and far-flung travel destinations when you need a break from the more serious side of the internet.
Facebook has a different reputation. It's the underbelly of the ol' world wide web, complete with awkward familial spats over political convictions, cryptic messages from college sweethearts and, worst of all -- multiple, privacy-threatening data leaks.
So it was surprising when Facebook announced the camera-equipped, Facebook-Messenger-dependent Portal ($199) and Portal Plus ($349) in 2018, amid regular breaking news stories about how Facebook misused user information and then tried to downplay it to the loyalists remaining on the platform once it was uncovered.
What's more, Portal cameras aren't like most smart display cameras. They have particularly smart tech that differentiates between people and houseplants and can therefore follow you around a room -- not exactly the device you want from a company cited for its privacy problems.
Facebook's video calling smart display connects you with friends and family
The Portal idea is sound in theory: Buy a Portal for yourself and give a friend or family member far away another Portal. Make dinner in your apartment while you video chat with your parents across the country.
You can move around naturally within the Portal's field of view, pulling cheese, milk and butter from the fridge. (We're apparently making mac and cheese in this made-up scenario... and now I'm hungry.) You're fishing for the stock pot in that hard-to-reach spot in the lower cabinet across the kitchen and grabbing pasta from the pantry -- all within your parents' view as you catch them up on your week.
The Facebook Portal is a video-chatting system first and foremost. Admittedly, and perhaps annoyingly, Portal does this job really well. It also offers a limited dose of smart home functionality via a built-in Amazon Alexa speaker, select apps including Newsy, Pandora and Spotify (Premium only) and Facebook's own "Hey Portal" voice assistant.
A spokesperson told me over email that Facebook hasn't announced a new voice assistant, but rather that they "are working to develop voice and AI assistant technologies that may work across our family of AR/VR products including Portal, Oculus and future products." Hm.
Portal privacy and you
"Portal voice calling is built on the Messenger infrastructure, so when you make a video call on Portal, we collect the same types of information (i.e. usage data such as length of calls, frequency of calls) that we collect on other Messenger-enabled devices. We may use this information to inform the ads we show you across our platforms. Other general usage data, such as aggregate usage of apps, etc., may also feed into the information that we use to serve ads," the Facebook spokesperson said.
I wonder if Facebook execs ever discussed temporarily or permanently shelving Portal so its person-tracking camera didn't launch during the same time people were deactivating their accounts in outrage? But the company instead went for the "Hey, it's cool. You can totally trust us" vibe. That approach demonstrates a shocking level of tone deafness. (Again, I'll refer you to this story outlining many of Facebook's major privacy leaks and other serious issues the company's faced lately.)
Facebook isn't the only media company scaring the crap out of us, though. Amazon employs, you know, human people, to listen to your Alexa recordings. Creepy doesn't even come close to cutting it.
Watch this: Facebook’s pricey Portal Plus brings loved ones closer
I'll just say I'm fully aware that every company on the planet is already collecting and sharing data about me in order to try to sell me stuff. And for the most part I'm not bothered by it. That's just me.
Well, maybe not just me: The Portal has a 4.6-star average rating from over 400 Best Buy customers and a 4.4 average from over 300 Amazon customers. Seems as though people really like the product, Facebook issues notwithstanding.
Why can't you [Facebook] fix all this stuff before trying to sell us a device that, at best, already faces an uphill battle in trying to convince people that putting yet another internet-connected doorway into their homes is a good idea?
(Gut check: Am I the only one who thinks Facebook's Portal is the wrong product at the wrong time? Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, said Portal is "downright creepy" and wanted to ask, "How much pain are you willing to go through to see it succeed?")
Some people will always care more about privacy than others. And that's all fine and good. But I can't imagine anyone thinking the Portal and the Portal Plus were well-timed product releases in light of Facebook's ongoing issues or that we'd all just line up and buy a bunch of these things. Mark Zuckerberg's social network is in the midst of a serious identity crisis. "Hey Portal, flash your screen once if you need help."