With the latest news of the Facebook data scandal, Cambridge Analytica, Brexit and US elections, and the whatever-millions of people’s data made available to third party app vendors, this is a question worth dedicating time to. And the answer is, in no uncertain terms… maybe.
First of all, Facebook is a free service. It’s expensive to develop and even more expensive to maintain. In exchange for these monumental costs, Facebook gathers information about their users, who they interact with, how they relate to the information they receive, etc.
All this is quite nice for the user, and quite informative for Facebook. Studying human behaviour, how that can be modified through information inputs or the kind of interactions people have depending on moods, times of the day, closeness of relations, etc, makes this platform one of the deepest sociological experiments ever created. Even now, the benefits society could harness from this information are not yet fully understood.
Unfortunately, so far we have not managed to see how any of this pays the rent, the utility bill or the salaries for the developers in Facebook. And for this purpose, Facebook runs advertising and third party applications.
The advertising part is obvious. It is immediate cash in exchange for displaying advertising to the users of the platform. In here, Facebook has done something amazing as well. While the advertising universe has historically been closed to small business due to cost, the platform allows very small companies to advertise to a large array of potential customers for minimal amounts of money.
Think of companies like Coca-Cola, that cares little to whom they advertise as their product is universal. They have the money, the graphic designers, the marketing studies, the global distribution network, and ubiquity of the point of sale, plus a global customer base. For them Facebook is barely a blimp on their radar, given that their advertising campaigns include the Olympics, the World Cup, a polar bear, and even Santa Claus.
“Studying human behaviour
makes this platform one of the deepest sociological experiments ever created.”
So instead, think of the restaurant next door, the local bakery, or the plumber that’s been your go-to- for the last 10 years. Before Facebook or Google came into the picture, all they could do was print a bunch of leaflets or rely on ‘word of mouth’ guerrilla advertising. Even radio advertising (which has also seen a decline) requires a budget beyond what the restaurant/baker/plumber could afford, and also beyond the financial benefits this ad could reap.
Consequently, with diminishing budgets comes customer targeting, with customer targeting comes micro-targeting, and with micro-targeting, is where things get, let’s say, intimate. Suddenly Facebook, on the behalf of the restaurant/baker/plumber is targeting males for instance in the late 20s, that are active fitness freaks, don’t have a girlfriend and that live within a 5km radius. And, remember, they, like us, are voluntarily giving this information to Facebook in exchange for connectivity with friends, non-friends, fr-enemies and family. All good so far.
“Think of companies like Coca-Cola, that cares little to whom they advertise as their product is universal. For them Facebook is barely a blimp on their radar.”
The third party app though is truly one of the genius elements of Facebook. It is the move of a company so smart, it realizes it cannot do everything by itself, and that plenty of smart people outside are going to come up with other forms and strategies to gather information from their users. It’s from these developers that Facebook can, and does, make money charging app developers for the advertising required to get their apps shared if they don’t go ‘viral’ on their own. Plus, the download or sign-up into the ad is information in itself. Like I said. Genius.
So, stepping aside from Facebook for a moment – we’ll come back to it, I promise – who else handles crucial information about us? Let’s consider a few options…
Astonished? Didn’t think so. The bank knows how much money you have (regardless of how many accounts you have, and where), knows where your salary is credited, and observes where you transfer money. Also, chances are, to keep commissions down, your bank is probably the same as your employer’s too, hence, ‘they’ also know the financial health of your company, and how safe your salary is. Oh, and ‘they’ know where you live too…
Based on ATM use, the bank knows where you hang out, how often, what groceries you purchase, how much you spend on useless things, and what your philosophy is when it comes to savings. They’ve probably issued you a credit card, meaning they know where you eat, where you travel and when, and if your company has issued you a credit card on their behalf, the bank also knows your position in the company, and how often you get called upon for charges you tried to put on your employer. Plus, your mother’s maiden name, and/or your favourite colour or pet. There’s not a lot left in terms of ‘privacy’…
The Telephone Company
No no, I’m not referring to YOUR mobile phone company in particular, but rather ANY company that has a mobile antennae. They know your phone number, your phone model, where you live, where you work, and…well, given the signal that’s emitted by the device, pretty much where you are at all times.
Who you call, when you call, how long you talk to them, who your relatives are, your love interests, and your friends.
How much you spend, how much mobile data you use, what websites you visit, whether you Skype or have a VPN, where you travel, for how long, how often you change your phone, and how many people call you. And don’t forget, for all of this, you PAY them. For connectivity.
I think you’re getting the gist of this by now, so why not include the websites you visit. How often. What advertisements you look at. How long you stay in front of a computer. From where you log in. Your nationality. Your language. What you watch on YouTube, Dailymotion, etc, and at what time of the day.
Your political and religious beliefs. Which sports you like. When you sleep. When you travel. Your sexual orientation. Your age. Your income level. What you like to eat.
Maybe they have access to your gmail service too, and that of the company you work for, meaning even Google knows where you work, where you eat lunch, and for how long during the week.
The list goes on, and on, and on…
We could go on with companies such as LinkedIn, Amazon, Twitter, Uber, Visa, TripAdvisor, Zomato, Talabat, Expedia, GroupOn, the government, and Netflix, but I think you get the point.
Back to Facebook then, and there are a couple of additional problems on top of the ones we’ve already examined (just to make sure you really can’t sleep tonight). The first is that, unlike the other examples, perhaps with the exception of Google, their algorithm is a tad more blatant, given the speed with which ‘suggested content’ tailor-made for you – again, micro-targeting – is stuffed down your throat. The other day, for example, I was chatting on Whatsapp (Facebook) about visiting a particular restaurant and within an hour, the owner of said restaurant showed up on my feed as a ‘Friend Suggestion’. Spooky.
The second problem is that, much like a contagious disease, a viral information stream may infect focal groups of people and influence their behaviour. It may not change ONE particular vote or ONE person’s opinion, but Facebook plays with vast numbers, and there’s little doubt that the power of influence is measured in statistical values. Let me break that down a bit: every flu outbreak near you for instance does not mean that you are going to contract it, but you certainly know of people that have. Information and confirmation bias operate in much the same way, and while the process is not nearly as visible, the results most definitely are.
“I was chatting online about visiting a particular restaurant and within an hour, the owner of said restaurant showed up on my feed as a ‘Friend Suggestion’. Spooky.”
The third problem – yes, there are more – is that companies design their ‘hooks’, i.e. their Facebook platform, to creates a dependency from their product, i.e. YOU, playing with endorphins in such a way that you can’t help but sign in ‘just to check what’s happening’ again and again and again for your increasingly more frequent ‘doses’ of validation. And when you do, this helps said companies tweak inputs and outputs to optimal degrees.
So, is it time to leave Facebook?
Definitely maybe. If you are a brain-dead zombie with no personal judgment, no critical thinking, not a shred of global reach, or indeed lack the capacity to think for yourself, by all means leave it. Or, perhaps, be conscious of what’s behind the curtain, be mindful that you are the product Facebook sells, limit what info you share, and basically smarten the F@#k Up!
This may sound like a radical idea but, maybe, for a little while, you could log-off Instagram Stories admiring someone else’s ‘perfect life’, pick up a book that is not about spies, magicians, love or diets, and learn about something useful for a change.
Keep in mind that, however bad Facebook is looking right now, they are the only honest merchants of your data. They openly tell you they will use the information to “enhance” the advertisement you see. In other words, make the most money possible out of the info they gather. Otherwise, where do you think all the spammers get your SMS phone number and email from? They have been pestering you looooooong before Facebook existed, no?
For the record I am not logging off Facebook. I no longer have the app on my phone though.