Companies have been using Facebook data to target, manipulate and manage audiences. Everyone is surprised. Governments are up in arms. Mark Zuckerberg has lost more money than I will ever see in several lifetimes, seriously crimping his ability to purchase ugly t-shirts. Anyone who has already deleted their Facebook account is blasting really, really smug tweets and Instagrams.
In other news, water continues to be wet, birds continue to fly and not a single icicle appears even in the coolest parts of hell.
I try not to be snarky with the technologically challenged. It’s not for everyone. I get that. However, it is important to make allowances for the world we live in. It’s steeped in technology. It’s changing at a faster clip than it ever has in history. Frankly, the cat is out of the bag, and there’s no way it’s going back in.
Follow the Money
“If you are not paying for it, you are the product.” is not a new idea. Variations of this has appeared as far back as 1973. As a critique of television, of all things. You know how I know this? Because I searched on Google, which led me to a website called quote detective, which had done the research already. And how much did I pay for this almost magical ability to dredge up the most obscure information in seconds?
Zip. Nada. Nothing.
That’s not normal. That’s not how services work. Not if they are based on the traditional model. By that model, I would have had to pay twice – once to Google for searching for the relevant info and finding it from among billions of websites, and once again to Quote Detective.
So if you are not the consumer, who is? Why, the ones actually paying, of course! The ones paying the website, for your eyeballs. Advertising runs the web, and advertising needs data. That’s where Facebook comes in.
Worth its Gigs in Gold
Facebook is a social media platform. But it’s also a data mining platform. Its business objective is to serve you advertising. Just like Google. Or Instagram. Or Twitter. Or, you know, Quote Detective. The internet is one giant billboard, with content so that you don’t take your eyes off it. And Facebook does that better than anyone.
Facebook does that by providing you with content that is relevant to you. You know, updates from friends, family, celebrities, your ex you have been stalking. Then, Facebook looks at the things you like, the pages you follow, the celebrity crushes you have, and ads appear, based on those choices. Ads you are more likely to click on.
“But hold on a minute!” I hear you say, holding up your index finger (In my imagination, you are an uncle from a Bollywood movie). “I have never clicked on a Facebook ad in my entire life!”
You may have, without even knowing about it. Facebook ads are weaved in your timeline, that insidious, never-ending scroll of bite sized “content” you snack on during work, after office, in bed just before you go to sleep. Sometimes, the ads aren’t selling you more than anything other than an idea. A meme. A funny, embarrassing image of that politician you hate. Sound familiar?
It’s About How it Makes You Feel
And to do this effectively, to understand your mind and know which politician you cannot stand, Facebook needs to know you. It needs data. Data which we have handed over willingly, when filling up our “profile”, with our favourite movies, books, quotes. Data we continue to feed it, including where we are, what we are doing, how frequently we are on vacation. Hell, we tell Facebook how we are FEELING! From a drop-down list, no less. The myriad complexities of human emotions reduced to a list of primary-coloured icons.
We need validation. We need recognition. We need to communicate. Facebook gives us that. We “check in” to restaurants, which sparks conversation about what we had and what’s good there. We post selfies from movies and it turns into a discussion about the director. Could we do it offline? Sure, but not that easily. Not with my friend in UK who comes to India once a year. Also, dopamine. With every click on that like, or heart, our brain gives us a tiny jolt of joy
So we give our data to Facebook. Because it gives us good feelings. We give them data which they then exchange for cash with people who need our attention and our eyeballs. To push chocolates, t-shirts, political agendas – what have you. And the wheels of the internet continue to turn.
Yes, the internet. Not just Facebook. As I pointed out – our seamless digital existence is actually the result of several interlocking pieces, ALL of which work because they have decided to accept data as the common currency in exchange of their services. Can that model change? I don’t know, and frankly, it’s way above my pay grade. I don’t really believe that can happen without disrupting the internet in a massive way, but I’ve been wrong before. All I know is that this is how it is.
Sure, Facebook is left with egg on it’s, well, face because it’s the biggest dog in the yard. I have no doubt that a similar expose on Google would yield similar results. And Twitter. And Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. And Whatsapp, which is ALSO owned by Facebook. So #DeleteFacebook. But can you #DeleteGoogle? #DeleteTwitter? #DeleteMedium? #DeleteTumblr? Your favourite blogs? Some, maybe. But most? Enough to make a major difference? I’m not sure.
So why the outrage? And why now?
Politics. See, Facebook’s data was used to run a misinformation campaign that had tangible impact on election results. That makes the existing political order very nervous. This is an out of control beast, so it has to be controlled. So there’s talk of regulation, and probes. The internet is still a bit of a wild west, and authorities would really rather it be tamed.
Of course, the internet companies would really rather anything else happen. Which is why they will play nice. For a while, at least. Maybe look deeper into who uses their data, and what it’s used for. But it will not be permanent, and it will never go away. It’s the platform the industry stands on. Eliminate it, and the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.
Let’s talk options.
Yes, there are always options. You could move your search habits from Google and Bing (yes, people use Bing) to DuckDuckGo, the search engine that focuses on user privacy and claims not to collect data. You could take your social media business to Ello, the platform that has no ads and claims to collect no user-specific data. Also, no one you know is on it.
So if these alternative options are available, why does no one use them? Well…
- No one else uses them. Word of mouth is crucial on the internet, and it’s tough to break into what is essentially a monopoly market.
- These platforms make no money. By eliminating the ad model, the platforms are forced to run a tighter ship. So, fewer updates, fewer features and less intuitive designs.
- People don’t care THAT much. Consumers outrage, some even close their accounts, but mostly, habit takes over, and life goes on.
Sure, once in a while they participate in scams that tell them to post something on their timeline, or comment on a post and if it turns green, their data is safe (Literally none of those, from now to the end of time itself, actually work, btw). But mostly, when privacy is the only price to pay, people choose the “nicer” option, rather than the more private one.
Change at the Speed of Tech
The world and how it works has changed irrevocably, and mindsets have to change with it. Privacy is, after all, a very recent development. For most of human history, it didn’t exist for very many. Lives were open because people lived communally, exchanging security for privacy. Now? Now it’s about convenience. And connections. And emotional highs. Internet companies line up to provide us with all this, and all they want in return is our data.
Is that a price too high? Maybe. Is social media unsustainable, and is it causing rips in the fabric of our social structure? Perhaps. Opinions vary, and like most social movements, this too will need more time and study before we have a proper answer. For now, it’s about awareness.
The internet, like your TV, is an advertising platform. Anything and everything you put in it will be scanned, studied and analysed in detail by very very smart people so that they can sell you things. Nothing will stop the data you put in from being used. And if you close your Facebook account, they will buy it from someone else. You can’t stop it, because it’s how they survive. In return, you get to keep in touch with your old school friends, you get the cab right up to your door, and you get to look up how many runs Zimbabwe scored in the 1975 World Cup. And because you have the internet, you know it’s a trick question, because Zimbabwe didn’t participate in the 1975 World Cup.
Is it worth it?