I recently deactivated my Facebook account after using the service for two years. I touch on many of the reasons in courses I teach at Bradley University: “New Media Theory,” “Privacy in New Media,” and “Intellectual Property Law in New Media.” If you were taking one of those courses, I could suggest that you read David Kirkpatrick’s new book, The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company that is Connecting the World. Many who read it will come away wondering if they want to continue using Facebook. My concerns center on four issues: Facebook is really big; the Internet knows where you are and where you’ve been; Facebook is an advertising platform; and New Media has “turned” on us.
First, Facebook has become ubiquitous, outstripping virtually every other destination on the Internet. Latest estimates put its global user base around 500 million. Although it is not, technically, a monopoly, there are aspects of its scale and business practices that find it positioned to influence nearly everything that happens on the Internet in the foreseeable future. Big is not always bad. But Facebook now ranks with Google, Microsoft and Apple as one of the leading forces in the new media-oriented economy. Innovation requires competition; monopoly slows real innovation. To get where it is (very quickly), Facebook was very innovative. To stay there will probably require tactics that have more to do with “market control” than with innovation.
Second, the Internet knows where you are and where you’ve been. This is an absolute truism at the very core of the digital/information revolution, and is quite different than the state of affairs through the almost 100-year history of mass media. Although the newspaper company knew that you subscribed to the paper and whether the money came from your checking account or credit card, they had little or no idea what you did with the paper once it landed on your doorstep. Any such knowledge was extrapolated from research on the habits of a small number of readers or the results of merchants receiving “clipped” ads at the point of purchase. Much the same can be said for the other forms of “legacy” mass media (sometimes referred to as “old media”). Alternatively, when you use your computer to access news, every click, every link, every second spent here or there, leaves a digital record that may often be accessed by a number of agents. This aspect applies to all digital media and devices. If the device and network are digital, tracking is available and is probably being done.
Third, Facebook is an advertising platform. Facebook’s initial raison d’etre was to enable people to exchange information about themselves and their activities. This aspect seemed to fulfill some of the promises of what new media can best do for us: Empower everyday people via media in ways that were previously only available to commercial, mass media entities. Suddenly, you were able to quickly gather a large audience, tell them about the things that matter to you, and update them almost instantaneously. You became the newspaper, magazine or television news. And because of the enormous scale and spread of the service, wonderful things could happen which were previously unimaginable: One could start a social movement, protest or campaign, all with a few clicks.
However, the enormous growth of the Facebook platform required ever-increasing amounts of investment as Facebook developed needs for servers, network capacity and employees to manage a global operation that grew at breakneck speed. Making money on the Internet is not easy; targeted advertising offers a range of profit opportunities. And Facebook commands and controls the largest user data set in history. I suppose it was inevitable that the company would turn to data mining and the commerce of targeted marketing for the majority of its massive income.
Facebook claims to offer the widest range of “privacy controls” of any outfit on the web. Due to more than a few high-profile privacy-related incidents, they’ve enabled you to “control” virtually everything about how your information is (or isn’t) shared. Some people find the settings very useful; others either don’t know where the settings are or how to properly modify them. But setting the privacy settings only control what others, your friends, those in your network and “everyone” (if that’s what you’ve chosen or if you’ve not changed the default settings) see of the items you’ve placed on the service. Facebook never hands what Ed Lamoureux writes about himself (profile and other provided info) to anyone other than his “friends” and “network.”
Yet, no matter how those settings are set, Facebook uses technical procedures to troll every word you type, every person you friend, every group you create or join, every link you provide or follow, every photo or video you post, every tag you establish. It analyzes and can use all of that data. In other words, the privacy settings don’t really apply to them. Facebook is free to—and does—record, collect, aggregate (combine individual information into categorized data sets), and market your data. Facebook does not show advertisers/marketers your data. Instead, Facebook “just lets advertisers use the aggregated data to select from a vast menu of parameters to target ads at precisely the type of person they are trying to reach” (The Facebook Effect, p. 266).
Further, the Facebook news feed pushes everything that Ed does on Facebook (and everything all his friends and networks do) out to each other, into the database and out to advertisers for targeted marketing—aggregated, yes—but specific nevertheless. The more one uses it, the more data Facebook gets, the more information about you they sell, the more money they make. And in response, we get to see ads that are very specifically targeted back to us as we feed the database that sends those ads (and others like them) to people in our various demographic and network categories.
One can argue that “this is just the way the web works,” that Google and other firms that depend on search analytics and data mining use these techniques to make money in an environment (the Internet) in which companies were struggling to find a profitable business model. I believe that the primary difference is in scale and specificity. Sure, Google tracks web traffic; essentially, if you use the web, Google knows and reports “where you go” and they make loads of money selling that data to marketers and advertising entities. Similar systems will someday track all of your cellular usage (some already do).
But there are both qualitative and quantitative differences between tracking clicks and digesting every single bit of information that you place on the Facebook service. While it’s not uncommon for more to be “going on under the hood” than the casual digital driver is aware of, Facebook has become a classic “bait and switch” enterprise: You think that you are participating in a social network, when in fact, you are feeding the world’s most efficient targeted marketing data center. The same thing is the case when you search using Google, but the search terms provide much less information than you give Facebook with all your interaction.
In conclusion, the fourth and final main point: We thought that the Age of Digital Information was (going to be) about us being able to find and use information that benefits us. Consider Facebook: We thought we’d be better off for being able to easily stay in touch with (and in some cases, discover and/or rediscover) friends and family. Instead, the Age of Digital Information is focused on discovering and using information about us, on us. Literally, billions of dollars of profit are made from the data we provide via our participation on Facebook. I found that I do not derive enough value in return, so I stopped feeding the beast.
This is what McLuhan meant when he wrote that “the medium is the message.” Media content, in this case, all the stuff we type, post, link and tag on Facebook, isn’t the point—the content isn’t “the message.” The point is the infrastructure—“the medium is the message”—and how it works, as well as the changes that it makes in us. The point is that Facebook now mediates and monetizes much of what had previously been private and personal relationships and communication. Further, we are starting to find that mediation to be “normal” and we feel we are less than whole when we don’t participate. I think I’ll risk feeling left out. iBi