There has been no big news recently that have spurred this article; no Cambridge Analytica’s, no scandals. Indeed, weeks have passed since Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional testimony – which was, admittedly, a godsend. The apologiser-in-chief provided us with quality content, and, prior to their second quarter user-number debacle, increased Facebook’s market cap by $34 billion. Good save Mark, good save indeed. However, having repeatedly had the same conversation with friends and colleagues, I realised that there persists a great misunderstanding about what Facebook really is.
Few would dispute that Facebook, conceived and launched out of a college dorm, has been anything short of world changing. It has however, since its inception, been mislabeled and misinterpreted by virtually all it’s users. Social media platforms are quite ambiguous when you think about it, it is hard to pin down what the essence of social media really is – harder still, how social media makes a profit. Therefore, I suggest we call the beast by its name. Facebook is a marketing platform. Nothing is truly free in this world, we know this. Yet none of us questioned what the cost was when we signed up to this service. Most of us have not paid a penny since we signed up and never will. So how does a company serving over 2 billion free users have a market cap of $490 billion? Thanks to you. You, and your attentive eyes glued to the screen, are the commodity. This is the core of Facebook’s valuation. It has masterfully exploited the attention economy, largely due to it being an unregulated free-for-all, it has harnessed our gaze, packaged it into attractive targeted advertising packages and sold it on for astronomical sums of money.
Fifty years ago, the best bet for a company would be a billboard – maybe a TV ad if you had the money. Neither of these forms of advertising could filter and place your product very effectively – you put it out to everyone and hope it reaches your target audience. The best you could do was choose the location of a billboard or the time of a TV ad, still relying on pure chance that your customers would see it. Facebook has changed that, you can now filter your target customer down to a postcode, and you are guaranteed that they will see it. Better still, using the Facebook Algorithm (i.e. monitoring user activity) you can filter the audience based on subconscious affiliations and sympathies that the customer themselves may not even be aware of, but their actions exhibit.
Ever had that when you are talking about how much you want Ben and Jerry’s tonight and then a seemingly timely phish-food advert pops up on your newsfeed? Of course you have. That’s because whether you use Facebook, Whatsapp or Instagram (all Facebook owned) you are granting permission for them to access your microphone and cameras. By default, it is not just when calling or taking a photo that these are accessed, these are rolling all day long. You would not let ‘someone’ bug your phone, so why let Facebook do it? More concerning still is that Facebook is now openly working with the FBI and NSA as part of the Cambridge Analytica fallout. Under the guise of national security we are increasingly seeing traits being exhibited reminiscent of a surveillance state.
Just this past week Facebook has been publicly denying approaching scores of retail banks for user information (allegations don’t come from thing air Facebook), including account balances and credit card transactions in order to ‘provide new tools to its users’. The users, as I have attempted to show, does not refer to us, it refers to the companies buying our attention. This would enable them to target demographics based on disposable income or target specific users based on when their pay check comes in.
Now, I don’t know if you’re okay with relinquishing your privacy and identity like a tradable commodity, maybe you are. But I can’t help questioning if the added value to our lives is really worth the cost.