Facebook has no exit

Facebook is a burgeoning public utility service, according to Danny Mekic’. If it doesn’t want to be subjected to governmental meddling, it will have to start primarily catering to its users rather than its advertisers.

Tell me if this sounds familiar: Where were you last night? Who else was there with you? This photo was taken at the scene. Do you recognise it and can you identify the other people on it? Do you have a significant other? Who is that? What is your real, full last name? What is your birth date, and where were you born? Who are your parents, siblings, cousins? What is your current place of residence?

This is not a police interview. Every day, over 800 million people around the world answer these and other personal questions in exchange for replies, likes and other forms of social validation on the online social network known as Facebook. Willingly. This international profiling service currently serves one-eighth of the population of the world, and continues to furtively embed itself ever deeper into the lives of hundreds of millions of people, and is not always considerate with its users’ privacy in doing so. If the American company keeps this up, eventually commercial interests are going to overtake the public interests of society. How should politics respond to this?

As with most free websites, Facebook’s business model (making four million dollars this year) is based on exploiting online advertising space. Facebook makes money off all the advertisements shown on its pages, being paid for every time someone clicks one or for every 1,000 times an advertisement is shown. The fee for getting to advertise on Facebook has increased by 74% during the last 12 months, in spite of economical depression.

The better the advertisement being shown fits the consumer’s needs, the greater the probability that the advertiser achieves their commercial goals. Thanks to the voluntary police interview with the plethora of personal question that Facebook exposes its users to on a daily basis, every day Facebook is becoming more and more comprehensively informed about more than 1 in 10 members of humankind, and becoming better and better at deciding which advertisements to show them for its clients, the advertisers. Facebook is in a better position that any other company to show relevant advertisements to its users. That product is invaluable to Facebook’s clients, the advertisers. In other words, the product is you.

By gathering more and more information that’s more and more up to date about its users, this advertising giant’s knowledge about its users is becoming more and more articulate. Back in 2006, it was still up to Facebook users themselves to expand their profiles. Nowadays, in 2011, Facebook gets most of its information from users’ interaction with their Facebook friends (130 of them on average), and from analysing users’ online behaviour that it keeps tabs on within but also outside of Facebook.com. Having this much information about the users and their interests makes it child’s play to show the right advertisement to the user who would be the most interested in that advertisement. If people who love Bach usually also like to read books, and people who love Paris and vote for left wing parties usually prefer to take the Thalys to the City of Light, all it takes is some simple arithmetic to show the ads for Amazon.com to the Bach lover and surprise the left wing voter with a special discount offer two minutes after they mentioned through the social medium that they’re looking to plan a city trip.

It’s been smooth sailing for years for the database huckster. But on the horizon is a status quo where the majority of the world’s populace with access to the internet actively uses Facebook, and that means and end to the growth potential of the current business model. Unless the database owner manages to get its users to share even more information. The more a Facebook user browses around on average, the more information about them is acquired. But also: the more different advertisements can be shown to them. The advertising Facebook clients will be more willing than ever to pay money to have their advertisements shown to the right person.

To give Facebook’s product — i.e. you — a treat, and to reinforce millions of users’ loyalty to the platform, a new design for Facebook’s profile pages named Timeline was introduced two weeks ago. What catches the eye is the large time line along which important events in the user’s life are displayed. For example, instead of individually listing every city the user has visited, Facebook now shows a nice world map on which you can see all the places your friend, relative or co-worker has been to. And when, with whom, and what they did there.

With Facebook Timeline, we don’t need CERN any more to travel back in time: who did you spend time with in 2011? What places did you visit, and what photos did you make in Berlin? How many times did you ex and you go to the cinema, and when, where and with whom did you last see Amélie? These new functionalities make the website more fun to use, and will challenge the millions of users to share even more information about themselves. After all, it’s all automatically categorised and displayed nicely in your online diary, where your friends, your relatives and all your other Facebook contacts can respond to it. After all, everyone else is doing it.

It’s not easy to leave Facebook. Not only in the sense that you’d never be able to look at your online diary again, with its likes and valued replies from friends and relatives, but also in the sense that the website retains the right to continue using the photos, replies and other information about you that it’s gathered over the years. Basically, Facebook has no exit. On top of that, the significance of this social networking site continues to increase every day, which is also because large companies like ABN Amro and Vodafone increasingly do their online customer service via Facebook, and birthdays and other events are announced (exclusively) on Facebook more and more often. Not being a part of that practically means social isolation. Facebook will do anything it can to get everyone on the internet to join, and to connect with as many of their contacts as possible, at a very young age. After all, you can never completely quit again. In the future we’ll order our groceries on Facebook, and Facebook will let you know what to cook for your son’s new girlfriend when she comes over for dinner, where you should go for your next vacation and what you could do there. Based, of course, on your friends’ preferences, carefully selected on commercial criteria. Soon enough, society will reach a point where it’s no longer feasible to be a part of society without constantly and intensely using mobile communication technology and the internet, and being logged in as a Facebook user. These are burgeoning public utility services.

It has also become practically infeasible to live without a telephone, for example. Sure, you can simply not get one, but you’ll still be asked for your phone number regularly and get strange looks when you say you don’t have any. Similarly, in the future, life will become practically infeasible without a Facebook profile, just like it has happened in the past with the postal service, public transport, electricity and water supply. And what happened to those services? They’ve all ended up being strictly regulated by the government.

Just like these utility services, Facebook is becoming more and more of a public utility as well. Maybe even more so than the telephone did in its time.

This means that if Facebook wants to avoid governmental regulations — such as the imposition of clearer and stricter guidelines for companies like Facebook that infringe upon citizens’ privacy as a product — then they will have to drastically change the service they offer. The user and the collected information about them should be put into focus in a transparent way, giving absolute control back to the user. Why don’t the Facebooks of the world just let the user keep their own information? After all we all have a modem, and in the future we could easily just attach a protected hard drive to those. That way, we would be in control again of who gets to do what with our information and when. And when we stop that again.

Facebook should become a safe place again instead of a lifelong prison.

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