Escapism? The right moment to turn back time? — Facebook, an analytics company, a real reason for outrage, no one talks about

Discussions about abandoning Facebook are en vogue. Again. This time thanks to the “Cambridge Analytica” scandal. However, in my book, the true reason for outrage here is the fundamental misunderstanding about online services by so many, that is revealed by this debate. Again.

“I fought the law and the law won.” The iconic line of one of the Greatest Hits from The Clash frames pretty well many things that have been and still are going on related to online media and online content in general and to Facebook especially.

There is so much confusion, mutual disappointment over mutual fraud and overall a resulting situation of broken trust that dominates today’s debate around all aspects of the global online culture. And all this ultimately results from entire series of broken laws on all sides. And I’m mostly not talking about the laws of jurisdiction here. I’m rather talking about laws that are best known as rules of life. Let me list you a couple of them and how I think they relate to general online usage and media consumption.

There is no such thing as a free lunch. Never.

If you don’t pay money for a service, then you are the product. At least a part of it. It’s as simple as that. One or the other way, there is no way around that. End of story. (cont. following pic)

“Look Mom! I gave them all my data and all I got in return is this pen.” — “Well, son. Be greatful. At least this pen does not scan your data.” :-) (Pic by author, pen from Facebook, made by … ?)

In my experience, the biggest misunderstanding people cultivate around the online world is the concept of everything out there being “free (of charge)”. Unfortunately, even people that otherwise have the capacity to understand things even more complex and tricky fall prey to this widely spread misconception.

I wonder why that is. And where all the blind trust comes from, that, of all things human creation, it’s the internet people trust so much. After all, the internet as the wider public knows it, is more then 25 years old these days. (e.g. Amazon was founded in 1994). Time for users to adjust. Time to get educated. But maybe I’m naive about that idea. Anyhow, thats all a totally different story, involving a lot of guessing, without conducting a full blown study first.

For now, let’s look at what is real. Well, for real is that every service, every product, everything offered for sale or consumption online is eventually put out there by people. Real people. With real lives. Real needs. Real companies. Real invoices. Real bank accounts. Hence, there is always somewhere someone aiming to make money with such services or products. Always.

Means: If they don’t get your money, they look for compensation for their efforts otherwise. And in the online world, “otherwise” usually is data.

This fact shouldn’t be a surprise in 2018. But as it seems to be one for so many folks. So, let me write it in plain words: Essentially, Facebook is a data company. Facebooks business model is data exploitation. User data exploitation.

There is nothing new to this fact. It has been the business case for Facebook more or less since day one of the company started working on a business model. 
 
 And they are not the only ones doing this. Apple Music, Spotify, in many ways as well Netflix or Amazon/Alexa. In many ways, companies answers peoples need to play it cheap by subsidizing their services with data collection to make businesses sustainable.

So, if you look at it from this perspective — isn’t all that fuss about the “Cambridge Analytica scandal” all of sudden just a bit more of exactly that: simply just another fuss?

There is no free lunch, 2.: People always ask you something for a reason

Whatever Cambridge Analytica really got out of whatever amount of people for whatever purpose* — one thing is for sure. Cambridge Analytica could only collect data because people made an effort to engage with their application and the services it had on offer. And, boom, a couple more cases of blind trust happened here obviously. 
 
And I wonder (again): how this can happen?

First, there is Facebook login. The “easy to use” login option, to be found everywhere on the net, enabling Facebook to log people into all kinds of services. In other words: You throw away your key and make Facebook the doorman. I never use it for exactly that reason. Facebook is one thing. Another service is another thing. And I want to decide when to open what door.

Then there is the phenomenon of the online questionaires. Imagine, some application somewhere out there on a platform offers to ask you all kinds of personal questions with the promise of delivering basically nothing substantial in return. Would you answer these questions? If you answer is “Yes”, I honestly think you don’t have much reason to blame Facebook for anything.

I mean, seriously? 
 
 No questioning of the intentions of those who put such questionnaire out there? No wondering, skepticism? 
 
 Let’s remind ourselves: Back in the analog days, we had to pay good money for such entertainment. You wanted to read your horoscope? Buy yourself some (yellow) press. You did look for self help advice? Buy yourself a book. So why on earth should such things be rent free all of a sudden in the online era? Why?

Don’t focus on a platform — focus on the system

If you consider leaving Facebook these days, you better want to consider leaving the online world at all. Because if you leave Facebook and you want to behave logically, you have to leave Instagram, WhatsApp and Twitter as well as Amazon, Google, Netflix and whatever else “free of charge” Tech / Online product you are using in one or the other way.

Think about it for a moment. How dependent we got on all these services … e.g. Spotify, all sorts of fitness/training tracking services, free EMail-Accounts, free of charge Web-Browsers, free cloud storage services etc. etc.

So many of these are “free of (money) charge” services making their money somewhere else.

Means, I say that again, mostly making their money with data. Collecting data, exploiting it, selling it to advertisers of all kinds or exploiting it themselves to sell you services or goods.

It has become a well-established mechanism. Customers are highly reluctant to pay for things online without literally being lured into paying via the freemium strategy. So companies design products that generate revenue from the data the service collects. At least in part.

And there no end in sight to such data trade-off. 
 
 Latest prominent example: New film industry player MoviePass. A company essentially doing nothing else then what Facebook is doing. Establish a platform, make people sign up for next to nothing (or nothing at all, like it is in case of Facebook). Then collect data from users behavior and usage of the platform.

The relatively miniscule amount of money MoviePass does charge for what they offer in return is just a shield to hide this fact. So, maybe a next scandal just lies on the road ahead. With a fair chance, it will include something around data breach within cinema audiences. 
 
 (I’m not implying here that Moviepass is doing a sloppy job or something illegal or morally questionable or that MoviePass is even planning on doing something of such sort. The company is talking about its data collecting efforts openly. My point is just, that a company being in the data business is at least running a good chance of having trouble with something data related. Just like a dairy company has a bigger chance of having trouble with dairy products then let’s say a machine manufacturer.)

It’s not even a question of excellence to make such a prediction. It’s simply calling natural law by its right name. Where there is a lot of data, there is a good chance for breach. Sooner or later. For proof of this statement, do some googling — type “ <companyname> data leak “, read what you find in the results … Use company names like Yahoo, Google or Paypal.

You can’t turn back time

Another confusing aspect in all this “Let’s leave …” frenzy for me: What do all these people think of going to?

It’s not that the former analog media world is still waiting out there — patiently offering their good old paper publishing at a kiosk near you. It’s not that the good old world of free TV is still serving us the same kick-ass programming like back in 1999. Also, it’s not that there are alternatives online out there by the dozen, offering us the same level of integration, connectivity or interaction as Facebook does.

It’s not that I think there couldn’t be life anymore without Facebook. But the platform has become an integral part of all western media ecosystems regarding information and entertainment. If we all would walk away from it, yes this could change things overnight. If it’s at least some groups who walk away — maybe they could make a dent. But if it’s just you and two to five of your best buddies who are leaving then it’s just “Goodbye, have fun. Call me when you get there …”

Plus: Hasn’t all this “Let’s get out of here” talk worn off since a while already? After all, it was practiced ad nauseam over every major terms&conditions change Facebook made in the last couple of years. Always ending with the same result: The total number of Facebook users kept growing.
 
 So maybe a change of strategy should be considered by the user base. Like: Let’s really understand what the company is up to and try to teach them what we are willing to deal with. 
 
 Facebook and its users, the users and their Facebook. After all, this is a symbiosis.

And, there is no way around it: The rat race between data ownership, anonymity, and regulation, user online security and user online convenience and everything related to it has just begun.

We have things like e-government, e-health, autonomous cars, smart homes, voice recognition on the horizon.

Therefore, to think you can escape the challenges of modern life by escaping Facebook and/or Social Media is just escapism.

“Welcome to Facebook.” — Try to imagine that billions of people have seen this page since Facebook went live. (Screenshot by author)

Wether at sea or in court …

Yes, Facebook made mistakes. Big ones. (And is still making some. Read my other post on this here.) As far as it looks now, Cambridge Analytics application probably never ever should have been available on Facebook in the first place. And yes, for now, it looks like executives of companies have lied. To authorities and to the public. But then, before the courts and on the high seas, we are in God’s hands. Means here for me, the final jury is still out on this. And we can hope for a punishment of the wrongdoing from a legal side. But let’s face it — in reality, this is all relatively brand new. And its complex like hell. So, in reality, maybe we will never see a verdict in court on this. 
 
 Either way, it was definitely not cool that Facebook waited for so long to act on pulling the plug on CA. And if only for the reason of trust among its 2,1 Billion strong community.

It looks like the big F not only shot itself in the foot. It created a bloody mess in its own yard. Once more. But this time it really does hurt. Their biggest self-inflicted trauma in the history of the company.

All this might not have been totally avoidable. But it could have been handled more humble from the company’s side. Especially, given all the history of data breaches in Tech overall. And all the talk about data security for a couple of years. Especially since all the heat is building up internationally to at least discuss possible break-ups of Techs giant players. I’m aware this isn’t a clear-cut case of a data breach. But most folks don’t understand the subtle differences here. Because they aren’t experts, they are just users.

Better management should, could have seen this coming and should have been more protective of Facebooks user’s data. 
 
 And if they would have done it in hindsight and have talked about it all over the place. (Yep, Facebooks communication strategy on the Cambridge situation sucks as well).

But that’s the jurisdiction aspect of things.

For the rules of common sense, it’s everyone’s own responsibility to act as a mature, autonomous user all the time. On Facebook. And everywhere else online. Including asking questions about why and how some things might be the way they are. 
 
 As in the business of data, the most powerful weapon a user has is to deny the collection of such. Means: You can click every button. But sometimes (rather: most of the times) you maybe don’t have to do so.

9,99 = passport to happiness**

There is a rule of thumb that helps to make sure the law is with the righteous ones out there in the vast online landscape: If you pay real money, your data is safer (safer!). And a magic number here seems to be to pay more or less around 9,99 (in almost every relevant western FIAT currency). For this kind of money paid on a monthly basis, you get unlimited access to music on Spotify, you get Netflix, you get music on Apple, even Amazon prime roughly fits into this equation. So there you have a sign where to go to if you want to bend the law towards a direction that feels more empowering.

But, be aware: Even if you pay money, this does not mean you are off the hook regarding usage of your data. As such naturally is a fundamental element of everything technology. And a fundamental element of an online world where users primarily try to get basic services free of charge.

So, at least for now this might not change. Until more users understand the interconnectedness of the dynamics. Or until technologies like the blockchain enable to think of new company-consumer-approaches that reward the rather free-spending and leave those who want to play it cheap out there in the cold nights of data-against-service-trade.

If you log in to Facebook on facebook.com, the company tells us: “It’s free and always will be”. Right now, to me, it looks like Zuckerberg tried to fight the law with that claim. But the law won. The rest of the story only time will tell.

*opinions differ widely on the real impact the company truly had.

**(this rule mostly applies online :-) )