Enrique Dans
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Enrique Dans

Facebook: the normalization of what should never have been accepted as normal

Mark Zuckerberg’s argument in the article he published in The Wall Street Journal on Thursday, “The facts about Facebook”, is that people do not trust Facebook because they don’t understand it and the nature of its activities.

The article’s subtitle, “We need your information for operations and security, but you control whether we use it for advertising”, could not be less true: users have no control over what Facebook does with their data, and the company can sell it on to advertisers looking for specific profiles or to some shady Russian agency working on behalf of an unscrupulous candidate running for high political office, or it may even end up in the hands of criminals who will use it for identity theft. It is precisely because more and more people know that Facebook has repeatedly shown a total disregard for its users’ data, that fewer and fewer of us trust it any longer.

The problem is that this irresponsible approach is part of Facebook’s DNA: a Harvard student that for some reason beyond his understanding, discovers that his colleagues are willing to share all their data on the social network he has created. Zuckerberg’s fellow students, who he himself has referred to as “dumb fucks”, had found a way to share things in a university environment, where privacy was far from the priority. Facebook may have initially lacked a business model, but its founder soon discovered that nevertheless there were investors willing to finance it while he was still working out its money-making potential.

It took time for a business model to emerge. Initially, Zuckerberg focused on developing the IT side of things and subcontracted advertising out to Microsoft. When, a few years later, he decided to manage advertising himself, the model had already manifested itself: total control over its users’ information and then selling that information on to the highest bidder.

When all is said and done, advertising is also the basis for Google’s business model; with one fundamental difference: advertisers on Google choose their segmented targets based on many variables, but Google will never give them the identity, address or personal data of its users, which it zealously guards, applying far superior security to do so than most of its competitors.

Facebook’s approach is the very opposite. To start with, because there are any number of ways a company can build applications on to its model, secondly, because Facebook’s security is a disaster area, and finally and most importantly, because it is governed by a single principle: anything goes. If at some point it runs into trouble as a result of this approach, it simply apologizes and promises never to let it happen again. Facebook not only sells your data to the highest bidder, but will also throw in all your personal details, your interests, your friends… whatever. The only limits are set by the “creativity” of the buyer. The more we learn about Facebook, the more we realizes that the only thing to do is slap a law suit on it.

What is the secret of Facebook’s success? Quite simply that until it came along, nobody had ever offered businesses such a perfect way to advertise their products or services. As has been shown, Facebook is the best way to place a specific advertisement in front of a specific user, and to keep doing so until he or she reacts. This can be done with the consent of the company or without it, legally or illegally, for good or for bad. Facebook discreetly hands everything it knows about you to a third party, which will then decide what it wants to do with it.

Taking part in a personality quiz on Facebook means handing all your data and those of your friends to such unidentified third parties, as happened with Cambridge Analytica. Equally, the company might hand your data to third parties under some type of commercial agreement you will never know about. Meanwhile, thieves keep stealing the data of tens of millions of users, with the company dismissing this as if it were the most normal thing in the world. The best joke I’ve seen that sums up Facebook shows somebody spying through the window on a couple sitting on their sofa, with one of them saying to the other, “don’t worry, it’s just a marketeer collecting our personal data to create more relevant ads for us.”

All of which has led us to this: the normalization of practices that should never have been seen as normal. Use my social network, because I will take everything you say and do, and what you don’t say and do, in fact anything I can extract from you, and I will systematically sell it to the highest bidder, give it away or allow it to be stolen.

That said, I still believe social networks have a future, but that this future will have to be based on radically different business models, ones that do not see users as a commodity to be bought and sold, and that instead, respect them. In a few years, we’ll look back at Facebook as the product of youthful excess that we should try with all our might to avoid ever happening again.

This article was previously published on Forbes.

(En español, aquí)

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On the effects of technology and innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

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Enrique Dans

Enrique Dans

Professor of Innovation at IE Business School and blogger at enriquedans.com

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