Cause for Concern
That’s meant to be reassuring: they’re not listening to you because they don’t have to. But if anything, that should be even scarier. Facebook knows so much about you they can make you believe they’re listening to your personal conversations. They have so much data about you they can send you ads that have an uncanny relevance to what is going on in the real world.
Imagine, for a moment, that you had a friend with this level of knowledge about you. Someone who knows everywhere you go, what you like, what you fear, what you want, who you hang out with, how happy you are at any given moment.
They could be an amazing boon to your life. Or they could be a nightmare. It all depends on what they do with the information, and how well you can trust them with it.
Now imagine the friend can use their information about you to make money, say by manipulating your decisions to benefit them. And imagine they’re the kind of morally bankrupt person who would take advantage of their friend this way.
What would their incentives look like?
Since they can make money by manipulating your decisions, they’ll try to manipulate your decisions. And since they can better manipulate your decisions by learning more about you, the more they’ll want to learn. If they want the greatest success for themselves, they will necessarily have to manipulate you as much as possible and collect as much data on you as possible.
This seems to be the situation Facebook has gotten itself into:
- They make money on ads.
- Which means they need you to click on ads.
- Which means they need to know more about you to send you better ads.
- And they need you to spend more time on the site so you click on more ads.
- So they’re motivated to get you addicted to spending time on the platform while collecting as much information about you as possible.
Facebook’s product is not the platform, it’s us. If the product is what a business sells to make money, then Facebook’s product is our attention and data. We are the product. And Facebook’s customers are the companies buying ads based on that attention and data.
If our time and our attention are Facebook’s true product, then their long-term goal becomes clear: to influence (and tax) how we communicate in the 21st century. Every product they’ve launched and company they’ve acquired is related to this goal in some way:
- Facebook (app) is the asynchronous, community-focused communication platform
- Messenger / Whatsapp are the more instant, smaller group communication platforms
- Instagram is the visual communication platform
- Oculus can be the future immersive version of all of these platforms
Facebook wants to own how we communicate because it means more data and more attention, which means more ads revenue. Simple enough.
But that idea should be a little frightening: a company wants to control how you interact with other humans so that they can make money off of you. This isn’t some secret, evil motivation driving the company behind closed doors. It’s a necessary consequence of the incentives that shape it.
Compare this model to Netflix. You pay Netflix a flat monthly fee, and in return, you get unlimited streaming movies and TV shows from their platform. Netflix doesn’t make more money the more time you spend on it (they make less, actually), so they have no incentive to addict you to the platform (beyond keeping you from switching to a competitor). With Netflix, we’re the customers.
This isn’t to say that all free, ad-financed apps are bad and all pay-to-play apps are good. I’ve used Foursquare and Swarm consistently for 7+ years. These are apps where I volunteer my location, travel, eating, and shopping habits, and I’ve never had the slightest sense that Foursquare was using this data in a way that made my life worse.
The ads in Foursquare tend to be useful. Their goal for the product is to be the place consumers go to find the next restaurant or café to try. They don’t need you to spend tons of time in the app, and they don’t need you to buy products from vendors unrelated to your in-app goals. They just want you to stay in the habit of checking in places and finding places through them, so they serve you ads related to the kinds of foods and stores you tend to like.
If Foursquare started using that data in a way that made me uncomfortable, I’d stop using it. If every time I checked into a restaurant I started getting emails from them afterwards, I’d know Foursquare was selling my email address to places I checked in and I wouldn’t be cool with that. I’d delete it, and switch to an app I had more trust in.
The problem with Facebook is that its managed to gain such a monopoly on our digital presence that we worry about quitting it. Switching from Foursquare to Yelp doesn’t give anyone anxiety, but deleting Facebook does.