Facebook Baby
posted: March 9, 2009
When I was a kid, I was crazy for Mad Magazine, and a passionate follower of Mad's campaign against consumerism and materialism in general, and against Madison Avenue and the world of advertising in particular.

Lots has happened since then. When Mad talked about advertising, it was talking about television, radio and newspapers. There was no Internet. The debate back then was over whether TV, which catered to the sponsors, would kill off newspapers, which took pains to separate the news from the ads. Now the Internet, originally an academic project financed by the American military, has become the World Wide Web, which is both a powerful vehicle for disseminating information and a mighty commercial mechanism. And it's proving to be the Web which is finally killing off the newspapers.

New web ventures have a patina of geeky chic, but behind them all are hard-nosed venture capitalists who are trying to figure out how to monetize the web – their polite way of saying they want to make money from web users. This is something of a challenge since the Web started off free; we have many warnings that this will change, and that our culture will veer off into an even higher stage of materialism and consumerism.

What's more frightening is that many efforts to monetize the web accomplish it with a massive invasion of our privacy. Our web searches reveal what we are thinking about and interested in; our emails explicitly contain our personal concerns and professional activities. All this information is fair game for Web businesses to collect, analyze and use or sell in an effort to make advertising more effective.

The latest development is the social network, primarily Facebook and Myspace.  These seemingly innocuous platforms for people to communicate are valued in the billions by investors.

Consider Facebook. In the past few months, I've been asking lots of people I know have who have set up Facebook accounts: why? The vaguely perplexed answer is usually that everyone else is doing it and that it's a great way to get in touch with people from yesteryear.

On the surface, Facebooks shows the users ads along the right side of the page à la Google. But underneath, it's clear that Facebook hopes to marshal the enormous amount of personal information that users cheerfully upload to make their service more valuable to their advertisers – or partners as they refer to them.

Facebook has proved to be rather innovative and bold about its use of the information, and on a couple occasions has had to back down. Here's a little history: for a while, Facebook was sending messages to alert your friends when you bought something from one of Facebook's partners.  All the friends in your network would get a friendly friend update: "Zina just bought a monitor from Dell!" After a little hub bub, Facebook took a half step back from it; you are no longer automatically opted in.
More recently, Facebook changed the wording in its Terms of Service to read that they will retain everything you've ever uploaded, even if you try to delete your entire account. When the company backed down for now, they said it was all a misunderstanding and they're having a comment period on its Terms of Service and "principles", with a vote on any user-suggested amendments at the end of this month.

The problem is, for any user-suggested amendment to be enacted, it requires 50 million users to cast a ballot for it. Yes, 50 million. See this column in the Chicago tribune by Wailin Wong.

The brave new world of interconnectivity is upon us: we are each a potential commodity for corporations to buy and sell. They provide social networks, and services of all kinds – they let us mouth off, store our files, use their programs, and they treat all these as data to be mined for advertising opportunities. We aren't the customer, we're the product.

It's only advertising today, but what happens when Facebook sells access to your messages and posts and photos to a political group to mine for data or hands it over to a government agency that has been granted the right by some yet-to-be-passed legislation?

It might seem relatively benign today: who cares about some lame advertisements appearing on their Facebook pages? But volunteering to be a commodity brings with it the abdication of some crucial rights to privacy. The tomorrow that this kind of abdication makes possible might not be worth the thrill of being contacted by a long-forgotten classmate you once sat next to in homeroom or reading what your pal had for breakfast.

Some links to articles about Facebook that raise some interesting questions:

Tom Hodgkinson for The Guardian

Brad Stone for The New York Times