Facebook – WE are the product

Here’s a question for you: if you are on Facebook (and over 500 million of us are), do you consider yourself to be one of Facebook’s customers?

(I’ll give you a second to ponder this question……………………)

If you said yes, I am a Facebook customer – well I hate to break this to you but you aren’t. Facebook’s customers are the businesses that pay for those targeted ads we see in the right-hand column of the Facebook interface. How is Facebook so good at targeting those ads?

Because Facebook users are actually the real Facebook product. The more Facebook can convince (or trick) its users to give up even more personal details, the better product they have. In fact, when they offer new features like location or the email feature they’ll announce soon – those are actually new versions of their product.

They depend on our personal information, and our interactions with people and companies, to continue to improve their offering for their real customers.

Is this a bad thing? It all depends how you feel about it. Jane Bozarth has a nice post about this same idea where she talks about privacy and Facebook. But with a service that has 500 million users that is now part of the social fabric in most countries, gaining control of your privacy isn’t as easy as just quitting Facebook.

Here are some of the things I think we have to start thinking about:

  • The privacy issue goes far, far beyond pictures we share online being leaked to a 3rd party, or our emails being harvested. What Facebook is doing is mapping your online activities, who you like, who you talk to, what you play, what you read……and building applications to predict what you *should* want to see. We know that they have algorithms to show us news updates, what happens if someone decides to use this same technology to start shaping public worldview?
  • What if you work for a company that expects you to be on Facebook for work? As someone who leads the social media charge for an organization, this is a real fear people have. I think we have a responsibility to listen to those fears and to find an acceptable solution (esp if we want people to “do” social at work).
  • What societal implications are there if 500 million people use a product that you are reluctant to use because of privacy fears? Do you become an outsider?

I don’t think Facebook is bad, I use it A LOT. I do think people should be more aware of what Facebook is doing and act accordingly. Here are some safeguards I’ve seen people using:

  • Some things are NSFFB – not safe for Facebook. Your updates are being recorded and analyzed, even if you are only sharing them with one or two people. You don’t have to put everything in Facebook – maybe a phone call or a lunch date would be a better way to share the info.
  • Some parents I know do not allow pictures of their kids on FB. Others allow pics, but don’t allow their kids to be identified. If you are a parent, decide what is right for you and your family and let others know
  • This is my most radical idea – but maybe we should try to find ways to mess with the data collection system. You don’t have to have correct info in your profile – lie about your age, your location. When grocery stores first started using the frequent buyer cards, I was part of a group who would change cards every few months. The goal was to find someone completely different from you, and switch with them, so the store couldn’t get a correct profile on you based on what you bought. Do we need something like that for FB?

What do you think? Do you think the harvesting of our personal connections, likes and dislikes presents a societal shift? Do you think people who understand the mechanics of this shift have a responsibility to start sounding the warning bell on this issue? Or do you have suggestions on how to protect this information? Share ‘em in the comments!

6 thoughts on “Facebook – WE are the product

  1. Gina,

    You’ve played Backchatter on Twitter (or at least I’m sure you’ve heard of it). It’s a game where you “bet” on three keywords that will come up in a hash-tag conversation in a certain amount of time. Some people play very passively and just bet and let the conversation take care of itself.

    Some people (like me, Mark Oehlert) are a bit more assertive and we “game” the actual Twitter conversation so that our keywords are mentioned by others (that’s how you score points — you can’t do it yourself). That’s a bit of “social engineering” and that’s the kind of thing you’re suggesting above when I read “mess with the data collection system.”

    There are all sorts of fun ways to mess with the data collection system, but it’s very much like taking your Safeway discount card and buying 80 cartons of cigarettes and a pound of Flax Seed with it.

    Breaking the pattern once in a while is a very good thing, no matter what the context. As was written in Dune “if you walk without rhythm, you won’t attract the worm.”

  2. I haven’t played yet! Get me in the next one!! :D
    I think the first thing that has to happen is people have to realize our patterns **are** being recorded. Then we have to figure out how to break the patterns.

    If you play this out till the most ridiculous conclusion, the entire thing is very, very scary.

  3. I am pretty sure Asimov or Heinlein wrote something this 40+ years ago…as soon as “they” started collecting data about “us”.

    While I am not going to start taking different routes home every night or wearing aluminum on my head to avoid the thought police, a reasonable amount of personal security on my more private data (bank records, social security number, and the like) does make sense.

    Now that I think about data collection though, it does make me wonder what Gina is doing with my email address…hmmmm.

  4. Whether we like, dislike, approve, or disapprove…the social shift is upon us. Facebooks’s “Customers” are growing and that’s due to the direct impact the product (“us”) have on it. If the 500 million users simply updated their status and stopped clicking ads, accessing applications, and playing games, Facebook would fizzle out eventually.

    The social shift we see in the last few years is a direct correlation to how we (product) communicate, shop, share, and play. It is what it is and my guess we won’t be going backward anytime soon.

    I’ve been “messing with the data” ever since I started using Facebook. I’ll change a major attribute in my profile about once a month (city, state, age, email, etc.). Also, one month I may access several stupid quizzes, while the next month I may not use Facebook at all.

    I’m a white male living in the south. Visit a the homepage of any of your friends who are of a different race or religion and see the ads specifically aimed at their demographic. I’ll click on an add for “Asian Living in the city,” “Black entertainment weekly,” and “Is breast feeding better than powder?” in the same span of time. I’d love to see the guy collecting my data!

    If you bank online, pay bills online, give your SSN to the local car dealer, or play any number of location-based games on a smartphone, you have bigger things to worry about privacy than whether or not you tag your kids’ name on a photo in Facebook.

    I’m just sayin’ :)

  5. Maybe I just have better industry insight into this, and that is what wigs me out. As citizens we shouldn’t just accept the loss privacy of our personal data as the price to pay for new technology.

    FB is nothing but this decade’s AOL. They will get too big, try to be everything to everyone while at the same time controlling the experience…and someone will come along with something new. Can you imagine what would happen if everyone became truly technically literate — and not just Facebook literate?

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