‘If it’s free, you’re the product’ – and what that means for Facebook

A few days ago I belatedly joined approximately 1.2 billion other people – more than one in seven of the world’s entire population – on Facebook.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.
OK, can anybody guess what I am ACTUALLY a fan of from the ‘metadata’ on the sign around me? Or will I just get barraged with ads for stupid artisan stuff?

I’ve had reasons to be laggard. Only one is time.  I set up a Facebook placeholder do-nothing page in 2013, to protect my name – but my main leeriness with actively engaging has been their reported attitude to users. There are reports of Facebook allegedly reading private messages and selling the information. Just last month, account holders were unknowingly used for mass psychology experiments. Facebook has also been reported tracking your clicks – including (by cookie) when you’re logged off your account. In short, they know what you do. They have your profile. And a month ago, they openly announced that they’re going to track your browsing.

Most social media does this, and of course the big ones get the highest profile flak. To me, it’s one result of a web-world where users look for ‘free’. How is the service funded? Online providers have turned themselves, as they’ve grown, into advertising companies – in which user conduct, as apparent clue to user preference and want, is the prime commodity.

To me it’s a fairly obvious general outcome of the collision between the human condition, the way that condition has been shaped by history (especially the last few centuries in the west) and technology. This had led to all sorts of specific characteristics of the modern world. One of those is the way data about you – which you can’t control and don’t necessarily know, has been collected. As a friend of mine put it, if it’s free – you’re the product. 

He’s right. The Guardian called the mechanism ‘surveillance as a business model‘. And it is – the issue being not advertising you can ignore, but what might happen if somebody with different intent and value judgement has that data. Particularly when the context of your thoughts, intentions or other motives isn’t part of the data-set. This is classic 2 + 2 = 486,593. Armand Jean du Plessis – Cardinal Richieleu – summed it up in 1641: Qu’on me donne six lignes écrites de la main du plus honnête homme, j’y trouverai de quoi le faire pendre. “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.”

As I’ve always said, the tragedy of history is that the stories change – but human nature doesn’t. Think about it.

Me, loitering a bit in the ideal writing place...
Me, loitering a bit in the ideal writing place…so sell me books? Actually, this is me being a science geek inside the Carter Observatory, Wellington NZ.

The other issue is that social media makes derp easy – derp that’s yours. Forever. And sure, it’s cool to publish some pic that means something to you and friends after you’ve pranked the boss. Gives you bragging rights for a day or two. Does it mean anything to anybody else?

We all derp, in various ways. It’s called being human. But do you want that pic of you with a rifle and a dead gazelle to be found 28 milliseconds after you landed a multi-million dollar contract with L’Oreal? Whether you shot it or not? It’s not new. French revolutionary leader Maxmilien Robespierre summed up the way societies respond to alleged conduct over 200 years ago: “Peoples do not judge in the same way as courts of law; they do not hand down sentences, they throw thunderbolts…” And he thought it was as valid, as a mechanism for condemnation, as a court. Sound familiar today? As I say, the tragedy of history (etc etc)…

Rule of thumb? Everything you put into the internet is PERMANENTLY PUBLISHED. Everything? Everything. And assume anybody can see it. Don’t rely on privacy settings. The judgement is straight-forward. Imagine it’s on the front page of the paper. Do you want your name attached? That’s especially so if you’re also trying to build brand and author profile. Basic media management – which pre-dates the internet – applies. How does that sit with genuinely connecting to people – and building an author platform? There are answers. More in due course.

On the other hand, Facebook is expected. Me? For now, a personal page. I might do an author page later. Maybe.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


15 thoughts on “‘If it’s free, you’re the product’ – and what that means for Facebook

  1. I’m following you now on FB. Personally, I have no huge issues with FB. I use it for the groups and for chatting with other writers. On ethics and my strong belief in personal freedom I don’t like the idea of internet spying & tracking. Then I stop and think a bit. I say let FB follow me, I’m not that interesting. I don’t buy anything but books online. They can track that too.


    1. Thanks for the follow! I don’t mind being tracked, they’ll only learn I’m pretty boring, and I can ignore the adverts…but I like to know it’s happening.


      1. Ditto. No prob on the follow. It helps me keep track of when people post blogs. Do you have it linked to WP?


        1. Yes. I have everything linked to WP… Links, “follow this” etc etc – and still, it seems, the world was more interested in soccer for the last month 🙂 Can’t imagine why… 😉


          1. I’ve been wondering when the USA started to give a dang about soccer. It feels like it just happened this year. No one watched it last year. What’s up?


              1. I’m not into sports in general. I can tolerate kickboxing, MMA, hockey, and rugby. At least something really exciting has a chance to happen with those.

                People at work had their own “teams” for the cup. I had to blink a few times in disbelief I know they did not care last year. It’s a conspiracy. It has to be.


  2. You visited my “1870 to 1918” blog not long ago and I appreciated your comment. But now I realize I will be the only person in the world who isn’t on Facebook. And I never will be, either 🙂


    1. I appreciated reading your blog! Good stuff. Yes, I resisted Facebook as long as I could. Finally did succumb purely because, for the minute at least, is is probably the central pivot of any social network. It’s unlikely I will want to post any pictures of the meal I just got served, though.


  3. FB was my second social media indulgence. The first was YouTube. Happy to see made your way to FB, though in many ways I can understand why someone would avoid it. It’s a bit creepy when I can watch the ads change in the sidebar to reflect what I’m writing in a post or comment. Still, I regularly interact with people from around the globe and I find that worthwhile.


  4. Nooooooooo! (but yet the benefits cannot be denied) My own personal rebellion is that my non-blog FB profile pic is a cob of corn… “stickin’ it to the man”…


    1. Wish I could do that…but the dictates of author branding demands my ugly mug. I did try avoiding author pix altogether but the impecunious demands of publishers for author photos won out.


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