Peak Facebook

We have arrived. We are now at peak Facebook. That point of ubiquity where an online service has reached its maximum capacity in terms of active use and user base. From here on now, Facebook will decline in importance and slowly enter into a phase where it will be regarded as nothing but what its name indicates: a book with faces and names, but no meaningful networked sociality.

There are 2 billion monthly active Facebook users, roughly 26 % of the world’s population. But to see this statistic as indicative of the importance of Facebook in our lives would be a mistake. Surely enough, people log on to Facebook, even daily. I do, too. The amount of daily active users is still increasing. But for people who have been using the service for 10 years, the change is apparent. We used to upload pictures of each other, we used to add friends frantically, we used to express our thoughts. The personal is gone and all we see is promotion. Today, the type of content we see can be divided into three categories: advertising, professional publication, and self-publication.

The evidence is mostly anecdotal, as Facebook doesn’t really let us peak into its coffers. But there is a strong sentiment that ultimately, using Facebook is boring. We “share”, but mostly just odd links and op-eds dressed as status updates. Gone are the days where “Facebook stalking” was an actual source of entertainment (or problem, for that matter). Surely enough, Facebook is making more money than ever, but its becoming evidently clear that The-Once-Social-Network is becoming nothing more than an advertising behemoth and content aggregator.

 

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Personalization paranoia or how I was stalked by Daniel Tiger

The thing about personalized ads and content on Facebook is that you don’t know exactly why the content you see ends up on your News Feed. While this algorithmic black box is well known to many and probably ignored by most, academic analysis of behavioural advertising rarely take a closer look at what personalized ads do to a person’s psyche.

poster-daniel-tigers
The Fred Rogers Company

The other day I was taking a daily scroll through my News Feed when I noticed an article from the Atlantic titled Daniel Tiger is Secretly Teaching Kids to Love Uber. For those of you without toddlers or a peculiar interest in kids’ TV shows, Daniel Tiger  is a friendly 4-year old tiger who teaches children how to cope with failure with happy-go-lucky songs.

Was the article served to me because I subscribe to the Atlantic’s Facebook page? I read several of their articles a week, so seeing an article from the Atlantic isn’t  too strange. However, I don’t see all of their articles, and the ones I do tend to be focused on topics related to the Internet economy (for obvious reasons).

Was it, in fact, the article’s reference to Uber, not Daniel Tiger, that made Facebook present this particular article to me? Or was it because Facebook had identified me as a parent and tended to suggest similar content to parents? Or did Facebook register that I googled the show at some point, and if I did, had I been signed into my Facebook account at the time or used private browsing? Or did Netflix share some of their viewing data with Facebook?

In this targeted online environment consent to terms and conditions and privacy notices make little sense. It is impossible to keep track of the myriad ways companies share and collect data, and a carte blanche is usually required to even begin using the service. While the goal might be efficient targeting to make advertisers happy, it results in personalization paranoia. Calling Facebook’s targeting a black box is therefore not an entirely accurate metaphor. I would prefer to call it a one-way mirror — everything we do is monitored, we’re vaguely aware of it, but we have no idea who’s watching.

 

Is sensitive personal information becoming desensitized?

With all the hype surrounding big data, it should come as no surprise that people are worried about how their data is used.

"How concerned are you about the unnecessary disclosure of personal information?" Source: Eurobarometer 359, p. 59.
“How concerned are you about the unnecessary disclosure of personal information?” Source: Eurobarometer 359, p. 59.

Some data points have always been part of the modern bureaucratic state (see Giddens, 1985, for example). These are usually referred to as objective data points, which indicate facts such as births, deaths, age and income. Many of these data points are simply necessary to run a well-functioning state apparatus.

The reason why smartphones and social media is changing our relation to personal data is that subjective data points, such as what people read, what they search for, who they secretly stalk on Facebook, are much easier to come by than before. What’s more, people readily submit information on themselves on social networks that used to be hidden deep under the surface. There is a huge gap between what data protection officials think is sensitive information and what’s actually happening.

Fore example, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office defines sensitive personal data as something which has information on a) the racial or ethnic origin of a person, b) his/her political opinions or religious beliefs, c) his/her sexual life, among other things.

Facebook sees your sexual preferences, religious beliefs and political views as “basic info”. Not even “details about you”, but “basic”; information which is, undeniably, potentially very sensitive in many parts of the world.

The gist is that while marketers and companies are hoping to gather more and more sensitive information on potential customers, they really, REALLY don’t want to have their customer databases defined as collections of “sensitive data”. Because when that happens, you are suddenly forced to follow strict rules regarding what you can do with the information. Funnily enough, the best way to avoid that is not by refraining from collecting sensitive information, but rather by claiming that the information you have gathered is not on “real, identifiable people” but just “profiles”.

Giddens, Anthony (1985): The Nation-State and Violence: Volume Two of a Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Eurobarometer survey 359 on data protection