Conversations in Management: Facebook

One can’t have something for nothing. Happiness has got to be paid for.

 Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Facebook_LikeIf’ you grew up during the 50s or early 60s, you might well have been the victim of an insidious plot concocted by parents and teachers to keep kids in line. It was called the permanent record and anytime you didn’t work to your full potential or behave there was an explicit threat that it would be documented. Many a third grader broke into a cold sweat contemplating a career gone awry decades in the future when the boss learned that they had cracked too many jokes in class and flunked a math quiz. Of course just because you’re little doesn’t mean you’re stupid and soon the kid grapevine was alive with the news that it was all a scam. Fear of the permanent record dissipated and decades of sweet security ensued.

 But it turns out in the long run the kids were wrong. There is a permanent record. It’s called Facebook and it’s worse than anything anyone could have imagined. It started out innocently enough. It was a way for Ivy League kids to privately connect with their privileged pals. When it went mainstream the privacy part began to evaporate. By 2010 Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg announced that privacy was no longer a “social norm.” He then proceeded to make “invasion of privacy” the new normal. As is often the case with tectonic cultural shifts, no one was paying attention. Facebook is a happiness platform. It’s innocuously dubbed, “social.” It lets people easily connect and share. It’s personal. It’s a friendly (most of the time) place. And it’s ubiquitous. You’re connecting with not only family and friends, but with businesses, not-for-profits, churches and even with everyone’s favorite uncle—Sam. For 1.3 billion people it’s an integral part of daily life. That also makes Facebook, in the words of one of its researchers, “the largest field study in the history of the world.” It also makes you among the largest cohort of research subjects ever assembled. You might have missed it, but when you signed up you agreed to be a guinea pig—no further consent required. As you post the benign details of your life, you’re building Facebook’s gargantuan data pool—Big Data—and also forging your permanent record.

Despite the Orwellian sound of Facebook’s Data Science team, it spends most of its time on projects as benign as your postings. They try to figure out how to sell more stuff and get you to use the platform more frequently. But they also do other things like a 2010 study of how “social behaviors spread through networks.” That experiment resulted in an estimated 340,000 additional voters going to polls for the mid-term congressional elections. Not bad for a get out the vote effort but ominous if used by special interests to sway elections. The latest kerfuffle came about when it was discovered that Facebook was studying ways to change behavior by changing someone’s emotions.  Just imagine how an advertiser could benefit from that parlor trick!

Today you might trust Facebook to keep your data safe and to do its research with a light touch. But Big Data doesn’t have an expiration date. It hangs around and that’s what makes your record permanent. Big Data is big money. It’s why you don’t pay for Facebook. The tradeoff is you have no idea who might buy or acquire your record in the future and how they might use it. You can be sure of one thing though—they’ll use it to influence you and in ways you’ll never even notice. This should worry you. If it doesn’t can you be sure you haven’t been manipulated into believing privacy is no longer a “social norm.” It’s something to think about and nothing to Like.        —Ebert

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