Facebook as Big Brother (UPDATED 4/10/12)

1984-by-view-askewFacebook has morphed dramatically from their college and pre-college base.  Now only a quarter of users are 18-24 year olds (college and pre-college) and the fastest growth is coming from mature age groups.     Facebook is up to 845 million active users and their IPO capitalized on all the private information that users have inadvertently revealed.  And an Austrian student (Max Schrems), through the Austrian right to discover what information Facebook is collecting, learned that Facebook had 1,222 pages on him including posts he had deleted and his physical location when he posted.

“A Wall Street Journal examination of 100 of the most popular Facebook apps found that some seek the email addresses, current location and sexual preference, among other details, not only of app users but also of their Facebook friends. One Yahoo service powered by Facebook requests access to a person’s religious and political leanings as a condition for using it. The popular Skype service for making online phone calls seeks the Facebook photos and birthdays of its users and their friends.”

The fundamental equation of Facebook is that it provides a free service, funded by Facebook freely distributing the reams of personal information that users reveal about themselves and which Facebook makes available to application developers, advertisers and the like.

Discussing the social implications and privacy, Jeesi Hempel writes in Fortune magazine:

“At times it may seem hard to reconcile Zuckerberg’s lofty aspirations for Facebook with the utterly commonplace content that users create on the site. Consider 25 Random Things, a new take on the chain letter that has grown so popular it was written up in the New York Times Style section. You list 25 supposedly random things about yourself and send the note on to 25 of your friends (who are supposed to do the same), but your randomness also ends up on display to any gawker who may be surfing your profile. The items range from the banal (No. 17: I never, ever, ever throw up. Like five times in my adult life) to the intimate (No. 2: I knew I was gay in the sixth grade but didn’t tell anyone until I was 19). The feature is high profile – some 37,500 lists sprang up in just two weeks – but taken as a whole it just seems like a lot of user-generated babble.  [Note: Slate had a recent post about how 25 Random Things spread in a style approximating a natural virus.]

“Yet it is that very babble that makes Facebook so valuable to marketers. Imagine if an advertiser had the ability to eavesdrop on every phone conversation you’ve ever had. In a way, that’s what all the wall posts, status updates, 25 Random Things, and picture tagging on Facebook amount to: a semipublic airing of stuff people are interested in doing, buying, and trying. Sure, you can send private messages using Facebook, and Zuckerberg eventually hopes to give you even more tools to tailor your profile so that the face you present to, say, your employer is very different from the way you look online to your college roommate. Just like in real life. But the running lists of online interactions on Facebook, known as feeds are what make Facebook different from other social networking sites – and they are precisely what make corporations salivate.”

Facebook users get to “curate their stream” – the flow of information about changes individuals have made to their Facebook page that goes to their social networks on the site.Individuals on Facebook have two feeds: a personal field that logs changes you have made to your own site (a photo, a status update, a video post) and a second feed that tracks all the

“interactions your friends are having (and alerts friends to updates you’ve made on your personal feed). If your brother RSVP’d to a dinner party, for example, you might be notified about it, even if you weren’t invited to attend. And if you change your profile photo, it may let your brother know. Like Facebook itself, the feeds are subject to the network effect: The more data you share and interact with, the more robust your news feed becomes….

The information that pops up is partly a result of controls you establish in your privacy settings and feedback you provide to Facebook. But Facebook also can track your behavior, and if the site notices you’re spending a lot of time on the fan page of a certain movie star, for example, it will send you more information about that celebrity.

Kind of Big Brother-ish, and a marketer’s wet dream.The irony is that despite the use of tracking this personal information to sell you things, users sense that they are not being watched because there is not so much advertising currently on Facebook.It’s almost like baiting a bear by getting it comfortable feeding nonchalantly at a location before one drops the trap. And on Facebook there is no retracting all the personal information that users have left on Facebook about how they know Jane, or their e-mail chatter with friends, or who is in their inner and outer circle based on number of shared friends or who they share their personal feeds with.  That’s all stored on Facebook servers somewhere deep within the enterprise.

Moreover, users’ desire for privacy and Facebook’s desire to know with whom they are dealing often collide.  Facebook has recently actively fought the right of users to use pseudonyms (even for Arab Spring activists or Salman Rushdie).  As someone interested in social capital, I do think there is another side to this story (although I’m not at all sure this is what is motivating Mark Zuckerberg).  Online interactions that are anonymous are far more likely to be vitriolic and interfere with users investing heavily in preserving their online reputation.  If one can lie, or cheat, or flame, and no one knows that it is you, many studies have shown that lying or cheating or flaming is more widespread.

We may be six degrees of separation from anyone else in the world, but only only degree of separation from Big Brother wearing the mask of Facebook.

Facebook is walking a fine line as much of their market value will go up in smoke if they lose user trust.  It is for this reason that several years back they put new changes in the site to a vote in which 30% of their then user base (or 60 million users) had to approve the changes.

This loss of privacy is more concerning, considering  just how many people this affects and how widely users use Facebook to post pictures, posts, links, and friendship patterns that reveal lots about themselves that they probably wouldn’t feel comfortable posting to the world.

Fortune magazine notes how Facebook dramatically shrunk the amount of time to reach 150 million users or sell 150 million units.  Phones took 89 years, televisions took 38, cellphones took 14, iPods took 7 years and Facebook took only 5.  [Fortune doesn’t focus on the fact that the population is larger now so getting to 150 million users or units is easier and that Facebook is aided by the fact that it is free, but Facebook’s growth was impressive nonetheless.]

In 2009, Facebookers spent 169 minutes a month on average (or almost 3 hours) on the site and this increased rapidly.   Fortune doesn’t present a graphic but I assume that there is a group of manic Facebook users that spend 3-5 hours a day on the site or more and some users who use it very rarely.  Facebook acknowledged several years back that less than 10% of users, although still a sizable 15 million folks, do update their status every day (and this is up almost 400% from 2010 while over the same period the number of users was up only 75%, so the growth wasn’t just coming from more users ).

Zuckerberg’s vision is to have Facebook be a “social utility” where “one day everyone would be able to use it to locate people on the web “ David Pogue has an interesting story showing how this is starting to come true: a woman who found a wallet in a NY cab was able to track the wallet’s owner down on Facebook when she couldn’t through 411.  But equally the reality is that it can and is being used not just to locate people on the web, but to sell everything about them to others.

Read other posts about the social implications of Facebook.

See New York Magazine’s, “Do You Own Facebook? Or Does Facebook Own You?” (4/5/09) (describing how Julius Harper’s group on Facebook, protesting Facebook’s privacy policies, swelled to almost 150,000 members

Read the interesting Fortune Cover Story, “How Facebook is Taking Over Our Lives”  by Jessi Hempel  (3/2/09)

Facebook Is Using You” (Lori Andrews Op-Ed, NYT, 2/4/12) that notes that information revealed on Facebook can hurt you down the road in mortgage applications, job interviews, etc.

Read Lori Andrews’ I Know  Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy (2012).  [NYT review of book here.]

Read “Selling You on Facebook” (WSJ, 4/8/12 by Julia Angwin and Jeremy Singer-Vine)

And if you want to laugh about it, see the Onion’s satire “Mark Zuckerberg Is a CIA Agent “.  Laughing aside, the CIA has purchased a stake in Q-Tel and Visible Technologies to actually listen in on social media (including YouTube, blogs,  tweets, etc.) and the  CIA has admitted to using social media software in recruiting operatives.

Obama Information Czar and Nudge co-author Cass Sunstein suggested in a 2008 paper “Conspiracy Theories” with co-author Adrian Vermeule that government might “cognitively infiltrate” social networks to help unveil conspiracy theorists and change their minds.


8 responses to “Facebook as Big Brother (UPDATED 4/10/12)

  1. in addition, facebook now keeps a record of where you log in from! you can’t turn it off either. if that’s not scary, idk what is.

  2. so where can we go that is safe on the internet?

  3. Now facebook makes you put in a phone number to log in even if you don’t have one!

    I only use Facebook to comment on a news article but now no more.

    All I can say is @#*$! you facebook and all your greedy big brother employers! (I feel better already) :)

  4. As I said above we are only baby steps from a New World Order.

    All we need is a global disaster big enough that the ultimate *Savior* will appear that promises to fix things as long as they give up their rights and privacy to *the one* which most people will do so without hesitation thus selling their *souls* to the devil.

    We got them stupid humans right where we want them and they are none the wiser! Mwa ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

    Hopefully some countries will resist and the leader will label them all sorts of names but they will fight for individual freedom and responsibilities which a toleration big brother state cannot even hope to accomplish and might as well kiss their control good bye since people will rise when they realize they are being hoodwinked.

  5. Today facebook acted in a manner to demonstrate that it is acting as Big Brother. I put up some political positions which are apparently unpopular with facebook controllers–the current drive toward WWIII. Facebook immediately contacted me to say I was asking strangers to become friends. This was categorically not true. I have more than enough friends and only friend people who contact me in some manner and have more than 50 common friends and lots of common interests. I know and can easily prove that the internet is controlled along lines forecast by Edward Teller at NYU 1983: “Our press is more controlled than that of the Eastblock. While people can publish anything within a certain bandwidth, if they go outside it they are destroyed.”

  6. A Concerned Citizen

    “We got them stupid humans right where we want them and they are none the wiser!”

    I don’t think there’s any better way to sum it up. Facebook’s potential for harm and oppression is incredibly vast, and they are utilizing that potential! The way I see it, these are the next logical steps:

    1. Big Brother is in the best interests of Facebook, big business, and the government, obviously.
    2. One possible outcome is that Facebook overplays its hand, and acts out too fast, causing scandal, disrepute, and mass deletions/abandonment of profiles. They have damn near reached this point with me.
    3. Undoubtedly, Facebook, as well as big business and the government, realize this simple logic. Thus, it is their goal to make Facebook damn near essential to survive in the modern world. As Facebook becomes more essential to your life, they can begin to exploit their users more. Hasn’t this already started to ring true? Why do you think there’s Facebook everything now? Facebook chat looked weird to me at first, but now it’s clear that a can of worms has been opened, and Facebook is attempting to become a universal hub of networking, in order to secure their place.
    4. Once Facebook has become established as the dominant mode of communication, the next logical step is to make Facebook the medium for as many means of communication as possible. We can already have Facebook on our phones, why not have Facebook make phones (haha oh silly me, Google’s already started this)?
    5. Likely, by this point, something approximating a New World Order will have taken shape. Why? Because now we can distinctly separate our population into an elite and underclass, where 1% of the population will monitor, control, and brainwash the other 99%, simply by virtue of being the ones above Big Brother. At this point, it is possible that Facebook will become a requirement of every citizen, by law. More likely, the government will not make creating a profile law, but will have free access to both view and post accurate and specific information about its people on Facebook.

    This obviously poses the problem of what should I, the individual, do? It’s easy to hate something, but hard to do something about it. There’s no individual benefit to fighting a one-man crusade against an existing system. But think of the consequences. Napoleon said that men will fight much harder if their interests are at stake than their rights. He was, and is, to this day, right. Facebook is a perfect example of this. We accept serious blows to our privacy in the interest of convenience. If you can’t delete Facebook entirely, then make sure your privacy settings are at maximum. Try to find other ways to communicate, using Facebook as a last resort ONLY. Do not post anything sensitive on Facebook or use it as a means for casual conversation. I am considering keeping a very limited profile for networking/events only. If you don’t want to lose the convenience of Facebook, then by all means, downsize its importance in you life. Who knows where it will lead you if you let it?

  7. If you are the United States, how do you observe every individual potential threat on the planet and have his/her every motion, emotion, and thought tracked as well as their associations? Easy, back Facebook, get the whole planet on it, reporting his/her daily motion, emotion and thought, and keep the back door you use a secret. P.S. Employers have access to this back door too.

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