Facebook And Our Brave New World

By September 30, 2011

On Monday, I bravely proclaimed that Google was dead. Of course, it isn’t. It’s a zombie. I believe Facebook will be the ultimate death of Google as we know it today, but in case I didn’t make myself clear, I do not — repeat — do not believe this is a good thing.

Somewhat famously, Google’s unofficial slogan is “Don’t be evil.” I don’t think Facebook has a slogan. In this and myriad other ways, Facebook is post-Google.

This post-Google ideology is at the center of the “social media revolution,” which has been underway since May 24, 2007, when the Facebook Platform was launched. Sure, Facebook was wildly popular before that seminal date; between May 2006 and May 2007, the number of unique visitors at Facebook.com rose from just a tad over 14 million to 26.65 million — a robust 89% overall growth rate. During that same period, for users between 25 and 34 years old, there was a 181% increase in unique visitors to the site. These were certainly impressive figures.

But that date, 5/24/2007, is one which will live in infamy. Why? Because on that day, Facebook broke with over fifteen years of tradition. Namely, the conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley up to that point: that the user data a company tracked and stored was proprietary, valuable and almost sacred. Google very much adhered to this belief.

Based on a user’s search queries, Google makes educated guesses about what a given user wants to buy, and in turn serves the user ads for these products. This is the AdSense program. Or, based on keywords within a search query, Google would promote search results, an advertising service Google calls AdWords. For all of the user data it’s collected over the years, Google did not — and does not — readily share it.

Personally, I can sleep easy knowing that Google tracks my browsing activity with its immortal cookie; I’m totally cool with Google scanning my Gmail so it can serve me ads based on the content of my messages. Google is Big Brother, God, the CIA, and Santa Claus all rolled into one. It may know me, it may be able to guess at what I was thinking when I submitted a given query; it might be always watching, omniscient, and know when I’ve been bad or good, but because Google keeps to itself, I don’t really care. And this is the honest truth.

Is Google a little creepy? Sure. Do I necessarily like the fact that my previous search history informs my search results? No, but that’s why Google lets you factor it out, if you’re sufficiently savvy with its settings page. To an extent, Google still assumes that the data it stores was secured in trust. Since May 2007, Facebook has no such sacred cows.

By enabling developers to access social Graph data, Facebook made what’s likely the smartest move in the social networking business. With a simple authentication dialog (the “SomeApplication wants to access your data” popup window), Facebook opens up a trove of data for third-party app developers to mine.

Discussing the technical details of how this is done is beyond the scope of this article, but a list of all the properties available through the Graph API can be found here, on Facebook’s Graph API Explorer tool. Click around and see what app developers can access. (Note, these values are returned in JSON form, which even non-technical people should have no trouble reading.) Even more data can be accessed using the Facebook Query Language. Granted, access to this information is dependent on the user’s permission.

So, what kind of information are these applications accessing? More importantly, does the data these applications collect comply with Facebook’s Platform Policy, especially Policy 1 regarding “Storing and Using Data You [the Developer] Receive From Us”, which stipulates that “You [the developer] will only request the data you need to operate your application”?

You can find what information your installed Facebook apps accessed by going to Account Settings -> Applications and clicking on an app. Under the “This app can:” section, you’ll be able to see details of the last data access. In most cases, it’s pretty banal. For example, I expect that an app like BranchOut — which is like LinkedIn, except for Facebook — would access my profile information, like my Education and Work history. Most social apps take Facebook profile information — like my profile picture, list of friends, gender, and so on — so I don’t have to fill out new forms with the same information. This is the case with Instagram and a few other apps I use.

But, there are some apps which seem to violate Policy 1. Spotify, the streaming music service which made a big splash at last week’s f8 conference by announcing deep integration with Facebook, accesses not only my basic information — which all apps use for login and user authentication purposes, but my birthday, hometown, and current city. Spotify accessed my Likes — presumably to determine which companies’ ads to serve me. I find it a little strange that it accessed my favorite TV shows, movies, and books, because Spotify is a music service. But, honestly, what in god’s name is Spotify doing accessing my favorite quotes?

The thing that I’m most worried about Facebook is that I have yet to find personal data Facebook can’t or won’t share, except for the personal data users don’t put on the platform. Anyone with a Facebook account has by now granted many applications access to personal data by clicking “allow” on authentication dialogues which fail to adequately disclose the kinds of information the user is sharing. I don’t know when “sharing” or “social” shifted from Silicon Valley zeitgeist to unquestioned mandate. Users of these “social media” don’t often take a step back to think about the fact that their networking tools are businesses, and that they—the users—are not the customers but the product. It’s a question of “Who’s serving who?” Is it the user that benefits from the ability to integrate “real world” activities into the omnipresent social Web, or is it the developers who build increasingly advanced tools to liberate and leverage user data through sales of advertising or “credits” of dubious worth?

I say this as a startup founder: Facebook does some astonishing things for advertisers and dev shops. For users, the value of using social networking tools is questionable. The more literary among Tech.li’s readership might have caught the reference to Aldous Huxley’s 1932 dystopian classic. What differentiates Huxley from George Orwell — another dystopian author, who wrote 1984, among others — is that in Huxley’s universe, pleasure is the force of social control. Big Brother rules by fear and pain. So many aspects of our modern society indicate that we live in Huxley’s version of the future, not the least of which is the fantastic growth of Facebook and this culture of sharing.

NYU media theorist Neil Postman summarizes the difference between Orwell and Huxley eloquently in the preface to his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

How much of the content on Facebook is “genuine,” heartfelt or actually reflective of the user’s emotional state? On Tumblr, think about the “reblogging” mechanism. Same for re-tweets on twitter and Facebook’s new Share gesture. Users of these platforms define and articulate themselves through the creative efforts of others. In Brave New World, sex was purely recreational, devoid of emotional significance and the promise/risk of creating something new. In ours, “sharing” with “friends” is increasingly devoid of emotion, the goal being to maintain a presence in the stream and to entertain. To garner Likes and Shares. Just as the World State maintained order through pacifying bromides and the drug “soma”, I’m weary of a company whose CEO claims that the world wants to share things. I don’t know whether this is the case, or whether Mark Zuckerberg is trying to legitimize a platform nobody ever imagined would grow to the size and scope it has reached. I admit to getting a little rush when I see a little red square above my world, and I’ve noticed that Facebook has increased the frequency of these notifications. My fellow Facebook users and I just keep coming back for more.

I believe that no matter how much data we share, no matter how variegated our gestures, no matter how compelling the presentation of each story, we will be left feeling empty despite Mr. Zuckerberg’s proclamations about the Richness and Depth of the Facebook Experience. Because data is reductionistic. It fails to capture the personality of its producer. Data is a waste product.

I wonder what kids born today will think of the world when they’re 21, like me. 2007 was a turning point. The Open Graph announced last week changes everything. Anything is an object one can integrate into Facebook. Users will be able to [verb] an [object]. Whether I want to share with my friends that I read an article, listened to a song (no doubt on Spotify), watched a video, wrote a blog post, baked a cake or bought a pair of boxer shorts, there will be an app for that. There will be a Story to share. These will be tiny tick marks on the Timeline of my life. And they will be packed denser and denser on the stream of liberated data. Lulled by the intimate feel of the new profiles, users might become emotionally attached to their online presences. Facebook will become our friend; we will share more with it.

This, I believe, is our f8.