I’ve been thinking. Which is never good. And I’ve probably been reading too much stuff over at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I may have the ol’ tin foil hat on too tight. But I also think that the following conversation, that the following set of questions, is worth having.
There’s been much hand-wringing of late about Facebook, the social network everyone loves to hate. And I think a good portion of this hand-wringing is more than justifiable. But I also feel like people shouldn’t get this worked up over a completely voluntary service that is easily replaceable. It’s not like Congress just enacted a law requiring every American to have a Facebook account and become fans of President Obama’s official Facebook page. So I want to proceed with
clam er, calm, rational, caution.
But, of course, it’s not that simple. The fact of the matter is that once upon a time Facebook had one set of rules in place, one set of privacy guidelines. Then they got five hundred million members. And they changed the rules. If you thought you had everything in your profile set to “private,” guess what? You don’t anymore. That’s just creepy. It suggests, if nothing else, that they don’t really care about their users, about their user’s concerns or ideas about privacy. In the face of such apathy, it’s little wonder that many people are considered quitting Facebook. For reals this time.
After all, imagine if they were a real-world business. Imagine if they were your local coffee shop. You go in one day and say, “I’d like a cup of coffee,” and the kid behind the counter says, “Fuck you.” Chances are, you’d find another coffee shop to go to. Seems to me like the same rule applies to Facebook.
Except for one thing. We are not Facebook’s customers. We do not pay Facebook for the privilege of using their site. We do not have the same customer relationship with Facebook that we do with the folks behind the counter at our local coffee shop.
Facebook’s real customers, of course, are their advertisers.
Facebook is a business. It is the goal of every business to stay in the black. The best way to stay in the black is to make sure that your customers continue to give you money. Facebook’s customers are their advertisers, not their users. And the best way to convince their advertisers that they should continue to give Facebook their money is to give over to their advertisers an unseemly amount of their user’s information all the better to direct the fruits of their advertising dollars to just the right eyeballs.
It seems to me that there is an inherent danger in our changing mores regarding issues of privacy. And we need to have that conversation. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. What I want to talk about here is the perpetuation of the idea that the Web is and should be funded by advertising. Facebook is only concerned about its users’ positive experiences to the extent that those experiences allow their users to share more information that can then be passed on to their advertisers because it is the advertisers who keep Facebook in the black.
What if Facebook was a pay-for-membership site? What if we really were their customers? How would that change the privacy conversation?
I don’t think this is a conversation that is limited to Facebook. It’s clear that huge swaths of the Web are dominated by the advertising model. Google built an empire on it. And it’s not the fault of the Web; Web companies are also real-world companies, and the reality is that we live in a capitalist, market-dominated world. This means that private companies still need to pay their bills, just like everyone else.
We’ve reached a point in the history of the Web where, all at once, we (a) believe that all content on the Web should be free and (b) have given most (nearly all) of the control over that content to private companies who need to make money who, in turn, (c) have created business models based on the idea that advertising is the best and only way to make money off of all that free content.
And we’re paying the price for that. Not in dollars and cents. But we’re paying something by letting Mark Zuckerberg redefine “private” to suit the needs of his corporation’s bottom line.
Why do we assume that the advertising model is the only way to make money off the Web? Do we need to make money off the Web? Is there some other model both private individuals and corporations could adopt to allow for the free exchange of ideas and information without the concomitant loss of our privacy? Is there some way to balance both the needs of businesses to stay in the black and the needs of the collective good? Quite frankly, I do not believe that businesses have the collective good in mind when they make decisions; they have only their own good in mind, and it is the collective who (potentially) suffers as a result.
Facebook does not care about you and me. They care about their advertisers. And they have little choice. They’ve bought into the free-content-paid-for-by-advertising model that dominates the Web.
Is there some other way?