Facebook continues to be big news – and let’s face it, when is it not nowadays? – but the world’s biggest social network seems to be attracting more and more press of the wrong type in recent times.
Since last year’s change to the privacy terms and conditions, a move which in itself attracted enough bad press to sink a government with a decent sized majority, Facebook has endured what some might say was a difficult adolescence. Their difficult teenage years started to intensify even more recently with movements springing up to boycott Facebook by deleting accounts from the service. Anybody who has tried to do this recently will know just how complex and painful a task doing this actually is. There are several layers to get through before you even get the chance to deactivate your account and it takes an even greater effort to actually get them to remove you from the system itself.
The central hub of the objection that the Boycott Facebook campaigners seem to have to the site is that the information they hold about you is being misused to the point of abuse by the service. Whilst I really can sympathise with them on this it does have to be stated that these people are displaying a quite stunning level of naivety in their outrage over the issue.
I’ve been in and around the web for a long time and, whilst I’m loathe to get into the clichéd terms of “The Free Web”, “Web 1.0”, “Web 2.0” etc., it’s pretty clear that the days of the web as a force for good and a haven of free speech/content was over long before we all rushed like crazed sheep to start poking each other and turning our ‘friends’ into zombies and pirates. Facebook, like most of the web’s most successful social brands, started out without any kind of business model or viral strategy. Like any business that starts without a goal, as soon as the product started gaining any traction so did the need to “monetize” (I know, I know. Sorry) it. You can’t expect them to provide the service for free can you?
Facebook has one primary asset that it can use as a saleable product. That asset is you, the demographic data assigned to each user account. Advertisers identify the people most likely to buy their product, they then identify the best vehicles to do that with. For instance and in the most traditional sense, if Boots are looking to promote their sale they are likely to, say, buy some ad space in the commercial break on Desperate Housewives. Likewise, if Carlsberg want to sell their Lager they will run ads in the break of the World Cup. It’s called targeting and companies will pay a certain premium to reach their target market. Facebook holds an infinitely more precise set of demographic information about you than just which TV program you are likely to be watching, everything from your age, your sexuality, what type of area you live in and what products you assign your brand loyalties to. To believe that the information Facebook holds about you, especially given the value of that information, will not be used as some sort of saleable asset marks you out as either terribly naive or some sort of anachronistic idealist. There is a transaction that takes place for you signing up to their “free” service. For some that might not be explicit enough but to believe that it isn’t implicit is just bananas.
That Facebook use your (or their, if you really think about it) data doesn’t make them an evil corporation bent on world domination, what it does make them is a company with a revenue stream. Maybe in a Web 2.0 world that isn’t seen as cool or bleeding edge enough to some but it is a necessity. So, they are neither Snow White or the Big Bad Wolf, as with most things the truth is a far more nuanced grey area. Expect Twitter to be next up in the race to “monetize the user base”, it’s already started with their ad-Tweets, and what’s more I’ll wager they wont make half as good a job of it as Facebook has.