Facebook users should know better

BitDepth#945 for July 15

Amid all the Facebook likes, there are aspects of the social media giant that some might find worthy of dislike. Illustration by BigStock.
Amid all the Facebook likes, there are aspects of the social media giant that some might find worthy of dislike. Illustration by BigStock.

After all these years of casual mistreatment by the business, one might have expected Facebook users to be a bit more level headed in their expectations from the service.

Even if all the fuss about posts being wilfully stifled on Facebook’s newsfeeds in order to encourage more paid advertising didn’t seem relevant to the average user busy posting pictures of lunch, the flippant disregard that Mr Zuckerberg’s wildly successful social media website has for privacy and the integrity of the individual should have offered some insight into what the company was likely to get up to in the future.

So when it was announced a couple of weeks ago that a January 2012 study had tailored the feeds of 689,000 Facebook users to see whether they responded differently to positive or negative posts to their timelines, nobody should have been surprised.

Facebook’s response to the concerns that arose when the paper was published in June was to point to its data use policy, which states that data can be used “for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.”

The project was carried out using heuristic automation, removing postings based on keywords to favour either positive or negative posts and user posts and responses were monitored for the percentage of positive and negative words they included.

The resulting paper, which isn’t as exciting and provocative as the furore it raised, is posted on the website of the Proceedings of the Natation Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Curiously, nobody that I know who uses Facebook regularly seemed to care one way or another that their newsfeeds had been tampered with or their posts had been monitored, albeit through technology instead of fascinated eyeballs.

Since its publication, the US-based PNAS has brought out a tactical ten-foot pole to put some distance between itself and the controversial study.

“It is nevertheless a matter of concern that the collection of the data by Facebook may have involved practices that were not fully consistent with the principles of obtaining informed consent and allowing participants to opt out,” wrote Inda M Verma as part of a formal “Editorial Expression of Concern.”

So while Facebook’s data scientist Adam Kramer had abundant statistics to populate his study, “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks,” it’s not clear that anyone in T&T has learned anything from this rather pervasive intrusion into a service that often professes to be hands off when it comes to how its customers use its service.

There’s a rather direct technology saying that speaks directly to this issue.

“If you aren’t paying for the service, you’re the product.”

Facebook clearly isn’t bothered by the reports that it is in the first stages of a death spiral or that it’s losing its teen users. The company remains committed to having its own way with the data that’s freely shared on its network.

Of greater concern for the average user are the many ways that Facebook is becoming more like the open Internet.

The company goes to great lengths to portray Facebook as a safe, cozy haven for the whole family and an extended group of friends to share information and photos, but it’s become alarmingly spammy, overrun with advertising and is shamelessly porous when it comes to protecting the data profiles of its customer base.

Facebook’s disregard for basic copyright metadata, its ready lubrication of casual social bullying and the stickiness of its data harvesting far surpass anything available on the Internet.

I have no illusions that any of this will give the average fan of Facebook in T&T the slightest bit of pause and as a user myself, I’m well aware of the charms and easy collaborations and conversations that the service facilitates.

If there’s anything to be learned from the fallout of this study, it’s that Facebook isn’t all fun and memes. There’s serious data harvesting taking place behind the scenes and the smart Facebook user will always keep that in mind.

The business of business is business, management guru Peter Drucker summarised decades ago. And Facebook’s business is data. Your data.