April 7, 2018

Is Facebook Really the Enemy?

I have often heard the argument that if you’re not paying for a service, you are the product.  I’ve used that argument myself.  Recently, though, @ChrisDeLeon shared a thread by @doctorow on Twitter which made a lot of sense.  Even when you are paying for a service, you are often a commodity, and that’s not anything new. People pay more than $100/month for cable tv – half of which is advertising. Magazines, last I checked, were around $10 a piece – 70% pure ads, and most of the content is more ads, disguised as articles. Ads are forced on you during flights, movies in a theatre, in any amusement park. You paid to access all of those things, but you are still very much being monitored and sold.

Everywhere you are being tracked, as well.  Almost all websites have analytics – so any website owner can see the demographics and behaviours of every visitor – their physical location, age, what led to the site, where they spent their time, where the curser was sitting on the screen, when it wasn’t clicking anything (heatmaps).  Google Analytics is free, and commonly used, but there are other options.  Whatever service the site owner uses for analytics, that service has your information, as well as the site owner.  On any site with share buttons, you are being tracked by the various social platforms.  You just click a button, and Pinterest shows you a list of the images on the page, and you can choose where you want to pin them.  It’s so easy!  Of course, in order for it to be easy, you are signed in to Pinterest, and they are aware of what you are looking at.

Does your phone have location data on?  It sure makes the map more useful.  I can look at Google to see all the places I’ve been, how long I was there, often how I got there.  Even with location turned off, though, your old-timey brick and mortar shops have the ability to track you by your phone – following you around the store, and keeping track of how often you return.  That tracking is then sold to us as a feature.  You can have your phone notify you of nearby sales as you walk around the grocery store.  Now grocery shopping is a game – try to save the most money by following prompts on your phone.

Do you have a points card, credit or debit card?  Your purchases are all tracked.  It’s easy to develop a psychographical profile on you based on your purchases.  As you walk around the city, look around to see how many cameras there are.  Cameras with analytic technology can draw attention to unusual behaviour within a crowd (walking faster or slower or against the general flow of traffic).  They can then use facial recognition technology to find out who is behaving abnormally.

Is any of this actually a problem, though?

In short, yes, it can be.  But it’s happening anyways.  There is a momentum that can’t really be stopped at this point.  We want the convenience.  We want the world tailored to us.  I don’t mind seeing ads for something I’m looking to buy, and not having to see as many ads for stuff I’ll never buy.   How the technology and data is being used right now doesn’t seem that terrible.  Sure, if you commit a crime, they can grab all your data off facebook.  But most of us don’t have to worry, right?

The problem is how this data could be used against us.  In China, there is a point system in place to rate citizens.  These ratings can be used to control whether you can access certain housing, employment, schooling, and more.   If someone has a low rating, for whatever reason, it can be incredibly difficult to earn a higher rating, because they simply don’t have access to the right opportunities.  More than that, though: if there is no privacy at all, it is far too easy to exert absolute control over a population.   It’s terrifying to imagine anyone with that kind of power.  As humans, we have a long history of abusing power.

The data that is collected about us is already used to filter what we see on the internet – on social platforms and in web searches.   Imagine people who like superheroes are no longer shown any political content that doesn’t agree with the current regime.  We get filtered into little boxes, where our knowledge of the world is limited to what someone else decided we should see.

So.. Delete Facebook?

Well, probably most of us won’t.  I know a number of entertainers are pulling out – because Facebook is no longer a way to make money.  Your page posts will only be seen by a tiny fraction of the people who follow it.  Your personal posts are the same way – and you are likely only seeing posts by a small percentage of your friends.   Maybe Facebook is still okay for chatting, and planning events.  I personally lost interest in looking at the feed pretty quickly these days.  I’ve got my filters set to show me only stuff I want to see, and that’s great.

But any item that kind of catches my attention seems to vanish while I’m looking at it.  I’ve started to wonder if Facebook’s tracking is actively paying attention to when my scrolling slows down, and whisking away any post, article, or ad I show interest in.  Would I advertise on Facebook, having seen this happen more times than I can count?  Ads on Facebook are pay-per-view, or pay-per-click.  I have to wonder if these ads I don’t have a chance to even fully read are being counted as views, which would mean even the advertisers are being scammed.  Why would I pay to advertise to people who don’t get a chance to read my ad, let alone click on it?

So I will probably just spend less time on Facebook – the internet is a big place, after all.

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