When people talk about Facebook, they often forget that it’s a business.
What business are they in? The data business.
It’s not that advertisers just throw dollars at the platform in hopes that someone sees their ad. That’s not how they make money.
Every time you like something, every time you interact with an individual, page, or topic, you’re giving Facebook information. Specifically, you’re giving them information about you.
Then after they have a complete profile on you, they use it to serve you ads. Advertisers (like me) can go onto Facebook and target you directly. They can target you based on your age, your ethnicity, your gender, your likes, your dislikes, the people you associate with, the businesses you associate with, and so much more.
How do they get all this data, you ask? You give it to them. You give it to them for free.
Sure sure, you might be getting something in return like the ability to see your old best friend from 7th grade’s puppy picture, but is that really worth the most important thing that you have?
Then you have something like what happened this weekend. Something that makes 95% of Facebook users gasp in despair. In case you’ve been living under a rock: last Friday, Facebook suspended the account of Cambridge Analytica, a psychoanalytics company that gathered Facebook user data by means of an app that took a psychological survey of users and then sold that data to political companies.
Almost 50,000,000 users’ data was taken and used to serve up ads, but only about 15,000 people agreed to give up information by using the app. How did this happen? Well, back when the survey was made, Facebook allowed companies to not only gather data from individuals who agreed to the terms and conditions, but from their friends as well. So one person grew into 101. 101 grew to 5,000. So on and so forth until they had a complete psychological profile of almost a quarter of registered US voters.
They’re not breaking the law, people. Don’t act disgusted.
You’re giving them this information and asking for nothing in return but the ability to play Farmville. (Which also gathers data on you.)
Now, look. I do understand that a lot of people really value the service that Facebook provides. It allows you to keep in touch with old friends, make new acquaintances, sell useless crap, and everything in between. But that’s where its power comes from. You give it all this information with little to no strings attached, and sure enough they give that information to the highest bidder. And you give them permission to do this when you click ‘I Agree’ on the terms and conditions that nobody reads.
Everyone keeps saying that Facebook or Cambridge Analytica broke the rules or did something bad. But they didn’t do anything wrong, neither one of them. Their actions were perfectly in line with the terms that users agree to. Is this the wake up call that users needed? Probably not. If Russia using social media to influence our election didn’t change our mind about Facebook, then this probably won’t either. But it’s important to remember that this is what you sign up for when you sign up for Facebook. You make an agreement that you’ll give away your information in exchange for a service. Remember that it’s not free. You pay for it, in one way or another.