Every day, 1.5 billion people willingly provide detailed information about their private life – their appearance, their likes and dislikes, the places they have visited – to a large and incredibly successful advertising company headquartered in California. The users of the platform developed by this company entrust it with managing their social lives. For many, it is their primary medium for communicating with friends, acquaintances, relatives, colleagues, and complete strangers. The company relays discussions between users on topics such as ‘When should we meet?’, ‘What’s for dinner tonight?’, ‘I love your facial hair!’, and on other topics of a personal, even intimate, nature.
Groups also use the company’s platform. Political groups agree on times for debates or protests and share ideas. Groups of students chat about the optimal location for their next party. The newspaper in which this article appears advertises commissions and publishes advice for writers.
The company is, of course, Facebook.
Facebook is ubiquitous. You probably use Facebook. On any bus or train, there is a high chance that most of the passengers will spend the journey scrolling through their Facebook feeds.
Facebook’s success is unsurprising. Firstly, signing up to Facebook costs no money. Most people would call this ‘free’. However, a distinction commonly encountered among proponents of ethical software is one between ‘free as in beer’, describing a program that can be used without paying, and ‘free as in freedom’. For software to qualify for the latter epithet, its source code, the original text that defines, in a special human-readable language called a programming language, how it works, must be freely available online and open to examination and scrutiny by the worldwide community of programmers. ‘Free as in freedom’ is a significant step towards guaranteeing that software is secure and ethical. Facebook is clearly ‘free as in beer’, but not ‘free as in freedom’. Its inner machinations are a secret closely guarded from its users.
Nonetheless, the company has an incredibly successful business model that allowed it to report a revenue of upwards of $40 billion in 2017. The more money Facebook has, the more it can afford to invest in advertising and reaching new audiences, although this is not always necessary, as the social network is self-propagating. If most of your friends use Facebook to communicate, you will likely sign up, too.
There is also a psychological factor. Facebook, like many other popular apps and websites, is designed to keep users scrolling and clicking by giving them a small reward after each scroll and each click. A number of psychologists use the ‘ludic loop’ to describe the type of addictive behaviour encouraged by successful apps. A loop consists of an action, such as clicking on a link, and a small reward, perhaps as small as a satisfying sound or animation. The duration of the reward is short, and users are drawn into repeating the actions in the loop indefinitely. Hence the experience of endless and unsatisfying scrolling and clicking that wastes the time of so many Facebook users.
For many users of Facebook, it is a key tool that has gained control of much of their self-identity. Despite giving an illusion of choice, it is ultimately Facebook that decides what users see when they check their smartphones in the morning, what information they should be fed in their feeds, and whether their posts are considered acceptable or are deleted. Thus, Facebook has significant direct control of your thoughts, opinions, and relationships. This control is a problem because Facebook is lying to you about its aims. In a recent advertising campaign on British television, the company assured viewers that it is undertaking everything within its power return to being a place to meet new friends. Unfortunately, Facebook’s main aim ceased to be to act as a hub for socialising almost immediately after its founding, when the company received significant investments from venture capitalists keen to profit from Facebook’s growing popularity. A platform built for profit cannot also provide an open and unbiased forum for discussion. The two aims are fundamentally in conflict: it is not possible to monetise conversation directly, so any mechanism for making money must take the form of distractions from discussion.
Facebook is a company. Its main aim is to make money, and its main incentive for designing a product that is enjoyable for you to use is to gather your data. Currently, Facebook utilises these data to tailor adverts very precisely to you, to make sure that you click on them. It is very likely that the quality of your communication with your friends is in fact degraded because you use Facebook, as Facebook does not really care about your social life, but rather will make every attempt to tempt you towards its main stream of revenue: its adverts. The company also uses your data to train models for use in its Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies, which may form a more significant portion of its revenue in the future.
The easiest way to stop Facebook from harvesting your data is simply to quit Facebook. This is, however, very difficult to do, as quitting severs ties with friends and relatives. The difficulty of quitting Facebook contributes to its success – once you are on the platform, it is difficult to leave. Certainly, there are more open and more ethical social networks out there, such as diaspora* and Mastodon. Both are ‘free as in freedom’ and decentralised, two improvements over Facebook, ethically speaking. However, these improvements also make the platforms inconvenient to use. There is no central organisation running the networks, but rather users must set up the appropriate software on their own computers, or join an already existing community. Even after you have done this, unless your friends are free software fanatics, you will probably find yourself completely alone, as the number of people using either diaspora* or Mastodon is negligible. Thus, the departure of the 1.5 billion daily users of Facebook en masse for one of these alternatives seems a very unlikely prospect. People will continue to use Facebook for the foreseeable future. The Facebook Problem is here to stay.