In our zeal to accept and embrace new technologies, most people stop looking at what they are creating and what they are a part of; objectively looking at Facebook should give one pause.
Technology continues to advance in remarkable and impressive ways and for those of us born in a time before the internet, watching its rise has been an extraordinary thing. Unfortunately, the speed of technology is not mirrored by a rise sociological or philosophical development. As such, in embracing new technologies, there are very few people who understand the magnitude of the changes being made to society and relationships by them.
Social media, specifically Facebook, has become something very few people anticipated, but its trajectory into the future is remarkably clear . . . and not one a lot of its users have actually considered.
A Philosophy Of Facebook
What is social media? Now, after the rise and fall of sites like Myspace and the enduring influence of Facebook, people are starting to ask that very question. What is undeniable is that social media is changing.
Conceptually, social media is a public connecting point for people and businesses. The idea behind Facebook is that it provides a virtual space in which users may connect with other users . . . publicly. The public aspect of Facebook cannot be understated. Privacy is expressly not guaranteed through social media. In fact, long before social media, internet users had a way to connect with other users around the world: e-mail. The fundamental difference is privacy. Social media is more directly analogous to the old newsrooms and message boards that the internet was built upon: there strangers with a common interest or two would encounter each other spouting off thoughts or trying to sell things online. The analogy for message boards, at the time, was classified advertisements in the newspaper.
If e-mail is like letters (private, secure, person to person) and message boards were like classified advertisements (public, specific, out in the open, but requiring users to actually hunt for what they are looking for), what is the best analogy for social media? Those who stop to think about it might want to liken Facebook to a giant nightclub. You are out where people can see you, your friends come to sit down for a chat and occasionally, someone you don't quite know pops in with their two cents or a solicitation. The nightclub analogy is one that makes social media users comfortable for the most part because it is a socially-appropriate way for adults to meet.
But Facebook is not a nightclub; it is more analogous to a journal. What people my age, almost forty now, fail to truly understand and accept is the same thing that the young people being raised upon social media are oblivious to: social media has a permanence that is more analogous to a private diary than a nightclub. But to carry the nightclub metaphor forward to ease into the journal metaphor, it is more appropriate to liken Facebook to a mob-run sex club.
The Evolution Of Facebook
The idea of Facebook as a sex club is one that is virtually guaranteed to make users uncomfortable, but it's a strong analogy that holds more water than Facebook would actually like to acknowledge (hence them not using it in their advertising). Facebook began as an elite social network that, as it became more popular, began to lose its exclusivity and became a cultural institution. The original concept of Facebook was a place for elite members of the Ivy League to mingle; it then spread to other colleges, to other adults, to anyone with an e-mail address. Facebook started as a private club for the elite with money and influence to meet before it became an open bar that children were wandering through.
How is Facebook like a mob-run sex club? The answer is in how information is used and stored by Facebook. Facebook as a corporate entity watches and records everything that happens on its site. There are no dark corners of Facebook where Facebook does not know what you are doing or what you are saying on Facebook; when you're in the club, they are everywhere. The "private messaging" system for Facebook might be private to other Facebook users, but it is not like your private e-mail; it is recorded and stored on Facebook servers. At any point, you can go back to any undeleted communication you had on Facebook and read exactly what you and the people you communicated with wrote. That is not on your private computer, that is your thoughts, your words, stored on Facebook's servers. Facebook is, and has been, recording it all.
Information is power in its revelation. The sex club analogy holds true for what the future holds for social media. Already, employers seek (with frightening success!) to control how their corporate image is portrayed on social media. An employer in a Right To Work state in the United States can use social media as an excuse to fire an employee. Have a bad night at work? Mention how crappy your boss is just once and boom! You're fired! It happens already. In Right To Work states, employers do not need cause to fire employees, but any negative post (or, in some major employers' Standard Operating Procedures, ANY post) about the workplace can be easy grounds for termination . . . even if the company or employer is not explicitly mentioned by name.
The net effect is like sex clubs on a politician's career. Virtually everyone has heard the story of an American politician who once upon a time went to a sex club. They had a nasty divorce this year, during which their predilections decades prior come to light and their political career is over. Any good they did while in office is washed away with the stain of having a past. What most Facebook users do not realize is that the nature of the device that they are using makes such future revelations and violations a virtual foregone conclusion.
It is easy to read a critique of a place that one loves to frequent and think that the author of such critiques is being paranoid. Alas, such is not the case with social media. It is only a willful ignorance that allows users to believe that entities like Facebook are either neutral or established for their benefit.
That is a frightening prospect. Perhaps more frightening is the fact that Facebook now mines data from non-Facebook sources. What does that mean? It means that Facebook is collecting data from your computer even when you are not on Facebook. To wit, recently I made a purchase on-line. The account I used is registered with a different e-mail address than my Facebook account. When I placed the order, I wrote a message in the comments section of the site upon which I placed the order. I wrote "Please feel free to send along any Freebies! Thanks!" The next time I accessed Facebook on that browser, there was a brand new (to me) "recommended group" in my sidebar for me to join: Freebies and those who love them. There are only two ways for Facebook to have gotten the information that I had any interest in freebies to make such a recommendation: they accessed my browser history or they have access to my keystrokes (the third possibility, that the company I did business with sold Facebook the information is easily discounted by the fact that the other company does not have my Facebook-associated e-mail address - if they had sold the information to Facebook, it would not have reached me).
In short, to return to the point, Facebook data mining is already happening. The moment Facebook became a corporate entity that was committed to making money for stockholders, it became committed to maximizing its profitability. To do that, Facebook is using the currency it has that is unique to its platform: your private information. Most people when they first came on Facebook gleefully told the world about themselves, sharing their interests with friends and like-minded people. Now, Facebook uses the information users provided willingly to tailor the investment strategy of its advertisers.
The problem with knowing the nature of the beast is that, barring an EMP, for most people it is far too late. The odds are that you, as a Facebook user, have already put out the information that will lead to your own damnation; you've already been to the sex club, you're waiting for that information to be valuable to someone.
Unfortunately, what sounds like a paranoid rambling is supported by the remarkable forces of emerging industry. A few years ago, I wrote for small technology company and the emerging developments in search engine technology were all focused on the same thing: social media. The start-ups that are competing against Google and the other major search engines have found the key defect in companies like Google; they cannot read social media posts. Try it. Check out your Facebook, find a phrase you have written (something distinct), put it in quotes and do a Google search. Google won't find it; it cannot read Facebook's posting code. Four years ago, that was the technology that was hot in search engine encoding and where a lot of money and time was being devoted.
And why not? Law enforcement loves the idea! Right now, if a Facebook user threatens harm to themselves or others, local police or the FBI rely upon users "Friends" to come forward with screen shots of the threat before they can investigate (and/or act). It doesn't take a diabolical genius to come up with a situation whereby that could be exploited: Person #1 goes to the police with an altered screen shot of Person #2 claiming they are about to kill themselves. The police break into Person #2's apartment and when they find no one there, they haul Person #1 down to the station for questioning and/or to charge them with "filing a false complaint." Person #3 uses the battered down door (police tend not to travel with locksmiths/repair teams) to go in and rob Person #2's apartment. That was an idea that took two seconds to formulate and it's practical given today's standards of reporting the credible threat from social media. What law enforcement wants is a tool by which they can independently corroborate the "credible threat" - the ability to see the posts on their own, along with data that supports that the poster of the information is who it appears to be. The emerging technologies that are being developed to search social media sites like Facebook are all geared to making that happen.
It is entirely possible, then, that within the next five years, such technology will exist. What does that mean for you? What is your impending "sex club" revelation? The truth is, most people who have been using social media have not been nearly careful enough to anticipate the future of Facebook.
And that is where social development has failed to keep up with technology: perspective and empathy. The nightmare scenario that many people have to look forward to is likely going to be far more intimate than an employer denying a promotion or security clearance based on an old post. What many people have to look forward to is a deeply personal calamity based on assumed privacy that never existed (or existed and then was altered after the fact). Soap operas seldom get things right in terms of real human drama, but the spread of information is one that is unfortunately accurate. We share information with friends, friendships change, a moment of spite leads to a truth being shared, the sense of betrayal rocks someone's world.
What Facebook and the emerging ancillary technologies have set us up for are a series of conversations that range from the uncomfortable to the personally devastating. What if, once upon a time, you posted about a night out with a friend and how they brought a complete loser out as a date . . . only for years and experience to change you so that you end up in a relationship with them. Perhaps you mention to them that they "grew on you" or that you initially "thought they were a loser" . . . but then they uncover the early posts about what you thought of them. I was with a friend, years ago, when his mother accidentally let slip that he was an accident (memorable moment; I recall it two decades later!). How horrifying would it be for a child to discover that they were an accident through looking through their parents' old posts?! Or, worse yet, how terrible for such an individual to be told such truths by another who was looking into them.
That might seem far-fetched, but we now return to the original analogy. You might want to think of Facebook as a bar where you're meeting your friends, but it is actually a journal, a diary which you are putting out publicly for all to see. Your intent with a post or a photo matters less in time than what it actually says or shows (there are a number of people with shots of their tattoos that are going to wake up someday to uncomfortable realizations!). The daily frustration you state to vent or the personal epiphany you have that captures your imagination . . . social media has robbed most of its users of the sense of consequence to that. Few, if any, users who post a comment today are likely to actually have the metaconscious reaction enough to say, "What effect would it have on my child if they read this ten years from now?" or "If my friend marries this guy and we have to hang out together, is this truly something I would want him to see?" Most users are not metaconscious enough in their posting to realize that they might not have the time or space to explain their posts today to a loved one in ten years. Are your feelings now justified and real? Absolutely! Is it nice to have friends to commiserate about that event? Sure! Would you want to have to explain that perspective to a loved one years from now? More importantly . . . would the post you make today profoundly affect someone important to you if they read it and you were unable to explain it to them or put it into context?
Where soap operas get it right is that when truths are revealed, most people seek understanding, comprehension, or explanation from those who have hurt them. Social media like Facebook has created a scenario where personal self-expression now may foreseeably lead to hurt and devastation of loved ones at a future time, including when we are no longer around to comfort, explain, or diminish such trauma.
For other sociological or political articles, please check out:
An Open Letter To Senator Elizabeth Warren
Social Covenant Broken: The Rise Of Bad Business In America
How The Affordable Care Act Is Actually Unconstitutional (And Why Republicans Aren't Pursuing It!)
© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.