Last Sunday’s New York Times had a rousing critique of Facebook by a law professor named Lori Andrews. The op-ed — given the headline “Facebook is using you” — rightly pointed out that Facebook’s main business activity is not providing social networking opportunities (though it does that), but collecting lots and lots of personal data and then using that data to better target consumers. The main argument seemed to be that Facebook invades privacy. Three responses:
1. If the author is going to argue that Facebook uses its users, it ought to point out that its users use Facebook as well. Users don’t just put their data out there for no good reason: they put it out there to performatively express themselves. In performing, the Facebook user emphasizes certain aspects of his or her self, obscures other aspects, and completely hides still other aspects. The result is that Facebook provides users the chance to control what the world knows about them and create privacy as much as it provides the world a chance to invade their privacy.
2. As such, the real question is not whether Facebook’s data invade privacy. They do, and they don’t. The real question is: how good are the data? The author doesn’t raise this question, but unwittingly speaks to it. The author writes,
Stereotyping is alive and well in data aggregation. Your application for credit could be declined not on the basis of your own finances or credit history, but on the basis of aggregate data — what other people whose likes and dislikes are similar to yours have done. If guitar players or divorcing couples are more likely to renege on their credit-card bills, then the fact that you’ve looked at guitar ads or sent an e-mail to a divorce lawyer might cause a data aggregator to classify you as less credit-worthy. When an Atlanta man returned from his honeymoon, he found that his credit limit had been lowered to $3,800 from $10,800. The switch was not based on anything he had done but on aggregate data. A letter from the company told him, “Other customers who have used their card at establishments where you recently shopped have a poor repayment history with American Express.”
If I’ve Googled “diabetes” for a friend or “date rape drugs” for a mystery I’m writing, data aggregators assume those searches reflect my own health and proclivities. Because no laws regulate what types of data these aggregators can collect, they make their own rules.
3. I would argue that Facebook’s real threat to its users is not the threat of knowing everything about you. I would argue the real threat is thinking they know you when they really don’t. Again, the question is how good are the data and do they allow for proper insights. The author’s takedown of Facebook is off base in some ways, but hints at the more important issues, too.
In the end, you can do worse than read the article. But keep in mind how little we actually know about Facebook’s social function as economic value. Facebook is relatively new; social-psych data collection as a $100 billion business model is fairly new, too. It’ll take us some time yet to collectively learn how to price data.
Mark Austen Whipple