I have a Facebook account. Chances are, so do you.
But I'm probably not your typical Facebook user. The truth is, I rarely go there anymore, or at least not nearly as often as I did in the past. I don't have too many "friends", I don't have much information in there that my "friends" can see, and I don't allow all those that aren't my "friends" to see any of it. The truth is, it kind of scares me.
I consider myself to be a tech-savvy person. I love technology, I love gadgets, I am part of the generation that had the privilege of watching the digital age come to life – unlike my kid who was born already onto it and for whom it will be a great generation-divide to know that her parents had no internet when they were growing up. I never think twice about using online services, doing my shopping, or filing my taxes online. I don't have nightmares about "Big Brother" or conspiracy theories. When Facebook started to grow, I thought – and still think – that it is a great idea and that it is very useful. It allowed me, and others, to find and re-connect to friends whom I had lost track of; it allowed me to make more tangible and permanent contacts that I had had sporadically with a person in the physical world, that would otherwise simply have been dissolved by time; it allowed me to, very easily, publicize and assemble friends for my 40th birthday party; it also allowed a lot of situation and mood sharing...
The sharing is obviously a big part of Facebook. The sharing and the instant gratification of having someone acknowledge your sharing, if only by "Liking" your post. I personally feel that this is somewhat gratuitous and of questionable social value (it's just too easy to "Like" something – does it actually mean anything? An interesting exercise: request "friendships" from a few people that are in no way connected to you, and see how many accept... I think you'll be surprised), with a strong risk of creating addiction which, as all addictions, can be dangerous. But I don't think I am even qualified to evaluate Facebook from a social perspective, so I'll leave that to others. It's way too novel and complex as a social phenomena, and it's not what really bothers me.
What truly bothers me is something much more practical, pragmatical, down to earth. What bothers me is the information. The incredible amount and richness of data that Facebook has of its users. And the mechanisms that it finds to get its users to confidently give them more and more detailed information, both structured, and unstructured. And the value attributed to that information, even though it does not yet have a defined purpose.
Just think about it. 800 million active users, growing by the day. More than one account for every 10 living persons on Earth. Each one will have fed in his basic personal information: name, age, address. Then some more information: education, professional experience. Then preferences: sexual, musical, ideological,... Then the geo-referencing. This is the structured part of a user's profile. Then the unstructured. With each post, Facebook compiles information on where the user is, with whom, what he is doing, how he feels. Through a user's history of posts, Facebook can construct each user's profile to the finest detail. What he thinks about each subject, be it of a social, political, religious, scientific or any other nature, his opinions and positions, his actual preferences. Naturally, also, the characterization of each relation between "friends": the type of tie (family, friendship, professional, ...), the frequency of interaction, the nature of the relation. With each photo, additional information on a user, and on each of the users "tagged" in it. More recently, with the introduction of "Timeline" Facebook also started to compile data on the part of people's life's on which it hadn't any: their pasts, before Facebook even existed. Nevermind the fact that each user can decide what gets shared, and I don't have any particular opinion on how well Facebook respects those preferences. The fact is that they have the information, and it's massive. It just blows my mind!
But the really scary part is not that they have it, it's the value that is attributed to that information.
Facebook's IPO is one on the most anticipated in history, and is expected to value the company above USD 100 billion. That's a little less than half of the Portuguese GDP, half the valuation of the likes of Google. And that's not accounting for the money that an IPO is supposed to leave on the table for investors. We don't know that that's going to happen, but it's a lot of money, on any account. And what supports that? There are many opinions being voiced on the business media. I argue that it is the sheer volume and richness of information that sits on Facebook's servers, of which we can only imagine the uses. Yes, that, to me, is the scary part. No-one knows what it is actually good for, but everyone knows it will somehow be worth a whole lot of money.
Some will argue that this is not new: we've seen it happen with Google. To a certain extent that is true: Google has indeed found ways to capture data from its users by offering services, such as GMail, that make it worth for users to be logged in when they perform their searches. E-mail messages through GMail, it can be argued, can be seen as information of the un-structured kind that allows Google to fine-tune its advertising to its users. But at least, as far as we know, that's what Google is: a giant advertising machine. We know that every bit of data that goes through its servers – and there's unquestionably gigantic volumes of it – will be used to target its ads, and the result of that is visible each time you perform a search, or each time you access your free GMail account. And there are a lot of people and companies willing to pay for such a richly targeted advertising, which justifies the valuation of Google. But that's not Facebook. Sure enough, there is advertising in Facebook. In fact (have you noticed?) the far right of a Facebook web page is populated by ads, and it is unquestionable that they have enough data for those to be very well targeted, assuming they have built the right algorithms for their selection. But come on, how many of you have even bothered to look at them? When people do a search on Google, there is some likelihood that they are looking for a service, for a product that they want to buy; resulting ads appear at the top of a list that the user asked for and at which it is certain he will look. When people navigate on Facebook's pages, they are focused on its functionality and specific content, they are there for the social interaction with their friends; they will not be bothered by a blur of unsolicited information appearing on a part of the page that they programmed themselves not even to look at. Moreover, Facebook ads have not, so far, been present on the mobile world, rightly choosing not to clutter a smaller screen with unsolicited information, despite the fact that more and more users transition every day from the desktop-bound to the more spontaneous and free mobile access. So, I am not convinced that the value of Facebook's big data resides solely on its advertising potential. I think that investors are betting on the value of the information itself while the full extent of its usage is not yet known, by anyone. It is just so rich and big, that it must be worth a lot, right? And you and I, as Facebook users, are giving it away for free. Isn't that something?
A friend has recently commented that he thinks we will one day regret having shared so much personal information. I share that view. Don't get me wrong, I am not paranoid, I am all in favor of the speeding evolution of the digital age, I see that it does enable a lot of sharing that was otherwise impossible, and I recognize that there is tremendous value in that, in social terms, in creating better bridges between people and between organizations, in disseminating and democratizing knowledge – today, I wouldn't know what to do without the likes of Wikipedia... Indeed, I even go to the extent of investing in companies in that space. I also know that we are only now scratching the surface of what that revolution can be in the future. But I am just weary that maybe we're not yet conscious of how all that information we're casually giving away can actually be put to use, and that maybe we're not yet equipped to ensure it is put to the most productive use.
Now I'll hit the "Publish" button for this blog post, and then go share it on Facebook...
Thanks for reading.