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Facebooked

Well, of COURSE the topic du jour is Facebook.

There is a very funny video running around the Internet about a young girl being interviewed by an older man for a job. As she busily ignores him and interacts with her phone, he says that her resume indicates technical skills. He mentions a few office applications, and she laughs. He wants to know what technology she IS qualified with. “Snapchat, Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram,” she replies. “You know, all the big ones.” He chuckles and says, “I’m surprised you didn’t say Facebook.” She laughs mockingly, adding that Facebook is for OLD people, “you know, like my parents.”

Facebook did, indeed, jump a certain app of the day shark when it began to be popular among the “elder” population. But let’s embark on a short history of the phenomenon as we lead up to why Facebook has captured the attention and ire of so many so fast.

Facebook has had an interesting and somewhat wild ride to the point of its latest debacle. In 2004, Mark Zuckerberg, was sued by twin brothers Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss for stealing the idea for Facebook.

Back in “the day,” many colleges (particularly the Ivies and sub-Ivies) offered incoming students’ profiles in a booklet known colloquially as a “facebook.” A photo, hometown, and perhaps major, as well as the student’s on-campus address were usually included. Students would thumb through them, often circling the “cute” ones, and fraternities and sororities used them as a way to keep track of potential rushes.

Legend has it that somewhere along the way to a platform allowing Harvard, and later university students of all kinds to connect online, the Harvard database was broken into – but the fact remains that the Winklevoss brothers did conceive of, and team up with and hire technologically adept students to create the digital system they called HarvardConnection, later ConnectU. When Zuckerberg launched Facebook (“The” Facebook), the Winklevoss team sued him for breach of oral contract, and stealing original source code for their project. The suit dragged out til at least 2011.

Facebook was launched with what, in retrospect, was more than a little marketing genius. Like Google, it didn’t just open its doors and hope that everyone would come rushing forward. Rather, it RESTRICTED entrance – making it cool to be able to participate. Facebook initially was offered only to certain Universities (with a somewhat haughty rollout – if your school was among the early qualifiers, you had attended a GOOD one; if not, well …). (Google cleverly followed suit: to get a Gmail address, you had to be INVITED by someone, like an insider developer. It was once cachet to have a Gmail account!)

Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg.

Bit by bit, Facebook opened its doors to more and more colleges, then to college graduates, then to people under a certain age, and finally you simply had to have a keyboard and you were in.

Once parents could comment on their kids’ posts online —worse, GRANDparents — it was just a matter of time before everyone under 40 headed elsewhere. The problem was, of course, there was —and remains — nothing quite like it, and Zuckerberg kept the innovations rolling out – “likes” weren’t good enough, so emoji’s handled the problem of how to “like” someone indicating that their cat had died. Personal pages didn’t serve all needs, so corporate and organization pages became a method of choice for communicating with clients and customers. Photos were ok, but how about video, “stories,” and “memories.”

Perhaps it was with “memories” the alarm bell should have really sounded (Facebook presents you regularly with what you posted 10 years ago!) – but by then we all knew that ad revenue was part of the scheme, and for ads to mean anything to the jaded and overwhelmed public, they had to have immediate relevance. What better way than by using that waiver you signed when you created an account? Facebook knew whatever you *chose* to “tell” it. So if you were having a baby, and Facebook knew when, why not ramp up the infant advertising as the date came closer? If you showed photos of yourself camping frequently – you were a perfect person to tailor the camping equipment ads to.

Facebook did offer a very good platform for companies wishing to let people know they existed – or to offer followers something special for being a friend. With a few clicks, anyone could become a “marketer,” identifying age, geographic spread, other interests, a budget, and a date range for advertising a product or service. Facebook, with an infinite array of information about each of us, did the rest.

So what is the recent flap? Evidently people are “surprised” that Facebook would be offering either aggregate (this has never been a problem with gathering marketing information) or specific (an issue only since the advent of a fast, massive, detailed Internet) data about you, either as a member of a group or an individual for a price to organizations that would use said data. The problem with this particular rash of data harvesting is twofold: how it was done, and who did it.

You’re familiar with the phrase “go viral?” Much over-used, it simply means that the content gets passed from hand to hand because it’s funny or compelling or frankly, nonsense – like the never-to-be-hated-sufficiently political memes we all see every day (which usually contain utterly false premises). The more “viral” a cute puppy video, the better for Facebook.

Not long ago, I began to notice that a couple of people I know, and who generally know better, were “posting” the results of a quiz that told me things about them like, “Who’s your best friend?” or “What is so-and-so’s favorite drink?” Then someone forwarded me one I purportedly shared – which I had not. It was all based upon a quiz app that at some point, on a dark and stormy (ha) night, I probably engaged with – “Answer these five questions and we’ll tell you if you’re among the smartest people in the world!” In some innocuous way, the app gets your permission to share the results of this quiz – and all others, as well as gather your Facebook friends’ profiles. In other words, they now know everything about you, your friends, and your friends’ friends – which technically speaking, isn’t “legal,” though you most likely did grant them the right to access this data. (Here is where Facebook went wrong point one – how it was allowing third parties to gather information.)

The second part of the problem is who got the information. If it was just some app creator who aimed to make more such apps in order to keep you clicking on their product (click-bait), not so much of a problem. But if the app purports to be a fun and harmless quiz, and is really gathering and re-marketing data without your knowledge, and —here’s where the possibly bigger problem comes in— shares it with a campaign or effort you do not like – the story has become a scandal.

According to the class action suit, Facebook was not diligent in watching who did what with what to whom. Had any piece of this puzzle been something else – if users had been sufficiently forewarned that from that point on, the app would be posting quiz results FOR QUIZZES NEVER TAKEN, or harvesting ALL YOUR FRIENDS’ DATA or SELLING IT TO A CAMPAIGN YOU HATE, perhaps the uproar would have been less vocal.

In fact, Facebook traffic was, at least anecdotally for me, ramping down. People found they were spending too much time with it, and researchers had actually demonstrated that Facebook could effect your mood. Granted, “likes” have an addictive quality, so taking a “break” isn’t as easy as it sounds. But more and more people I spoke with indicated they were spending less and less time with the service. So perhaps the timing of a potential crash could have been worse in terms of its peak popularity. But with a class action suit pending, we may all have to “Cut the cord” and find our dopamine fix on another, unrelated social media platform.


Nancy Roberts
Writer, voice over artist, information achitect, very curious person.