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From cradle to the grave: get a life on Facebook

Last week the King Farouk of social media platforms, Facebook, announced a raft of changes set to hit in coming weeks. The number of people who will be affected by the changes is nothing to scoff at: about, oh, 800 million.

The most significant alteration is an overhaul of its iconic Facebook Wall, set to be replaced by “Facebook Timeline”, a sleek two-column redesign that takes users’ existing information — status updates, photo galleries, calendar events, “likes”, etc — and arranges them chronologically from left to right and top to bottom.

Facebook Timeline will not include any new information so, theoretically, the familiar crew of cynics who shriek every time the social media giant changes its settings have no cause to be alarmed. And yet …

When users scroll down to the bottom of the timeline they will see the word “born”. Underneath that, “add a photo”. Facebook wants to know what you looked like when you came out of your mother’s womb.

The Timeline will encourage users to retrospectively fill out their details by adding “milestones and experiences” such as languages learnt, places visited, when they broke a bone, got a new job, lost a loved one, you name it.

In the film The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg’s character spoke of how he planned to use Facebook to encapsulate the university experience: parties, beer bongs, gossip, graduation. That mission was achieved some years ago. Now Facebook’s aspirations appear to be set much higher: to encapsulate the human experience from cradle to the grave.

Many users will not be able to resist feeding the beast. Facebook Timeline looks like a beautiful online scrapbook begging to be filled. Gizmodo described it as “simply the single most ambitious attempt to catalogue the tangled mass of human lives in the history of the internet”.

In the here-and-now social media wields power, influence and encourages voyeurism. From knowing what your friends are watching on TV to taking part in revolutions capable of toppling governments, social media has an awesome immediacy. Moment by moment, second by second, updates about what is happening right now — - and now — - and now — is what it’s all about.

Facebook Timeline may play a crucial role in altering that dynamic. It will encourage users not only to update what they did recently, but what they did five, 10, 20 years ago, who they did it with, what they thought about it, and what multimedia commemorated the event.

In his latest op-ed on the subject of data mining, Crikey techno guru Stilgherrian wrote that people want to share things online but they don’t want to share Everything. He’s right, to a point, and goes on to observe some sober truths about the data mining trade. But pro-privacy advocates, or those who are by default deeply cynical of Facebook’s organisational manoeuvrings, tend to view all information-gathering initiatives through the same cynical prism, often neglecting to explore what, if any, good comes out of sharing unprecedented amounts of information about ourselves. And there is plenty.

It’s easy to forget that privacy is a relatively new phenomenon. In medieval society, when communities were divided into villages and civilians rarely ventured beyond their boundaries, most of the community had a good idea what others were up to. The industrial revolution irrevocably changed this: cities spread and jetted up into the horizons, people bought padlocks and closed their blinds, communities fragmented and concepts such as private property and one’s own space took on greater importance. People began to protect their private lives as if they were precious commodities.

The internet, and Facebook in particular, is gradually changing this, and privacy as we know it is changing too. Much has been written on the subject of Facebook and “the end of privacy”. “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people,” Zuckerberg said earlier this year. “That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”

The company business model is built on the craft of luring users into submitting as much information about themselves as possible. But data mining is a two-way street: the data collected is presented back to us, and often in useful ways.

For decades humans have watched or listened to advertising for things they have little or no interest in. A 12-year-old can’t afford a Toyota Hatchback. An 80-year-old probably isn’t interested in buying Super Smash Brothers on Nintendo Wii. A childless married couple don’t care about a family holiday package to New Zealand, and so on.

Facebook and Google have delivered consumers the most relevant forms of advertising yet invented. Facebook knows who likes certain TV shows and musicians, because users feed them that information. When promos about a new DVD or live gig users have previously nominated as a “like” appears on the screen, they will naturally be interested.

We are currently at the tip of the new-age advertising iceberg. People don’t hate advertising — they hate irrelevant advertising.

Consider the following situation: you’re walking down a street with a friend looking for a restaurant to have dinner. You switch on a special feature on your smartphone and within moments it vibrates. You take it out of your pocket. There is an ad on the screen for a restaurant across the road offering a virtual coupon for two-for-one meals. Next to the ad are a bunch of reviews from friends who have eaten there and enjoyed the food. One of them recommended the coq au vin. Voila — you’ve found a place to eat. You’re happy (provided the coq au vin isn’t overcooked), the restaurant is happy and the middle “man” who brokered the deal (perhaps Google, perhaps Facebook) get a small cut of advertising revenue. This form of “bounce” smartphone-enabled advertising has already been trialled in some US cities.

Critics would raise the following alarm bells: Facebook/Google knew where you were, what you wanted, where you went, what you ordered (perhaps), what your friends previously ate and, if you keep updating your status, where you went after. Champions of this kind of technology will say: so what? You got a good meal at a good price and you have social media to thank.

At this point in time it’s unclear — probably even to the company itself — how Facebook will monetise our memories. Encouraged by the Field of Dreams ethos (if you build it, they will come) the company will eventually find a way to turn Facebook Timeline into a highly profitable venture.

Consumers are right to be wary about what information they share online, and with whom they share it. But in this brave new world, where the core planks of privacy as we know it are gradually eroding, there is also a lot to look forward to.

8
  • 1
    Posted Wednesday, 28 September 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    er….?
    why _isn’t_ privacy a valuable commodity?

    medieval times had the benefit of fewer people and smaller communities sharing common values and interests. where is any of this in a larger city with greater diversity of interests? what has changed that suddenly we can relinquish our irrational obsessiveness over privacy and count on large multinational corporations to maintain our interests?

    who is this “people” you refer to when you make representations of their advertising preference?
    there’s an implication here that in our brave new world advertising is a given and we must allow ourselves to be subject to it? wtf? seriously?

    yes, i’m sure there are benefits, but you haven’t really done a great job articulating your case.

  • 2
    mattsui
    Posted Wednesday, 28 September 2011 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    I do like ad’s that target my personal requirements - They’re especially amusing because my facebook and other “share media” profiles tend to be misleading for the advertising software, on account of the fact that I don’t actually share much or often.

  • 3
    Ilona
    Posted Wednesday, 28 September 2011 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    agree that privacy concerns seem to be overstated by some. for a lot of people, the fact that facebook makes fractions of a cent out of plugging their personal details and status updates into an advertising algorithm is more than overshadowed by the enjoyment they get from social networking. (sure, that enjoyment is often narcissistic or voyueristic, but that’s another genre of pyschology book).

    but the assertion that “People don’t hate advertising — they hate irrelevant advertising” is crazy. personally, i hate bad advertising. humourless, uncreative advertising. i.e.: most of it. just because i’m in the market for a TV doesn’t mean i enjoy a screaming harvey norman ad. on the other hand, i enjoy the hell out of carlton draught’s ‘slow motion’ ads despite a firmly held belief that the beer tastes like swill. &c.

    as for the advertising on facebook and google - personally, i like it not because it’s relevant, but because it’s invisible. i’ve never clicked on a facebook or google ad, and don’t read them. that includes the sponsored results on google. that’s not to say that they don’t make money (clearly they do), just that they seem to have struck a pretty good balance - the price we pay (data mining, loss of privacy) is compensated via “relevance” or, in my case and i suspect many others, invisibility.

  • 4
    Flicka
    Posted Wednesday, 28 September 2011 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    I just hate advertising of all kinds. Fortunately, as I grew up in the first few years of the internet, I am used to just disregarding all the ads that pop up on my facebook wall, news sites that I visit, or sites for entertainment (eg tickatek). Unless I am actually buying something online (in which case I do the same amount of research into the source and cost that I do when I buy it in the real world), I don’t use the internet to shop or be persuaded by a product.

    Facebook is as dangerous or as benign as you allow it to be. I got an account 5 years ago to monitor the photos that my friends were putting up of me- since then, I’ve valued it as a way of keeping in touch with family and friends when I’m overseas. And that’s it. I don’t post my list of likes or dislikes, my date of birth, my email address, my age, what school I went to, or where I live. I assume that everything that goes up online is public information- everybody should. If you don’t like using social networking, then stop bitching about it, and stop using it. And if you do use it, then be sensible.

    Oh, and it’s really fun to notify facebook that you find the ads they post on your wall to be ‘s+xually explicit’ and request that they be removed. I like to think I’ve given value to some sad IT student intern’s life doing that.

  • 5
    Salamander
    Posted Wednesday, 28 September 2011 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    The whole concept of commercialising privacy is ghastly. The best thing to do is probably mass sabotage with fake IDs and fake preferences. They even want to stop us doing that!

  • 6
    zut alors
    Posted Wednesday, 28 September 2011 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    I’m with Salamander. Whenever given the opportunity I sabotage polls by giving false responses.

  • 7
    Bill Parker
    Posted Thursday, 29 September 2011 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    I suggest a read of Vance Packard’s book the The Hidden Persuaders might prove enlightening.

    And I’ll go with Salamander and Zut Alors - sabotage the bloody lot whilst we have still time left.

    What the hell is wrong with using the phone an actually talking to people? We do have the necessary facilities. And send pictures by email?

  • 8
    mattsui
    Posted Thursday, 29 September 2011 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Of course, certain government agencies already have their noses to the monitor attempting to pick the evil doers from the merely misguided and the rest of us.
    Soon the tax dept and the dreaded centrelink will be comparing notes with facebook…….. Perhaps changing ones status “Not necessarily true” will serve as a disclaimer.

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