Facebook is public now. And that means you’re going public too. Facebook has to make you share more. It has to make you expose more of yourself. It has to do all those deeply creepy it’s already doing, but more more more. It is going to sell you to advertisers, to shareholders, to anyone it can.
To be worth the enormous stack of cash it’s raising in its IPO, Facebook need to earn a lot more money. And that means bleeding its users privacy even more than it already does. Facebook made a mere $US1.21 per user last quarter. Sure. It has a heap of users, but that’s a low number, not the kind of thing it’s making up on volume. By comparison, Google earned $US7.14. Both Google and Facebook are in the business of selling you to advertisers. And Facebook is going to need to get way better at it. And that means doing more things to annoy you, mess with your privacy, and generally be loathsome in all the ways it already is, but more so.
If you watched Facebook’s appalling and disturbingly weird Roadshow video — you know, the one where Mark Zuckerberg wears way too much white eyeliner — you understand Facebook’s business model. It’s all about figuring out what its users like, where they are, and who they are connected to, and then selling that information to advertisers. And if you think some of the things Facebook is doing are already shifty like a gearknob, get ready. Because it’s nothing compared to what will happen once shareholders start demanding that it maximise profit.
An aside: I originally wanted to write a post arguing that for moral and ethical reasons, you shouldn’t buy Facebook stock, no matter how much money it earns, because doing so is the equivalent of investing in Big Tobacco. That was slapped aside, and I was basically told to shut my hippie mouth and that I am a dyspeptic old curmudgeon who ought to slink back to whatever stinky all-ages Fugazi show I came from. But in my opinion, there is no large company doing more to erode our valid expectations of privacy, or doing things that take advantage of its users unconscious actions than Facebook.
In order to keep more advertisers like GM from jumping ship, Facebook is going to have to figure out a way to make its ads work better. And seemingly, at least, what it is finding that works is word of mouth marketing — using friends to advertise to other friends by their actions. (It makes a huge deal about this in its inhuman sphinx-like pitch to investors.)
That means ads are going to have increase in prominence and effectiveness. Facebook has already shown a willingness to do some truly shitty things in its ads — like using your likeness or actions to sell crap to your friends without your knowledge. I mean, maybe you get off on your friends seeing your picture and being told that you liked a certain brand of hemorrhoid creme. (Or maybe you just don’t know it’s being done.) But that’s how it works — you are its pitchman. That’s what Facebook sees as valuable. That’s where it’s going to earn more money per user.
And while you can opt out of that kind of thing today, Facebook has shows an extreme willingness to alter its privacy policies. And moreover, opting out is not the kind of thing unsophisticated users do.
Then there’s frictionless sharing. Facebook is going to have to amp up the tattletaling it does. Despite evidence that social readers are annoying users and readership is collapsing, when Facebook knows what you read, what you listen to — and how what others read and listen to affect your tastes and what you like — that stuff is super valuable to advertisers. It’s the kind of thing they are dying to know. After all, if you’re reading a lot of stories in Runner’s World, you probably are more prone to buy some joggers.
Given that Facebook tracks you all over the web, and is increasingly aware of where you are in the real world thanks to its growing mobile presence, it’s going to likely use more and more of that knowledge in its ads as well. It has to.
And maybe that’s OK. Maybe it’s the price we pay for being able to connect with everyone we’ve ever known, smell their breath and check out the colour of their poo, frictionlessly and in real time. For the so-called Facebook generation, I’m sure it all just seems really normal. And of course I’m just a dottering old hypocrite (follow me on Facebook!).
But I’m pretty sure that we’ll look back on the privately held Facebook as the good-old days, when it respected our privacy and didn’t go too far into tracking everything we did, everywhere we went. And that makes me kind of sad. And really scared.