The Myth of Facebook’s Free Lunch

We all know that there is no such thing as a free lunch, don’t we?

Except when we get the next offer of a free lunch. It’ll be different this time, because they are so nice and well, what could go wrong?

The Facebook offer was always the offer of a free lunch. No need to pay anything for you account, and just share and share alike.

In fact the encouragement to be as open and sharing as possible was made easier by the byzantine complexity of the access controls (to allow people to be more private). It never occurred to Facebook that humans have complex lives where the family friends was a non-overlapping set of people to the tennis club friends, or the ‘stop the fracking’ friends!

No, there is a binary reductionism to the happy clappy religion which is ‘the world is my friend’  dogma of social media, of which Facebook is the prime archetype.

Of course, the business model was always to monetise our connectivity. We view a few pages on artist materials, and suddenly we are deluged by adverts for artist materials. Basic stuff you might say, and often it is; small minded big data. But it feels like and is an intrusion. Facebook is wanting to take business away from WPP and the rest and uses the social desire to connect as the vehicle for gaining a better insight into our lives than traditional marketing can achieve. Why did Facebook not make this clear to people from the start?

The joke was always that marketing companies know that 50% of their spending is wasted but don’t know which parts make up that 50%.

Facebook will now say that they know.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Facebook, because it reunited me with a long lost ‘other’ family. That is another story but I am eternally grateful to Facebook for making that connection. It also provides the town I live in the ability to connect over local issues. It can be a force for good.

But the most egregious issue that Facebook is now facing (and seem in denial about) is that the bill for the lunch is now proving to be exceptionally high indeed.

If Facebook data effectively helped Cambridge Analytica help Trump and the Brexit campaigns to win even a marginal assist – as is now alleged – that could have been crucial, as both won by a marginal amount.

We cannot go back to a pre-digital world.

We need trust in institutions and in what will happen to our data, and not just the snaps we took of the new kitten playing on the sofa. We want the benefits that combining genomics and clinical data will do to revolutionise medicine. We want to develop ground-up social enterprises to address issues like climate change. We need to be able to move beyond primitive cloudscum fileshares or private storage devices to a truly trusted, long term repository for personal data; guaranteed to a level no less than a National Archive.

There are many reasons we need community governed, rigorously audited and regulated data, to help in many aspects of our personal lives, social enterprises, and as safe places for retention of knowledge and cultural assets in the digital world.

Even without the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the geek-driven models of Facebook, Google and the rest betray a level of naivety and lack of insight into this challenge which is breathtaking.

Call it Web 4.0 or choose a higher number if you like.

But what this episode proves is that the current generation of social media is barely a rough draft on what society needs in the digital world of the 21st Century.

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