Facebook is not pure evil - or the hypocrisy of journalists

Perhaps I should be more lenient towards journalists who complain about Facebook's sheer display of evil (or disrespect) towards our privacy. But part of me think it's either utter hypocrisy, or they've simply never built anything in their entire lives and remain in an entirely different world. Both options seem very plausible to be honest. Actually, there is a third option: they might be extremely naive.

There's a saying in France: "la critique est aisée; mais l'art est difficile". In other words:

Criticism is easy, but [to practise an] art is difficult
— Philippe Néricault

It's obviously much easier to criticise the work of others but much harder to build anything yourself. The reason for my harsh words is that too many journalists, including tech ones, haven't actually worked outside a press office and don't realise what the team at Facebook has had to go through.

Of course, they've become a gigantic corporation that needs to put benefits first. But from what you can see when speaking with some of their staff, they genuinely believe in what they do - or at least some of them.

Note: the header image is a visual representation of Facebook connections around the globe - courtesy of Paul Butler.

The world wild web

When you talk to people from Facebook, you realise two things:

  1. They're making it up as they go. They suddenly had this new generation of website on their hands - social media - and had to create new rules for it. A new vision, new values, new business models. And the core team was pretty young! Still is, probably.
  2. They ran into new problems - constantly. No one had considered the importance of privacy until the Internet came into being, especially with the advent of the web 2.0. And the vision of the team at Facebook was perhaps a bit naive. Do you remember when back in 2009 they asked their users to vote to turn Facebook into a country? That's the kind of vision and drive that Mark Zuckerberg had back then.

I've always been a HUGE defender of privacy and I turns me into a Hulk-ish rage when Facebook decides to change my privacy settings to "public" about once a year. I really just want to smash the system, or quit it and head over to those alternatives popping up here and there.

But it's really all new to everyone, and Facebook needs to set a balance if it wants to survive. 

Privacy is like oxygen. We really only appreciate it when it’s gone
— Charles Sykes

The cost of running Facebook

A bit of propaganda, but also putting things in perspective

A bit of propaganda, but also putting things in perspective

However, sooner or later the alternatives will have to face the same problem. 

It is after all a company. But even if it weren't, it would still be faced with the challenge of covering its cost.

  • Somewhere between 60,000 to 90,000 servers are required to host all your posts, photos and videos. 
  • $30-40 million monthly, just for hosting on those servers.
  • The total bill comes around $150m per month for maintaining the network and infrastructure. That's quite the bill to enable everyone to keep a digital copy of their holidays and cute cat videos.

We all track everything

Tracking people's data online

Tracking people's data online

Let's be honest. We all track what happens on our sites. Any half-decent website has Google Analytics tracking enabled on it.

We track as much as Google cares to give us: 

  • your age
  • your interests
  • whether it's your first time on the site
  • how many pages you've visited
  • how much time you've spent on it
  • at which point you've dropped off during a transaction

And that's only the very basics. The key to all this is that all the information is anonymous. We're looking at behaviour on the site and trying to understand how it's used. 

You can plug in a LOT other tools to find out more about your users. Believe me when I say thay every single online newspaper out there has more than one tracking software plugged in. And if given the chance they would love to have the extent of data that Facebook has.

Perhaps journalists are being naive and they don't know what their in-house digital marketing manager is up to. That's totally possible, but then I find it a bit incompetent to write about technology without knowing what's going on under your own roof. 

Not to mention that said DM manager probably uses Facebook's data to advertise the latest "Facebook is evil" article. Oh irony, how I love thee.

All that data we're concerned about is indeed simply sold to advertisers which nowadays includes everyone from Fortune 500 companies to your local band releasing their single. Sure it's a bit scary when you realise all the things they know about you, but:

  • All the information is provided anonymously (except to governments - that's a different problem and should be illegal) 
  • It's the only acceptable business model so far to fund this gigantic platform we all use
  • Finally we're happy to provide them with so much information about ourselves. Every page we like tells something about us: what music we're into, which films, comic books, religion, politics, etc. 

At the end of the day, it's also up to us to understand how privacy works in this day and age and to be careful about what we share (and what we track?).

The European Union has actually launched an initiative online to help you better grasp how behavioural targeting works and how you can opt out. See, not everything about your government or the EU is evil. And the same goes for the private sector.