I don’t think that Facebook is, “the scourge of the internet,” but it has asked us to reconsider our definitions of privacy. I read a blog post recently that was about privacy in the context of the NSA, another issue currently in the news. The writer invited us to consider privacy as being like our living room curtains. She suggested that we can dance naked to Michael Jackson videos if we want, and we can do that with the curtains closed, for our own personal amusement, or we can open the curtains and permit the world to share it with us. Her point was that we retain the right to close the curtains. We might have opened the curtains to annoy the nosey old lady across the street, but when there are three taxis full of tourists with binoculars lined up in the street we can close the curtains again if we want.
The problem is that the internet is not like my living room curtains. Once that photo of me dancing on top of a telephone kiosk is out there, on the web, it is always going to be there. Whereas the old lady and the tourists can pass on the story of my naked dancing, the proliferation of it depends on their personal integrity, whether anyone believes them or not. But on the web, I can never fully close the curtains again, the proof is always out there somewhere and denial is not simply a mouse click away. Mark Zuckerberg did not create this problem, and I don’t think he deserves to be demonised simply because the website he created made it visible to us, but I do also believe that actions have consequences.
That doesn’t just apply to people posting stuff they would rather their grandmother had never seen, but it also applies to Facebook. Their actions have consequences too, and their frequent juggling with the privacy settings and the near incomprehensibility of the instructions for using them and the way they are hidden away behind three levels of menus should give anyone with their critical facilities intact cause to question the integrity of both Facebook and its founder.
There is, in my experience, one rule to operating on the web. It is a very simple rule and it is the obvious corollary to that old saw that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The rule is: If the product is being offered to you for free, you are the product.
This should tell us that Mark Zuckerberg’s only motivation in everything he does is to make money out of his users. In a traditional bricks and mortar company with customers who walk into shops, customers counted in their tens of thousands have a collective opinion that matters. If your customers do not like what you do, or they do not like your product or prefer it in a different colour, they will go elsewhere. They might even go somewhere else if you source your materials from a country they don’t like. Pandering to customer opinion is a big part of how these companies survive. Facebook, on the other hand, has hundreds of millions of customers and they can pretty much ignore the opinion of any group of customers less than ten million strong. Your opinion of what Facebook does is largely irrelevant to Facebook. They just do not care what you or I think because they have another hundred million suckers where we came from.
If Facebook failed tomorrow, if every single account closed on one day and no one ever went back there again, Mark Zuckerberg would still have a bigger pile of shiny happy tokens than he could ever possibly count and they will keep him in his particular version of happy forever. Ask yourself, why on earth should he care what you think? Mark Zuckerberg is nothing less than the modern equivalent of P.T Barnum and Facebook is just his circus ring in which users in their tens of millions prove on a daily basis that there really is one born every minute.