Fear and Loathing and Facebook

The leading execs of Big Pharma, Big Oil and those managing payday lenders really ought to get themselves to the Googleplex for a crash-course in image management. Compared to these industries which are often burdened with toxic reputations (sometimes literally rather than figuratively) Google is seen as a benevolent public institution rather than publicly listed profit-generator. Tax issues ebb and flow across the foreshore of public consciousness, but ultimately fail to wash away the general positivity and goodwill.

Likewise, raising concerns about privacy feels like praising the latest Yotam Ottolenghi cookbook at a dinner party in Herne Hill; it’s one of those things that one is socially obligated to go through the motions of…  Germany aside, (where frankly, there are some longer standing issues around ‘files’ and ‘secrets) – protests about data security sound generally anemic. I don’t know anyone using ‘Duck Duck Go’ and most privacy settings go mostly unchecked. Frankly, I am more worried about my bank than my browser. The reality is that this a company that could – and often, by our ‘consent by default’, does know everything about our online selves. Which in 2016 amounts to an awful lot of us. Probably more than our partners. I wouldn’t share my entire browsing data with mine. Would you?

I am writing this on Google Docs, in Chrome browser, at a cafe I searched for, or rather ‘Googled’ with their Search Engine and then found with Maps on my Android powered phone. If you have watch some content from YouTube or replied to an email through Gmail between these devices you are providing more and more cumulative understanding of who you are, so they can sell that ‘who’ to the highest bidder. Their argument is that they want people to be able to sell to you in a way that is more rewarding for us all. Whatever the reason is, most of us are okay with the Faustian pact we are entered into. We take the free stuff in return for becoming their product. At the same time, they want to cover the world with balloons in the sky the broadcast internet and they have just released an AI-powered device that will one day run your entire home through their systems. How you feel about that depends how dystopian/lazy you are feeling in any given moment. I have a sneaking suspicion that rather than this being the result of careful reputation management, it’s more like watching a horror film seated 6 inches away from a megaplex-sized IMAX screen; you never see anywhere near enough of the whole picture to realise how incredibly fucking scary it is.

By contrast, Facebook should be a big cuddly blue bear, right? It’s where all your friends are, your pictures, your contacts. You spend hours there, they know that, they have the data; you’ve been there swiping up, swiping up swiping up for the last four hours! You LOVE it! Or so that’s their pitch to advertisers. They are all about the love. And they are working on giving us more love. I woke up today and fired up Ol’ Blue to find it telling me “Good Morning Adam – Stay dry Today in Singapore – Rain is forecast”. THANKS Ol’ Blue. Great to know. Or sometimes it’s a message to tell me it’s International Peace Day, or Pizza Day, or whatever. I don’t know, but they were thinking of me!

Snark aside, Facebook, like the rest of the internet, trade on our attention. Just like Instagram (which they own) or Snapchat or Twitter, it is our engagement that they sell ( or fail to, if you’re Twitter). And Facebook feel threatened by lots of other social channels coming onstream that are growing and engaging users rapidly, including messaging services such as Line or the also-Facebook owned WhatsApp.

But online as well as off, Engagement comes in many different flavours. Websites may measure it quantitatively (time spent on page, Unique Monthly Visits etc.) but there is also a strong qualitative element to it. Why are they engaging; what is the mindset, mood and motivation at the moment? There was a time when Facebook was probably loved. Or at least liked. When it was small, when it was amusing, when it felt intimate. But it became a vast all-encompassing thing, and it aims eventually to include everyone. Somewhere along the way, it became so big that it became an institution. In fact, it became infrastructure. Having a Facebook account is akin to what having a phone line was in the late 20th century, or a mobile phone just a little before now in the 21st. It’s like running water and sanitation. No-one loves their toilet, but you are pretty angry when it doesn’t flush. But Facebook still wants to be loved and still wants attention – it’s like a 30 year old man who still acts like the overindulged toddler he once was (!). So it creeps me out with messages about the weather, about what’s happening in the world, about my ‘last year in review’. Confronted with myriad platforms that are more novel and more compelling, it tries even harder to make you love it.

The big problem is there is a massive disconnect in how it wants to be seen, and how people see it. And this comes from this quantitative measure of engagement. By looking at how long people are on their app, scrolling their feeds and equating this with how much people care, or even love your app, they are making a dangerous mistake. And from this dangerous mistake they are building an even more dangerous strategy’ trying to make their news feeds stickier and stickier, getting people to dwell longer and longer, making their messenger ever-more intrusive. Because this time does not equate to love. Simply put, people hate themselves for using it. And the more their functionality tries to encourage that, the more resentment and loathing it builds. To go back to the toilet, it would be as if it only allowed you to flush once you had sung a late 80s Madonna hit to it. You’d do it, but you’d really rather not…

Facebook, like Google is now a grown-up part of the internet. It is one of the foundational elements from which all the lovely, interesting, grotesque and surprising bits of the internet spring. Whether by accident, design, or simply the nature of the core products they are pushing, Google is acting like an elder statesman, whereas Facebook doesn’t want to grow up. But neither did Myspace or AOL.

Facebook’s function as a universal sign it, it’s role as the depository of contacts and personal photos and a whole bunch of other core functions it plays within people’s online lives are vital – it is somewhere between a filofax and a permanent scrapbook, a fixed social CV that means I can be found (like a sexier version of the Phone Book) are really useful. Much of the rest is not. And by trying to fight the ‘new’ at the periphery it obfuscates it’s core. How many party invites, events or groups have migrated to (mercifully for them, FB-owned) WhatsApp, whose utilitarian, user-driven structure seems ever more appealing. That should be a space they own. Why build chatbots for Messenger, when people are already querying businesses via WhatsApp?

So what is the result of all this? The eponymous Fear and Loathing. People hate themselves for using it and is seeing diminishing returns on the ‘useful’ parts, even if the headline ‘time on site’ show we still think it’s wonderful; other tools are getting a greater share of more meaningful interactions. It doesn’t help that their leadership is either sucking up to China, much to the derision of both the Chinese internet and the West, or patronising the developing world. The worse part is the fear – FB is the one that constantly suffers from privacy issues, from accusations about how it uses people’s data, it’s the one that ‘knows too much’ even though in truth it’s Google that probably has the deeper insights. But Google is the Elder Statesman and Facebook is the 30 year old man-child. Who would you rather trust with your all of your browsing and personal data? Me or Kofi Annan?