Should you be friends with Facebook?

Facebook by all measures has been an incredible success story.  From humble beginnings in Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm room, to a global juggernaut – all in span of few years not decades.

Globally there are more than 2.32 billion monthly active users[1] and is increasing, with a net worth of over $US138 billion.

If Facebook were a county – it would have the largest population on the planet.

In Australia, 91% of Australia’s online population are on Facebook [2].

Facebook is the most active of all social media sites and we access the site on average 37 times a week for a total of 10 hours on the site each week.  79% of online users also use Facebook’s messaging app Messenger.

Never before has there been an organisation which so much information about so many people – which it commoditises and commercialises for profit.

Facebook has been a powerful ally in connecting us with friends and family – has let us know who’s single, and who’s not.  We’ve been able to share our own and other’s holiday photos, baby pictures, successes, trials and tribulations.

Facebook has enabled us to share inspirational thoughts and made us laugh – it’s kept us up to date with what’s going on in our friendship groups without having to leave the house – or our beds.

One of the greatest features of Facebook was the feature that allows us to choose who gets to see our posts, pictures, and stories.  We feel safe in our communications because we know that these would only be seen by our ‘friends’.

The benefit of Facebook was so impressive that when the site started to sell advertising – we understood – Facebook was free and without ads for so long we understood that it was only right that they should start making money.

I recall a friend thinking it was funny that when she changed her relationship status to engaged that she started getting ads for wedding planners and wedding cakes – of course we thought – they are smart – they can target ads to such things.

However, that is nothing compared to the predictive analytics that can and are currently being performed by scientists on the data of Facebook users now.  According to Jennifer Goldbeck [3] scientists can use Facebook “likes” to predict gender, age, pollical preference, personality, and mental state.  Further analytics can predict if a person is a drug user, alcoholic, works well in teams and level of intelligence.[4] All of this simply on the basis of what we “like” using no other information.

A significant problem with this information is that the Facebook user has no control of how this information is used.  They are powerless in how and when it gets disseminated.  None of us would know how we are categorised.

Contrary to what we think, we are not the owners of our personal information – Facebook is.  Goldbeck goes as far to state that “Facebook users aren’t the customer, they are the product.”  This is unlikely to change as the business’s revenue model is based on the commercialisation of user data.

Ethically it might be fine for Facebook to calculate that you are a recently engaged 30-year-old woman living in Melbourne, living in a rented apartment looking to buy a house – and deliver advertising to relating to that knowledge– wedding planners, real estate agents, etc.

However, where do we draw the line between what is commercially benign and what is ethical?

Can we trust facebook with our personal information?  Can we trust how they might use this information?  Can we trust facebook not to cross the line and target potential alcoholics with ads for alcohol or bars or similar venues?  Would this sort of targeting be fair or is it unethical? Is it fair to uncover our vulnerabilities only to use them against us to make a profit? And all the time under the radar of our consciousness?

Many people, myself included, consider it fair game for an ad to follow me after I have visited a website.  For example – I have visited the Woolworths website and the next three sites I go on have ads from Woolworths which follow me though the internet.

However, is it fair game if you mention to your friend in a Messenger message that you are going to the supermarket later in the day to have such an ad follow you on the internet?  Is it ethical for Facebook to drop into your messages to pick up cues on how to advertise to you?

What is to stop organisations from discrimination based on Facebook predictive analytics.  Goldbeck gives the example of selling lists of names to potential employers – who may choose not to hire people based on likelihood of being drug users, alcoholics, or poor team players without even meeting the candidates? 

And while we may ‘trust’ Facebook to keep our secrets – Facebook has been woefully negligent at keeping our data secure and its users safe. 

In 2016 Cambridge Analytica’s made questionable use of 50 million Facebook users to support the Trump campaign in the USA.   This has been followed by troubles with data theft, trolling, harassment the proliferation of fake news, conspiracy theories and Russian Bots.[5]  And in October last year data was stolen from 29 million user accounts (including Mark Zuckerberg’s) due to a data glitch – which has now been rectified.

How and where this stolen data is being used is not known.

So where does that leave things?  Should we quit Facebook altogether?  Some people I know are.  And I personally think that we’ll start to see a decline in Facebook users and time spent on the site.  

There will be new social networks that will take up the slack.  A new disruptor to take on the status quo.

And in the meantime, I would suggest that you bear in mind that every time you like a post, share or make a comment on someone’s post – it’s being recorded and somewhere down the line used as a predictor of who you are and what your preferences may be.

Also keep in mind that the photos that you share are not private – the posts that you write are not private and that the messages that you sent are not private – they are all pieces of data to build up a profile about you.  A profile that will be sold as a commodity to marketers (at best) but who knows who else.

For the time being Facebook is still an excellent way to stay connected and share those selfies and holiday photos.  Just don’t make the mistake that it’s only your friends that you are communicating to.  Nor is the purpose of the site from Facebook’s perspective about connecting with your friends.

Facebook is about data commercialisation and making a profit on using your data to predict what you will buy – whether you know you need it or not.


[1] https://zephoria.com/top-15-valuable-facebook-statistics/

[2] Yellow Social Media Report – 2018 Consumer Part 1

[3] Jennifer Golbeck: The curly fry conundrum: why social media “likes” expose more than you think.

[4] ibid

[5] https://theconversation.com/dont-quit-facebook-but-dont-trust-it-either-93776

Published by cynthiaburgin

Cynthia Burgin a senior marketer with over 15 years experience in marketing and communicatons in Australia and Asia pacific markets. She has Masters of Business (Marketing) and am studying Digital Marketing and Marketing Analytics at RMIT to refresh my skills after an absence from the Industry.

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8 Comments

    1. Actually I don’t anymore. Even Mark Zuckerburg’s account has been hacked. I think the site has grown faster than security systems to protect it. I still use it to connect with friends and family – but I assume that everything I post may become public one day. Thank you for reading my blog and for your comment.

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    2. Am seeing a decline in Facebook users in my circle of friends. Have noticed the younger generation not using it all. Still find it useful to communicate with relatives that don’t live near me.

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  1. Thanks for your blog, its true we don’t know the power of facebook how they really use our info and who they sell them to this is the scary part i think. I actually don’t use it anymore, i started using it because i come from overseas and it was a good way to connect with my friends but we always get bombarded with ads, I still have my account but don’t really check it. This is another thing also, its that even if you stop it, it never gets canceled, the data will stay there and you can’t clear anything. So i switched honestly to Instagram now, you can choose your content and stay connected too, just my thought. Have you reduce your Facebook use or even stopped using it, Cynthia?
    I would also appreciate if you could give me your thoughts on my blog please 🙂 thanks https://digitalmoveaustralia.blogspot.com/

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    1. Like you I use facebook to keep in contact with friends and family overseas. I’m still on it – but am very conscious that everything I “like”, post or respond to is potentially stored. It’s hard to get off of it- as I wouldn’t have the email or phone number contacts of most of the people I know on facebook 😦 – so I would have to build up my contact list from scratch – which I’m slowly doing.

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  2. Facebook not protecting data is alarming. I’m still happy to use it until there is another way to keep up with friends and family living far from me. This article has made me take more care when ‘liking’ posts

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