Responsible Technology Participation
Updated: Apr 16, 2019
Let me introduce you to Peter Bailey, Peter and I have known each other for some time. To be honest, I have no idea what Peter does in his work life so this will be as much of a learning experience for me as it will be for everyone else.
He and I actually met when he started to date his future wife, a good friend of mine Jill. To me, Peter is the type of renaissance man that so many men aspire to be. He seems to be equally at ease cooking fine cuisine as he is taking apart cars and putting them back together. He is phenomenally well dressed, and oh yeah, is an expert at bagpipes and travels the country playing music from time to time.
Peter is a devoted husband and a great friend, quick to help out in whatever way he can. And apparently, also a data nerd, go figure. So please enjoy some knowledge from Mr. Bailey: renaissance man.
Responsible Technology Participation
By Peter Bailey All the recent sturm und drang about Facebook has helped me realize that for years, I've known what some people are just now learning. My role as a software engineer who has worked extensively with Facebook's API and TOS regarding data collection/retention (as well as for many other platforms) has given me a different view of tech ecosystems than the average layperson.
Every time I read one of these recent articles that has some buzzy headline like "You will be SHOCKED what kind of data Facebook has about you!" I dive in, expecting I might find something truly abhorrent, only to realize that it's all stuff I either directly knew about or is not hard to infer from what is capable with technology. Obviously, part of what's going on here is that people really don't read the T&C's of online services they use (I mean c'mon, who does?) and thus don’t always know what data collection practices to which they acquiesce, but also a relative ignorance, apathy, or unawareness otherwise that there is personal/individual responsibility that comes along with consuming technology - especially platforms that are offered for "free."
What I mean by "free" is that, well, TNSTAAFL. I think many people are now familiar with the adage, “If you’re not paying for it you aren’t the customer... you’re the product.” Like it or not, advertising runs the internet. Unless you pay a fee for it, advertisers are.
Seriously... think about it. How many online services do you use that you don’t pay a nickle for? Facebook (which includes Instagram); the panoply of Google services (Search, Gmail, Docs, Contacts, Maps, YouTube, Calendar, Hangouts, etc); many, many news sites; other social networks like Twitter, Pinterest, SnapChat, LinkedIn; and so on.Yes, I’m aware many of these services provide premium offerings for a fee (YouTube Red, LinkedIn Premium, news subscriptions, etc) but I’m not talking about those. Also, I hope obviously, I’m not talking about stuff like your bank’s website - companies like those incur internet overhead as a cost of doing business. And of course there are some outliers like Wikipedia which operate on completely different funding model.
But, by and large, unless the online platform directly profits from your participation (see: Amazon), then your information is the currency with which you pay to use that platform. You cannot opt-out of that anymore than you can opt-out of using dollars to buy that basket full of groceries.
There is a lot of responsibility that comes with living a digital life. Even if you don’t think about it this way, we all engage in hundreds if not thousands of micro-activities every year to maintain our digital lives. Just as you try to be responsible and pay bills on time, do your laundry, feed the dog, and not let dishes sit in the sink for a week, (you do this stuff, right?) you - if you’re like me - regularly prune your email inbox, maintain online passwords, update stored credit cards, maintain you personal and professional social profiles, etc.
To that end, we’re each of us responsible for the content we push out into the digital world. We choose what to say, which picture to use, which place to geotag, which privacy setting to publish as, and more. But there is something even more fundamental at play.I was deliberate in choosing the word “Participation” instead of something more typical like “Use” for the title of this note. Simply electing to participate with digital platforms confers some of the responsibility to us. Yeah, you didn’t read the 1,500 word Terms and Conditions - but you also knew that in the process of clicking “I Agree” that you actually did agree to something. It is through this perspective that I view shocked cries of, “I can’t believe they have all this data!” as somewhat disingenuous surprise.
Being completely honest, I think the #DeleteFacebook campaign is a little silly. I don’t mean that to say that people don’t have the right to be concerned about their data or privacy. What I mean is that data privacy is about as rigid as physical privacy.
I think on some level, we might all prefer that nobody could be capable of simply following us home and in the process of doing so, learn our addresses, what cars we have and their license plate numbers, and maybe even learn our political affiliation from campaign signs. But the fact of the matter is that physical privacy is almost a fool’s errand (even Ron Swanson left his house to go to work) and the same goes for digital privacy. Yes, you could conceivably completely disconnect from the digital world and suffer no future ill fate at the hands of unethical businessmen or data thieves... or could you?
I’m not sure you actually can.
Unless you’re willing to adopt drastic measures, then it’s probably not possible. Your data is still all over the place and I don’t even have to include the types of services we’ve so-far been discussing: governments, credit-card companies, medical companies, and more, all have digitally stored data about millions of citizens. As a data-scientist I used to work with once told me regarding what information is available from macro-aggregated data sets, “We don’t know its name, but we know you have a cat.” (Side note: Facebook did just announce that it is going to start rolling-back some of it’s relationships with data brokers over the next 6 months).
However, I’m not suggesting that limiting one’s exposure is foolhardy, ill-conceived, or without merit, which is precisely why #DeleteFacebook is a thing and in some of the chatter about this recent fiasco, I’ve seen many people ask some variation of this question, “Is there a more secure Facebook alternative?” Implicit in that question is a recognition of value - that Facebook provides a value to that person that they don’t want to completely lose.
Each of us appreciates the value proposition of a platform like Facebook in different ways, and across all people there is truly a spectrum of loyalty. But I think it’s inarguable that an aspect of Facebook that people commonly value is its scale and breadth. What do I mean by that? Odds-are, all your close friends are on Facebook. Your favorite hangouts? They have Facebook pages. Heck, maybe you run a Facebook Page for your own business. That new couple you met at the park yesterday? They’re on Facebook. The community kickball league you just joined? They’ve got a Facebook Group. Heck, I bet your mom is on Facebook.
Facebook’s scale and breadth is what makes all of this possible.Back to the implied question: Can a more private, more secure Facebook, Facebook... exist? Hard to say, but I don’t see how. Building and running a platform like Facebook is expensive, and for such a platform to exist with rigid data privacy means subscription fees for every user. In 2017, Facebook earned just a bit under $41 billion dollars. To cover that revenue with subscriptions, each of Facebook’s 2.2 billion users would need to pay $18/year. Not an appalling sum and one that obviously varies in real-cost terms across countries and economies, but largely reasonable.
So what’s the problem then? New social networks don’t start out with 2.2 billion users. They have to work really hard just to get 2.2 million, and there’s no past or current examples of social networks anywhere near this size that has an ad-free revenue model (that I know of). There have been some attempts, like App.net but they all fail for the reason that Facebook is successful: ad-supported and free-to-use is the one-two punch that makes platforms the size of Facebook possible in the first place. It’s like how Earth has the right conditions for life and Venus does not. When you don’t charge for a product, the barrier-to-entry is low so you gain users. Then once you’ve gained a bunch of users, you now have a value proposition for advertisers. (Side note: This is how the Cambridge Analytica fracas happened in the first place - almost four years ago when Facebook’s data policy was more permissive than it is today, with the goal of luring companies.) Those advertisers pay you for your capacity to expose users to content which then lets you hire more software people to make more features, even further enhancing the value proposition to your end-users, resulting in a positive feedback loop. This is how big digital companies like Facebook and Google get big - over time and through growth they offer strong value-propositions to customers and end-users alike.
If you you’ve gotten this far, thanks for reading and I really hope this doesn’t come across as one big finger-wag, although I realize it might. All the same, my career has given me a different perspective of this digital world we now live in and I wanted to share that. It is my opinion that until someone figures out how to run an online platform in a drastically different way, the next Facebook may look and feel different, but it will also be just the same. Cheers. 📷🍺