The blue-and-white halls of my newsfeed on Facebook go on and on — the memes, the music videos, the news, the free events, and the pictures from parties and holidays. They don’t break for a second. There are virtually no signs or outcries of the damning data-breach that has engulfed the company recently. Why aren’t we more perplexed with the news about Facebook? One reason could be that we, as millennials of the Facebook generation, grapple to understand the company beyond Mark Zuckerberg’s said-ambition to connect the world.
Zuckerberg’s successful story of launching the social networking site from his dorm room in 2004 for college-goers, and for everyone else with an email address in 2006, has been packaged for us in that particular cast of a college-goer who drops out, but nevertheless, becomes really successful. The story remains inspiring, absolutely, but it’s also time to take a closer look at what Facebook really is — a giant technology company from head to toe.
From the company’s perspective, we, the users, are all but products that Zuckerberg and his team could use to target model advertisers to make money for the company. We submit our information by thumbing up on our likes and interests, and the company uses that data to rake in advertisers to best influence our decisions. And, this business model is as serious as it can get. Even when we’re not logged into our accounts, advertisers use a code, called the Facebook pixel, to direct our activity back to the company. This information is carried by the Facebook “like” button that appears on dozens of pages on the internet. The ideological vision of the company, be that as may, has ultimately come down to an economic game-plan to generate ad revenue and make more money. When Facebook first began trading on Wall Street in 2012, the company performed miserably. At that time, several investors even sued Facebook for withholding negative information that could prove damaging to its initial public offerings. Cut to 2017, Facebook has transformed itself entirely. Zuckerberg deserves credit for adapting the company to the parallel changes in the computer industry. After all, the success of the internet, without which Facebook would have been impossible, depends on the innovations of the computer industry. Zuckerberg was quick to act, not surprisingly, and expanded the website from exclusive desktop use to include a mobile platform. In the first half of 2017, 85% of Facebook’s ad revenue came from mobile advertising. Needless to say, the company’s stocks soared. In the next few years, from Zuckerberg’s own outlining of his goals for the company, Facebook is likely to take us on a virtual adventure by engineering our greater access to its own virtual reality headset, the Oculus Rift.
If Facebook is going to function like an all-encompassing government-structure, an aspiration Zuckerberg appears to live by, shouldn’t now be the time to apply more regulatory measures? This would mean relinquishing some of its control over users’ data and handing over the remote-control to us. We should be able to choose to give our own information, whether to the site, or to other third-parties. Our choice to “opt in” is used by the other de-facto government organizations like the European Union (EU). The EU’s regulations, charted in guidelines to General Data Protection Regulation, make it more difficult for third-parties to obtain users’ data without their exclusive consent. Last week, owing to a growing chorus from officials, media reporters, and other business partners, Facebook beefed up its policies to make transparent how the company uses our data. That said, there are no more choices available to us than there were previously, but we do have information now on how our data is being used and shared.
However, I remain skeptical of Facebook’s use of our data. When Ezra Klein from Vox sat down for an interview with Zuckerberg a few days ago, Klein opened with a question about Zuckerberg’s statement that Facebook was now more akin to a government than a company. Zuckerberg responded by effectively saying that he still has to think it through — he wants to make it a more democratic platform but isn’t sure how that is going to work. In the same interview, Zuckerberg mentioned that most of us — we, the millennials — likely identify as “citizens of the world,” and not by religion or nationality. True, but here’s one glimpse into how that, according to the company’s mind, plays out: last June, Zuckerberg mentioned that Facebook was going to classify people into “meaningful” groups. If we spend more than 30 minutes in a group, that group is classified as “meaningful.” As of last June, nearly 130 million users were part of such groups. Zuckerberg hopes that he can bring up the numbers to more than a billion by the end of 2022. The goal is to unite us on common ground, but the way to do that, for the company, is by vetting our information.
In 2015, Zuckerberg pledged that he would give away 99 percent of his wealth to philanthropy. That sounds like a good way to use all the money that the company makes, except there’s a more careful agenda: Zuckerberg intends to keep his majority stakes in the company, and only gives a billion dollars a year in a three-year plan. He is going to give away 99 percent of his Facebook shares, to be exact. This means that he continues to lead the shareholder’s board and remains in charge of nearly all decisions at the company. There’s simply no way he is going to be forced to step down as face of the company.
Now, the news of 87 million users’ data being improperly shared without their knowledge to third-parties almost feels like a bark alerting us to a greater catastrophe. If Zuckerberg is not going to give us more control of our own stakes in his in-house democracy, he should stop the double-speak and guide the company more bluntly, as a big technology company, that is.
Roshni Majumdar is a graduate student of Creative Publishing and Journalism. She interns at the Foreign Policy Association.