We have been thinking a lot about Facebook and social media in general ever since the story about Cambridge Analytica broke. If you are not familiar with the story, it is about a company called Cambridge Analytica that harvested more than 50 million user profiles back in 2014 without user permission and used it to try to sway the British vote to leave the EU and the US presidential election in 2016. Ultimately we were not surprised by this story and after careful consideration we’ve decided to delete our Facebook page and leave the platform. I’d like to take today’s post to explain in more detail how we came to that decision. Hopefully this sheds some light on what we value and how we strive to run our own business.
The Last Straw
Our problem with Facebook is multifaceted. We believe they have been horribly dishonest and also that their business model will forever lead them down a bad path.
It is largely beside the point which organization harvested and used the information. It is primarily that this information was exposed AND for years Facebook didn’t tell anyone about it until a whistleblower (at Cambridge Analytica, not Facebook) made it public. On top of that, they have been very resistant to the idea that their platform may have been used to sway the election (even though they simultaneously claim their platform is worth spending money on for ads) all while knowing that this information was harvested. This is utterly unacceptable.
To understand why their business model is so problematic, we have to discuss in detail how Facebook uses the data it collects about us. They use it for 3 primary purposes:
- 1. Show us targeted ads
- 2. Show us things that will keep us on their platform as much and as long as possible
- 3. Allow others to influence our opinions and behaviors
Facebook collects an enormous amount of information about us. It can seem innocuous because, when we hear data, we tend to think about the posts we write, our pictures, what schools we’ve gone to, etc. However they also collect our location whenever possible, what we like, who we interact with, and much more.
All of this adds up to essentially a "personality profile” about each of us. It is amazing what they can determine from seemingly meaningless behavior by simply correlating that behavior with millions of other people. Just “liking” a particular band, bar, or educational company can tell them a lot about your political beliefs, what will make you angry, what life stage you’re in and much more. This is largely because similar people tend to congregate around common interests. If this still doesn’t make sense to you or you don’t believe it, I encourage you to do some searching online.
If you are inclined to believe this, I would like to talk about each of those 3 ways our data is being used.
We don’t have a huge problem with ads. There is a certain value to finding out about products and services we are interested in. However, there is a deeper philosophical problem, and that is why we refuse to show ads in our own products. The current way these social media platforms make money places value on people in terms of how much we spend on things, not on what we produce or give back to the world. We as users are also generating a huge amount of value. Even after their stock price drop last week, Facebook was worth around $450 billion. They have 25,000 employees. That is $18 million per employee. Compare that to Costco which is worth $82 billion with 231,000 employees. That comes out to about $350,000 per employee. Facebook is worth more than 50 times as much as Costco per employee all while Costco has 741 warehouses and tons of inventory all contributing to their value. That is because Facebook’s employees are really us, the millions of people generating value for them by being consumers as well as generating data they can sell.
Now, we are capitalists and believe a market (with a degree of oversight) is still the best way for a society to organize itself. So we are tempted to say, “More power to Facebook if they can create a service so compelling that users will create billions of dollars in value for them for free.” However, it is critical that we consider why our random posts about that hike we went on, that special meal we just ate, or that fun party we attended are so valuable. We must also decide if our spending habits are the way we want to be valued and if our detailed personality profiles are worth the trade-off of using their service. Especially because the power to influence what we spend our hard-earned money on is just a part of how our information is used.
Keeping Us On Their Platform
The incentive to keep us on their platform longer is even worse. Things like productivity, empathy, understanding, well-being, and happiness are either undervalued or actively harmful to their business model. On average, the angrier or more desperate a person feels, the more they engage on social media. The more companies like Facebook can instill a fear of missing out, the more people disengage from the physical world and rely on the endorphin rush of getting a like or a birthday message.
At Learn Brigade, we are trying hard to create a business model that doesn't incentivize us to keep you using our software as long as possible. We want to make our software so effective that you can spend very little time using it. We only want you continually using the app because you are constantly finding new and exciting things to learn and Learn Brigade provides the software that best allows you to do that.
Influence is probably the most insidious of the three. The first two move power through money into a smaller and smaller portion of society. When it comes to influence, these personality profiles allow a small number of people (with money and resources) to have an enormous impact on everyone else. By building these personality models, they can write algorithms that micro target each individual with the best possible message to change their behavior. We only have so much time in the day and can only take in so much information. When algorithms like these can have a huge impact on the information we receive, it is not hard to imagine that they can have a meaningful impact on what we believe.
A big part of the Russia campaign was just magnifying extreme opinions making them seem both more pervasive and more acceptable to those prone to those thoughts/actions. Someone who was previously ashamed of their racism now feels more empowered to act on it. On the other hand, we can become hopeless because it seems there are worse people on the other side than there really are. Most importantly, we don’t think it is right for anyone to be able to manipulate people like that. Even for causes we agree with. We need people working from a common set of information, not personalized information tailored to make everyone believe what a few people in positions of influence want us to believe.
What We Lose By Leaving
A common thought about all of this is, “but I don't use Facebook for anything serious/important.” Ultimately we think this instinct is correct. On a personal level, it probably isn’t a big deal for us. I’m sure we will always be targeted by these types of influence campaigns and ads. Those tactics aren’t going away completely, even if social media as we know it goes away. However, we think our society needs to send a strong and clear message that we are not ok with it. This will hopefully do two things:
- 1. Make platforms that allow this type of undue influence less popular and therefore less effective
- 2. Inspire others to develop the technology to allow us to connect with each other outside of the influence of bad actors.
There are promising technologies out there for connecting in a more private and secure way, but those experiments are much less likely to succeed if people don’t care about these things.
More specifically in regards to Learn Brigade, we probably aren't losing much. Only a tiny fraction of our user base actually follow us on Facebook. The biggest thing we lose is future potential to publish ads for our software on Facebook. Those ads can certainly be effective, or else we wouldn't have a problem with Facebook in the first place. The other thing we lose is Facebook as a support channel. We do our best to make ourselves available in as many ways as possible. Moving forward, you will still be able to reach out from the settings in the app, on our website, or on Twitter @NotecardsApp. Twitter is also a questionable service but for now we'll still be on there. On that note, let's quickly discuss other social media.
Other Social Media
Many of you are probably thinking, "But all social media is doing the same thing!" We believe this is largely true even if Facebook seems to have the lowest regard for our privacy. The difference is that Facebook has been caught. Yes, punishing them for it might simply make some other companies better at covering up their mistakes, but hopefully it will make most other companies realize that the risk of not taking our privacy seriously is no longer worth it. If it comes out that other social media or online service have acted similarly badly, then we will consider each of them on a case-by-case basis.
Just a quick note: we don’t judge any of you for using Facebook, Instagram, or frankly any other platform (owned or not owned by Facebook). They can certainly be valuable services. As long as you know what you are giving them in return, it is up to you to decide if they are worth it.