30 April 2018

Marginal Revolution: “The Facebook Trials: It’s Not “Our” Data”

What could be more ours than our friends? Yet I have hundreds of friends on Facebook, most of whom I don’t know well and have never met. But my Facebook friends are friends. We share common interests and, most of the time, I’m happy to see what they are thinking and doing and I’m pleased when they show interest in what I’m up to. If, before Facebook existed, I had been asked to list “my friends”, I would have had a hard time naming ten friends, let alone hundreds. My Facebook friends didn’t exist before Facebook. My Facebook friendships are not simply my data—they are a unique co-creation of myself, my friends, and, yes, Facebook.

Some of my Facebook friends are family, but even here the relationships are not simply mine but a product of myself and Facebook. My cousin who lives in Dubai, for example, is my cousin whether Facebook exists or not, but I haven’t seen him in over twenty years, have never written him a letter, have never in that time shared a phone call. Nevertheless, I can tell you about the bike accident, the broken arm, the X-ray with more than a dozen screws—I know about all of this only because of Facebook. The relationship with my cousin, therefore, isn’t simply mine, it’s a joint creation of myself, my cousin and Facebook.

Facebook hasn’t taken our data—they have created it.

Alex Tabarrok

I may have discovered the one thing worse than an Apple apologist: a Facebook apologist! This is the most backwards and illogical argument I’ve ever seen! The author has seemingly forgotten how he built the social graph on Facebook in the first place: by uploading his address book. In fact, every communication service, from Gmail to WhatsApp, has started this way, so to say that Facebook contributed to creating this data is preposterous – at best, it made a(nother) digital copy. Also, to say that Facebook promotes healthy friendships is a stretch, when there are many examples to the contrary. There are dozens of other ways to keep in touch, if you sincerely want to, so this doesn’t make Facebook in any way special.

The only data you could argue that Facebook has indeed created are the so-called ‘shadow profiles’, but their primary use is not meant for end-users – as their name implies. These extended profiles are instead built for advertisers to better target users. They are consequently valuable for Facebook’s true customers, advertisers, and for investors; for regular users shadow profiles add little to no value to their daily experience. The profiles constitute one of Facebook’s greatest weakness as well: for each genuine ad display based on shadow profiles, there are others trying to manipulate and confuse users using the same highly targeted data.

There’s value in ‘big data’; but make no mistake: the huge Facebook database was built from billions of tiny little pieces, pieces that each of us contributed through sharing and connecting.

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