“We are not the customers of Facebook, we are the product. Facebook is selling us to advertisers.”- Douglas Rushkoff, media theorist and writer.
Most of us can’t imagine life without social media, it’s the first place we visit in the morning and the last place we report to before falling asleep. It’s fun and exciting to link with relatives, friends and strangers at a very personal level throughout the day, and it doesn’t matter what side of the world they are in. Social media has afforded us connectedness that we’ve never experienced before as human beings. Even better, the service is free (apart from the data, of course). So, what exactly is the cost?
It is clear that social media entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg recognized that if they charged for their services they wouldn’t create a global network. Facebook has crossed 1.65 billion active monthly users. Messenger has about 900 million monthly active users. Twitter has 310 million monthly active users. Instagram has over 400 million monthly active users. Someone is paying to keep the sites up and running, and it’s the advertisers.
It seems natural, after all, that has been the arrangement with TV, radio, Newspaper for centuries (maybe a little over a century) the old media has had viewers, listeners or readership’s to sell to advertisers.
Unlike the old-school Newspapers, TV and radio, Facebook knows a lot about you. It knows when you fall in love. It knows when you get engaged, married and divorce. It knows your sexual orientation, political views, and religious affiliation. Not to mention that it stores every piece of content you consume and share, whether privately or publicly.
Maybe you are still not convinced that there is anything wrong there?
The problem is that how Facebook or, for that matter, any other social networking site chooses to use your data is completely out of your control. They can sell it to the highest bidder or use it to push stuff they know you like your way.
The worst part is that this data, which is stored in data centers forever, can be used against you at some point. That is exactly what happened to Jacob Appelbaum, Birgitta Jonsdottir and Rop Gonggrijp, close associates of the Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange. On December 14, 2010, the US Department of Justice issued an administrative subpoena to Twitter. It required the social networking site to provide details about these individuals such as their user names, correspondence records, and addresses.
This was part of the investigation into the activities of Wikileaks after it released documents that embarrassed the US government. At this moment, you could still argue that it is not wrong for the state to seek information as long as it is about those who break the law. There is still a problem with that way of thinking. What the law is and what is legal are not standard everywhere.
If you are a Saudi citizen, for instance, and you share, through a private chat on social media, your doubts about religion, that could be used against you in a court of law. It could be used to support your prosecution for breaking the law against blasphemy. And the punishment could be anything from a few lashes to a lengthy time in prison or even execution.
A collection and storage of private data of users by third parties is risk in many ways. That’s why the idea of a decentralized peer-to-peer social network should make sense.
And there is a model already that can be copied. OpenBazaar is a peer-to-peer decentralized e-commerce network. In order for you to use it, you need to download a program, which serves as your server. Social media on that model would have someone host and store all their data. When someone visits your profile, they will be reading it on your desktop and not in some obscure server somewhere in New York or London. This means that your correspondence records are on your desktop and on the desktops of only those you interact with. When you erase it, it is gone forever.
Of course, there are challenges to implementing a peer-to-peer social media, like your profile being accessible all the time (given that you switch off your computer when you are not using it). It might also not be as interactive and responsive as what you get on Facebook. But these are problems can be solved with time.