Facebook, you and your data

by Peter Griffin / 29 April, 2016
Facebook uses Kiwis’ data and invades our newsfeeds with adverts, yet is still considered the most user-friendly social network.
Photo/Getty Images/Listener illustration
Photo/Getty Images/Listener illustration

If you are the average Facebook user, you’ll spend about 20 minutes a day on the social network this year. That’s a minimum of 122 hours, scrolling through your newsfeed, ­chatting, liking and sharing, commenting and browsing through friends’ photos. That’s enough time to learn to play the guitar, read your child a bedtime story every night or go for a short daily jog.

Facebook has been around for a decade, but the past year has seen Mark ­Zuckerberg’s creation move to a new level of success and influence. Facebook for smartphones was 2015’s most-downloaded app. Even the hugely unpopular move to split Messenger from Facebook proved ultimately successful as the messaging app ended up the third-most downloaded of the year.

On the desktop, Google’s search page is the stepping off point for most web surfers, but on the smartphone it is all about Facebook, which brought in nearly US$18 billion in 2015, mostly from ­advertising. Facebook has already scooped up Instagram and Whatsapp, two of the other most-used mobile apps.

A frenzy of deals and new services signals the way ahead. Take Instant Articles, for instance, which sees news stories from outlets such as Stuff, the Sydney Morning Herald and National Geographic appear in full in your newsfeed rather than sending you to the publisher’s website. It is an admission from the news ­industry that it is increasingly dependent on Facebook to deliver its audience – and advertising revenue. And Facebook has teamed with another Silicon Valley giant, Uber, to let users book cars from within ­Messenger rather than ­needing to boot up the Uber app.

But the big changes are more subtle and insidious: the invasion of our newsfeeds with videos, the medium of choice for advertisers. Facebook’s big success has been expanding its mobile base – 1.4 billion of its users access the social network on smartphones and tablets. Mobile adverts now account for more than 80% of Facebook’s digital advertising revenue.

It is a juggernaut, monolithic. Forget the pre-internet Microsoft that dominated our computing lives with Windows and Office. What Facebook knows about us as individuals is unprecedented. It’s creepy, yet at the same time it is the most useful and user-friendly social network.

Its main rival, Twitter, is ­languishing: clunky and dominated by a group of high-falutin’ users, the Twitterati. Last year I saw stubborn hold-outs finally buckle and join Facebook. Some of them are now the most active users in my network.

Facebook’s value has grown as publishers and businesses get more serious about using it. By following the right collection of pages and people, I get compelling content all day. And this year comes the ultimate effort to expand Facebook to every aspect of life – Facebook for business. It’s an opportunity to replace the dull intranets and file ­systems many of us grapple with at work with a secure network that encourages ­collaboration and easy access to information. If Facebook can make it work, game over – it has us every which way.

This success wouldn’t be so unnerving if Facebook was a better corporate citizen. But, like many tech multi­nationals, it employs a mere handful of people in New Zealand and pays little tax here. We don’t know how much money Facebook makes in this country. The NZ Herald reports that each user is worth US$12 a year in revenue overall, so it could be $30 million or more. Google operates a similar and even more lucrative model.

For such pervasive companies, they remain remarkably and profitably aloof. That won’t change any time soon. But as Facebook becomes powerful enough to buy its potential competitors and ambitious enough to want a central place in our personal and professional lives, we need to start asking the question – how soon will it be before Facebook effectively becomes a monopoly and what do we need to do about it?

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