February 10, 2012
I recently joined this cool new social-networking site called “Facebook” because my publishers told me I had to use it to promote my book. I was reluctant to join because every time I checked my wife’s page, it showed some person she barely knows telling the world he favorited a YouTube video. So what?
Now, I had never opposed Facebook out of some misguided moralfag outrage; I just thought it seemed “mind-numbingly dull,” as writer Matt Labash put it. But after trying it for a few days, I see it’s like everything else on the Internet—as useful as you want it to be. Most of the criticism surrounding the site now seems like a combination of entitlement, self-obsession, and technophobia.
After telling a fellow Facebookophobe I had caved, he became incensed and sent me an article by proud Luddite Tom Hodgkinson entitled “Log off!” We are both fans of Hodgkinson. His books How to Be Free and The Freedom Manifesto are required reading for anyone who leans more to the anarchy side of libertarianism. However, as I was reading Tom’s article I thought, “Fuck this guy.” He is so anti-consumerism he’s actually anti-capitalism, and as far as I’m concerned that’s anti-freedom. Even if it was a joke, his article went over like a Ludd balloon.
Hodgkinson uses the adjectives “terrifying” and “sinister” to describe Facebook’s plan to monetize their user’s announcements with programs such as Sponsored Stories. But what are they doing that’s so evil? They’re not selling pictures of your kids to pedophiles. They’re not even touching your private data. All they’re doing is allowing sponsors to put a logo and a link next to a post that mentions their product. What’s the matter with that?
Business Week’s Ben Kunz says he thinks they should go even further and sell all the data, and I’m inclined to agree. The users willingly put info on Facebook’s site for free and someone wants to turn that garbage into a profit? It’s like making money out of thin air. Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt refused Kunz’s advice and told him, “people share so freely on Facebook, in part, because they trust that we’re not going to sell their information. We don’t have any interest in violating that trust.”
Despite Facebook’s refusal to sell information, users are still outraged at Sponsored Stories. Politicians are piggybacking the outrage. How audacious. This has nothing to do with the government. Facebook costs nothing, and I’m not forced to post anything on there. If I thought a picture of myself in high school was some kind of precious commodity worth millions, I wouldn’t share it. If my favorite Jamaican restaurant wants to put up a link after I tell my friends I had a delicious meal there, that’s irie with me. The only time I get sanctimonious about my privacy is when the government is involved. Businesses want my money and if they don’t get it, they say, “Geez, he’s not interested. I must be doing something wrong.”
The government, on the other hand, demands about half my salary, couldn’t care less what I think about it, and if I don’t pay them, I go to jail. Hodgkinson doesn’t see the difference and describes Facebook as “Orwellian.” Big Brother isn’t Big Brother if he can’t punish us for not obeying him. Facebook is only trying to generate revenue. Why does that bother Tom so much? Is he jealous?
In Hodgkinson’s article, he claims Google uses “pawtracks” to tell big business about your search history. This is false. You only get cookies when you’re on a site that puts them there. They can only track your activity when you’re on their site and if you have a problem with that, you should only frequent restaurants where the waiters are blindfolded. The only way someone can see what sites you’ve been Googling is when they get on your computer and manually click the “history” button. The only entity with the authority to do this against your will is the government, and even they need a subpoena first. If you want to Google “how to murder your wife” and “tax evasion,” go bananas. But if you announce your affection for these topics on Facebook, that’s a different story. Only a mental defective would post something publicly like that and hope nobody noticed.
I don’t want to murder my wife, so I wouldn’t have a problem with Google selling my information even if they did. Although I found no hard evidence that Google sells your cookie history, their email service Gmail may be another story. Jezebel.com writer Tracie Morrissey was incensed by some ads in Gmail that told her where she could sell her engagement ring. She had been emailing a friend about a fight with her fiancé and a spambot picked up on it. I introduced Tracie to her fiancé and although I understand why she’d be frustrated with him, I didn’t know why she was mad at the robot. She was using Gmail’s software for free. In return, an algorithm tried to help her. Using someone else’s email technology is not our right and even if it was, being introduced to a vendor who wants to help wouldn’t count as a violation of that right.
Capitalism has such a bad rap these days, simply encouraging the invisible hand to merge supply with demand is seen as spooky. I like being target-marketed so much, it almost gives me a tingle. I have very esoteric tastes and have no problem watching businesses struggle to please me. I recently got some spam announcing the new GG Allin Throbblehead dolls are out. Thank you for that. I’m one of the 37 people in the world who wants one. Do you care that the new Bad Brains documentary is debuting at SXSW? No? OK, well, we won’t waste your time with announcements about it. Targeted marketing is showing you something you might like while you look at other stuff you like, for free. FOR FREE! When I go to Taki’s Mag I see my own face advertising a porn domain. That’s not sinister. It’s amusing.
While Tom Hodgkinson plays his vinyl records in private and swears they sound better than MP3s, I took Andrew Breitbart’s advice and subscribed to Spotify, where a seemingly infinite number of songs appear every time I type something in the search bar. If I feel inclined, I can have the songs I listen to appear on Facebook. Right now I’m listening to Nicki Minaj and I don’t want anyone to know that, so I clicked the “private session” button. I want Facebook to register my choices and I want it to tell me if a band I listen to a lot is releasing a box set. I use Facebook to check in on old friends, hear about things I might want to buy, and even—brace yourself—sell stuff. If they think they can turn a profit by documenting this harmless behavior, they are obligated to do so.
The privacy backlash at Facebook isn’t about big business violating our rights. It’s about a nation of spoiled brats so used to getting something for free, they think it’s their inalienable right. I wish they would direct their anger at the government, which is working hard to not only monitor our behavior but restrict it.
Companies that try to sell you something aren’t trying to ruin your life. They’re trying to enrich it. Entrepreneurs create jobs and make our lives better. They are the reason the average lifespan has been climbing steadily since we began recording it. Billionaires shouldn’t disgust you; they should inspire you. Two-thirds of them started out with nothing. The billions that Facebook is making came out of nothing. The world is moving forward no matter what, and the Luddites can either come aboard or get the hell out of the way.
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