Visibly nervous, striking a repentant pose, Mark Zuckerberg yesterday faced several hours of questions at a joint hearing of the Senate’s Commerce and Judiciary Committee. It’s been a long couple of weeks for the Chairman and CEO of Facebook. Gone was the trademark T-Shirt. In its place a more formal collar and tie. The shift in attire seemed to fit with the controlled contrition on display. The casualness of the crew-neck capitalist was absent, for the moment at least.
As might have been expected, the discussion was of regulation, transparency, consent, consumer choice, election interference and privacy protection. In all of this, a key exchange was about chocolate. Mr Nelson, a ranking member, recounted how he had been interacting with someone about his favourite chocolate, afterwards he found himself confronted with lots of adverts for chocolate. What if I don’t want to get personalised targeted adverts, he asked. It’s a familiar experience, but the question forced Zuckerberg to discuss the Facebook business model in rudimentary terms. His answer indicated that people don’t mind adverts if they are relevant to them – so by targeting us with content they are actually helping us to have a better experience. An advert supported service is the only way for Facebook to work as a free service, he later responded.
Zuckerberg was also asked how he can sustain a business model where people don’t pay. His answer was simple, “Senator, we run ads”. The smiling bluntness of the answer was revealing. It was reiterated in another exchange, with the observation that advertisers tell them who they want to reach and they help them to do that. These various scattered moments laid bare, in very stark terms, Facebook’s business model.
In the written testimony in advance of the hearing, much of which was echoed in the discussions, Zuckerberg claimed, boldly, that Facebook is an “idealistic” and “optimistic” company. This was echoed in the hearing. These ideals underpin both what Zuckerberg thinks went wrong and the solutions he is proposing. But what are these ideals? And what is the model of the world that informs this optimism? These ideals seem to be based on the idea that data can solve our problems, that we should be evermore connected into our networks, that our media experiences should be increasingly tailored and that platforms empower and offer a voice.
The same visions can be flipped to take on much more dystopic properties of inescapable media and the integration of a kind of constant and ongoing data-led nudging of us towards certain desired outcomes. The problem here is that the ideals and optimism are based upon a vision that is not necessarily shared by everyone, yet there seems an unshakable confidence that we all want the future that they are imagining. If we want to challenge this we don’t just need more regulation, we need to challenge the very ideas and principles that guide and justify how our data is being used.
As this hearing made painfully clear, using data to target and shape behaviours is an integral part of social media. It is the potential use of our data that is of real value. Data informed targeting is woven into Facebook’s DNA; the only way to change that is to change its structure and purpose. Under questioning Zuckerberg suggested that Facebook is going through a “broader philosophical shift”, taking them from simply producing tools for “empowering” people to the need now to take a “more proactive role” in “policing the ecosystem”. This implies that they seek an even more powerful position – both as producers and regulators – and a larger roll-out of their particular ideals and philosophies.
The answer to the problems of Facebook, it seemed to be suggested, is more Facebook and more of its current business model. The account was of a purer Facebook that gives you connectivity, voice and control of your information, untainted by any issues, missteps or unwanted players. An enhanced version of what we already have is what was being proposed as the solution. Putting the obvious problems to one side for the moment, the other question is whether we really share the ideals of Facebook. The tone of this hearing was apologetic, but it leaves us to question if change is actually possible. We might trust Zuckerberg to be responsible, this doesn’t mean that we need to accept the ideals that are wrapped up in these media and the type of world that is being imagined. The problems clearly need attention, but we might also wonder about the ideals that will play such a powerful part in our collective future. The ideals and models of Facebook will continue to expand unless we think a little more about the future that we want to bring into existence.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies