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Senator, we run ads!

The four words that underline everything that has been happening in the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica situation.

These were four words that had many of us in splits, as we followed the Congressional hearing that Mark Zuckerberg attended in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica hullabaloo.

Yes, a large part of the hearings seemed to reflect how technologically ignorant some of the politicians were. Zuckerberg trying to explain basic technology to ageing senators, in the most polite and politically correct way possible, was downright funny at times. However, it is when he said those four words, and then slowly let a wry smile creep across his face that many people realised the deeper meaning of that simple sentence.

Of course there was no breach, because every single thing we share on Facebook, we do so willingly, and usually because we want people to know that stuff about us. Sure there are some things we only want to share with “friends” and not the general public or data gathering firms, but most of us have a ridiculously higher number of Facebook friends than people we actually know in real life. In essence, even our friends are not really our “friends”, so we can’t really complain about people getting our data.

Almost nothing that came out of this situation should come as a surprise

Facebook is a made up world where we go to get away from our (supposedly) boring lives, which makes us feel good about ourselves. To get that satisfaction, people have usually had to pay in the past, but Zuckerberg gave it to you for free. Or rather, as someone in Team Digit once said, it’s not free, and never will be.

We’re not gullible little children who can be led astray with some free candy, are we? Based on the strong reaction to what is essentially the norm in the online advertising industry, it looks like many of us were expecting the ultimate free lunch. It’s like a modern-day Hansel and Gretel tale, where Zuckerberg is the wicked witch who wants to boil us and eat us because we ate from his house of candy. Or are we now at the stage where Hansel and Gretel boil the witch?

“Facebook is a made up world where we go to get away from our (supposedly) boring lives, which makes us feel good about ourselves. To get that satisfaction, people have usually had to pay in the past, but Zuckerberg gave it to you for free. Or rather, as someone in Team Digit once said, it’s not free, and never will be.”

Of course, Facebook like any other public internet company needs to make money, and that is their primary job, no matter how much they try to butter you up with platitudes and tell you it’s all about you. It’s Facebook’s job to keep you hooked so that you will consume ads and then hopefully buy stuff because of those ads, and in that way keep even the advertisers hooked. It’s the ultimate middleman game, and your data and you are the commodities being bought and sold.

Most people don’t even know that Cambridge Analytica is hardly the biggest or baddest or best at what they did, they just happened to be the company who boasted the most about it and whose CEO was immature enough to make ridiculous claims on a sting video.

For this column, I just want you to focus on those four words that Zuckerberg said. That is how Facebook keeps its shareholders happy, and that will always involve them treating you as a commodity. Always. And the thing you need to remember about commodities is that are they sometimes sold to those who misuse them for nefarious purposes, and the seller rarely can control that misuse, because they’re too busy trying to make an even bigger profit.

Now, many of us are happy to be armed with this truth and continue to use the platform. It’s like surfers who want to catch the waves despite the shark warning. However, many of you might not want that and might prefer to do what the headline for the May 2018 issue of Digit magazine suggests. The cover story for the May 2018 issue is for both those types of people, and I consider myself to be a part of the first type. There is a third type of person, who is far more carefree than the first two types… some of my friends had a Congressional Hearing party, and played a drinking game, where they had to take a sip of alcohol every time Zuckerberg said the word “Senator”. Needless to say, it didn’t last very long as they all passed out quite drunk. Some days I wish I could be that carefree and oblivious.

So which type are you? Do you not care, do use the platform smartly, or are you just going to delete yourself?

This article was first published in the May 2018 issue of Digit magazine. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.

Robert Sovereign-Smith