When Ethan Banks recently announced he was ditching Facebook along with some other unnecessary social media accounts, I was a little concerned. He said it was because he was trying to digitally downsize and was uneasy about how his data was being mined. But I privately worried that he was either preparing to go Luddite and vanish into the wilderness or that it was just a sophisticated ploy to “unfriend” me. Then I listened to Packetpushers podcast #103 this morning and discovered that his feelings were echoed by Greg Ferro. Greg had just read a book on the data analytics of social networking and they discussed the impact on our privacy.
In security, we talk about this stuff all the time, so it’s not really news to me. It’s the reason I have NoScript and Tor installed and avoid open wireless like the plague. I also frequently re-evaluate my privacy options with Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin. Security professionals usually fall into two categories with regards to these issues. They’re either tin-foil-hat-wearing paranoids who run everything in PortableApps off a USB flash drive or (like me) they’ve accepted that privacy is an illusion. But today I happened to watch a recent TED talk by activist Chris Soghoian and saw how long Google keeps their logs, 18 months, and I became a little more uncomfortable.
My use of social media sites is generally for the purpose of sharing news or the interesting ideas I encounter, not the personal minutiae of my daily life. I’ve even been trying to build a portfolio of curation tools in order to minimize the time I spend on it. Then during some research, I happened upon the term “Digital Sharecropping” coined by Nicholas Carr. Frankly, I found this idea more disturbing than the privacy concerns.
One of the fundamental economic characteristics of Web 2.0 is the distribution of production into the hands of the many and the concentration of the economic rewards into the hands of the few. It’s a sharecropping system, but the sharecroppers are generally happy because their interest lies in self-expression or socializing, not in making money, and, besides, the economic value of each of their individual contributions is trivial. It’s only by aggregating those contributions on a massive scale – on a web scale – that the business becomes lucrative. To put it a different way, the sharecroppers operate happily in an attention economy while their overseers operate happily in a cash economy.
Carr also mentions Facebook’s ARPU (average revenue per user) of $1.21 being an important determinant of its financial health.
Because Facebook’s content is created by its members, ARPU also tells us the monetary value of each member’s labor. If the average Facebook sharecropper were to be paid a revenue share for his or her work on the site, that member would make a buck and change every three months – about enough for one crappy cup of coffee. …
I would argue, in fact, that while Facebook very much wants ARPU to grow steadily, it probably doesn’t want the number to get so large that it becomes a meaningful amount to its members. If that happened, members might start thinking about the cash value of their labor rather than just its attention value.
Great, so I’m no better than a mindless drone and social media is the equivalent of high fructose corn syrup? I’ve signed away my privacy and my labor for a place on the Immeasurable Interweb? If I buy Facebook stock, do I shift from sharecropper to plantation owner? Then I remembered what happened with NNTP about 10 years ago. When it started to get flooded with SPAM and porn, many people simply stopped using it and found alternatives. Maybe Facebook and Twitter should consider that.
UPDATE: Seth Godin just wrote about the signal-to-noise ratio on Facebook and Twitter. Like Ethan, he prefers blogs.