I signed up for Facebook, partly to see what the hype was all about, partly for “research” purposes (I’m a graduate student in communications, after all), and partly from buckling under the pressure of being asked every day for a week, “are you on Facebook?”
I stayed on Facebook because it’s fascinating: people compare the site to highly addictive drugs for a reason. I’ve spent hours sifting through profiles of old high school friends and random people I’ve met in the real world over the years, looking at photos of their weddings, vacations and parties, marvelling at how seemingly unconnected friends know each other, and keeping up-to-date on people’s plans, careers and relationships.
Like many astute students of communications (as I said, this is research!), I’m interested in how free sites like MySpace and Facebook plan to make money. After all, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. purchased MySpace for $580 million (US) for a reason (which is made somewhat clear in this fascinating article). It seems to me to be about more than just getting people to voluntarily participate to make content costs virtually zero, getting participants to draw each other to the site (that’s why it’s called social networking) and then selling that high traffic to advertisers.
The answer to this question is becoming increasingly clear as I realize that Facebook is a data collector’s wet dream. By filling out personal information such as favourite books, movies and events we’re attending, we are volunteering information that is in turn repackaged and sold for big bucks (bigger than the bucks made from selling ads, I would imagine) to marketing companies and other interested parties, who then turn around and use our info to sell us things. This is nothing new (see: airlines, mailing houses and retail outlets for other examples), and something I think we have been able to brush off as just part of the massive marketing machine that we have learned to live with, to put it somewhat simply.
But something interesting (and I think something new) is happening on Facebook. We are willingly (and happily) filling out even more personal information, including our addresses, phone numbers and email addresses, places of work, political affiliation, religious and sexual orientation, who we have lived with and for how long, how we know each other, who we are dating, where we go to school, etc.
These are critical questions we need to be discussing as we increasingly participate in sites like Facebook. We are drawn to social networking sites because we we want to establish personal connections with each other, however mediated those connections may be. I think we need to be asking what we’re willing to give up in the process.