x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Facebook, having devoured your privacy, wants more

It suggests we become "friends" with people we've never met and attend events we're not invited to.

When it comes to Facebook, most of us have long accepted our addiction. Like the Hotel California, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

The tiresome and mostly irrelevant debate continues about the exact role of social media in the Arab revolutions and other demonstrations around the world. But there is no doubt that Facebook and Twitter have become part of the fabric of that reality as much as they are in our lives. Facebook creates fake relationships; it also brings down dictatorships. The activist and the Justin Bieber fan live side by side.

This was eloquently postulated in December by Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, at his 2011 Vancouver Human Rights lecture titled Cute Cats and the Arab Spring. Basically, his "cute cats theory" goes something like this: only activists notice if a revolutionary website is blocked by an oppressive government; but everyone - including those who are simply watching clips of kittens - notices when Facebook or YouTube is blocked, and that provokes a far greater backlash.

It's a reality that Facebook's owners understand only too well, and have not been slow to exploit.

Sure, there may be Facebook dissenters, even deserters, out there, but they are hopelessly outnumbered by what will soon be a one billion-strong army. Given such numbers, it's no surprise that intrusion into privacy continues and, in truth, largely with the users' consent.

After all, a person who volunteers every move, photograph, opinion and interest is unlikely to notice, or care, if his or her date of birth or email address is being exploited.

One Facebook feature suggests you connect to people you've probably never met based on the number of shared "friends". That is perhaps not an entirely unreasonable assumption, but it's one that again defines Facebook's concept of friendship in mathematical terms.

And now a new Facebook feature, currently being tested but increasingly being drip-fed to users, will "suggest" events friends are attending, even if you haven't been invited yourself. The predictions are based on activities in your timeline: your friends list, places you visit, music you listen to. The site then invites you to nights out that people on your friends list are attending - without waiting for them to ask you first. Your days of avoiding those clingy friends are numbered.

This is particularly bad news for those who suffer from what is known in hip circles as FOMO, or the "fear of missing out", syndrome. Imagine not being invited to an event that 30 "friends" are "attending". You can occasionally avoid your peers, but you cannot escape peer pressure.

Some users complain about privacy, but in reality, many are more than happy to flaunt their profiles, or rather online personalities. And it gets worse. Last month KLM announced a new scheme allowing passengers the option of viewing the social media profiles of others on board - with their consent of course - when checking in online. The idea is that you could then choose your seat according to who you would like to "network" with.

So how far will this mapping of our lives go? Looking a bit chubby in those holiday photos? Here are a few suggestions for nearby gyms. That shirt everyone made fun of? Why not visit these fine boutiques? How long before we're being advised on who to get "in a relationship" with?

The paradox of choice suggests that we become paralysed when faced with too many options. Except we're increasingly told what to choose. Parties, holidays, clothes, music and films. Facebook may claim to tailor its suggestions to your individual preferences, but it's really encouraging you to follow the herd. Like so much in marketing, it offers the promise of being different by being exactly the same.

Our individuality, at this rate, is fast becoming a thing of the past. A bit like our privacy.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

Follow on Twitter: @AliKhaled_