I had an amazing mentor in library school who said “Communities get the libraries they deserve”, which I thought was amazingly insightful. Her meaning was that if a community doesn’t invest in their library (attention, policy, and money) then their library would falter. Given my recent post on the Taxonomy behind Facebook and the recent story from the New York Times about how Cambridge Analytica leveraged data from Facebook to build detailed user personas I have been thinking a lot about the nature of information consumption in our culture.
While Cambridge Analytica took liberties with Facebook’s data not envisioned or condoned the basic premise behind Facebook being a free service is that the users give up their data so Facebook can serve targeted ads based around their individual profiles (among other revenue streams it now seems). As users we have chosen to sell our digital selves for a free service. Facebook is hardly the first service to do this type of exchange (tons of websites show ads to keep their content free) Facebook is just in a unique situation considering the data they possess. While the #deletefacebook trend removes the app from your device it doesn’t look at the larger cultural issue around exchanging data for services.
I find myself personally torn between privacy and convenience. When I did my dive into Facebook’s taxonomy and I saw how they were building a profile on my behavior for ads I didn’t stop using the service and when the Cambridge Analytica program details were released by the Times I didn’t delete my account either. Why? Facebook is so useful.* I can keep in touch with people who I knew during college, find other users in my area with similar interests, and it is especially useful as a parent for advice on how to manage my offspring. Facebook (and services like it) is a connective web for communities to come together, which is a fundamental foundation in being human: connection.
Facebook could charge for their service though that would limit who could reasonably afford it and thus cap their potential user base. Within those who could afford it would they actually pay? Old word newspapers have had to turn to subscriptions services and micro media outfits have custom newsletters that build a direct money for value relationship. I don’t know the specific financials behind these models nor how they compare versus selling ads though it does prove their is another path for revenue (note: which is funny to write as before “the internet” pay for service was the ONLY model.) Yet we as users have become accustomed to the internet being free and I think there would be an uproar if Facebook started charging users nor would they have been able to build such a global community if that has been their business model back in 2004.
In contrast to Facebook, libraries are privacy oriented when interacting with users. There are strict privacy laws (note: this is in the US) about divulging patron records and librarians have a strong ethical code around patron privacy:
“We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.” (From the ALA Code of Ethics)
However, while libraries may seem free to users they are decidedly not free to operate. Like any organization they have facility, staffing, materials costs that is paid for by the users. Rather than giving data community members pays thru their tax base (or membership fees) to keep the library open. Bonds and referendums are regularly brought before communities to fund libraries with success and failures. This is done as I think patrons would balk if the library sold their information to fund their operation (I would).
Privacy is the issue of our time and we need to be data conscious consumers. What are we giving up for a service and what value do we get back? The limits in computing are not in technology but human will. What will we comfortable with as a society? Without having this discussion another company with another dataset is bound to do the same thing as Facebook.
*If like me you’ve struck a sorcerer’s deal with Facebook the EFF has a great article on how to clamp down on your privacy settings.