As of the third quarter of 2018, 2.27 billion people actively used Facebook,1 the world’s largest social media site, up from 1 billion in 2012. On average, each user spends about 41 minutes using the site daily,2 down from 50 minutes average in 2016.
Some, of course, spend far more. Teens, for instance, may spend up to nine hours perusing the site, the consequences of which are only beginning to be understood.
As noted by The Motley Fool,3 Facebook is unique in its ability to monetize the time people spend on its platform. During the third quarter of 2018, the site generated more than $6 per user. For the fourth quarter of 2017, Facebook raked in a total of $12.97 billion, $4.3 billion of which was net profit.4
Most of this revenue — $11.4 billion for the fourth quarter alone — came from mobile ads,5 which are customized to users’ preferences and habits. According to CNN Money,6 98 percent of Facebook’s revenue comes from advertising, totaling $39.9 billion in 2017.
Facebook’s Primary Business Is Collecting and Selling Your Personal Data
Facebook has repeatedly been caught mishandling users’ data and/or lying about its collection practices. The fact is, its entire profit model is based on the selling of personal information that facilitates everything from targeted advertising to targeted fraud.
Like Google, Facebook records,7 tracks and stores every single thing you do on Facebook: every post, comment, “like,” private message and file ever sent and received, contacts, friends lists, login locations, stickers and more. Even the recurrent use of certain words is noted and can become valuable currency for advertisers.
For individuals who start using Facebook at a young age, the lifetime data harvest could be inconceivably large, giving those who buy or otherwise access that information a very comprehensive picture of the individual in question.
Facebook also has the ability to access your computer or smartphone’s microphone without your knowledge.8 If you suddenly find yourself on the receiving end of ads for products or services you just spoke about out loud, chances are one or more apps are linked into your microphone and are eavesdropping.
In the featured video, “The Facebook Dilemma,” Frontline PBS correspondent James Jacoby investigates Facebook’s influence over the democracy of nations, and the lax privacy parameters that allowed for tens of millions of users’ data to be siphoned off and used in an effort to influence the U.S. elections.
The Early Days of Facebook
The Frontline report starts out showing early video footage of Zuckerberg in his first office, complete with a beer keg and graffiti on the walls, talking about the success of his social media platform. At the time, in 2005, Facebook had just hit 3 million users.
In an early Harvard lecture, Zuckerberg talks about how he believes it’s “more useful to make things happen and apologize later than it is to make sure you dot all your i’s now, and not get stuff done.” As noted by Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor, it was Zuckerberg’s “renegade philosophy and disrespect for authority that led to the Facebook motto, ‘Move fast and break things.'”
While that motto speaks volumes today, “It wasn’t that they intended to do harm, as much as they were unconcerned about the possibility that harm would result,” McNamee says. As for the sharing of information, Zuckerberg assured a journalist in an early interview that no user information would be sold or shared with anyone the user had not specifically given permission to.
In the end, Zuckerberg’s quest to “Give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected,” has had far-reaching consequences, affecting global politics and technology, and raising serious privacy issues that have yet to be resolved.
For years, however, employees firmly believed Facebook had the power to make the world a better place. As noted by Tim Sparapani, Facebook director of public policy from 2009 to 2011, Facebook “was the greatest experiment in free speech in human history,” and a “digital nation state.”
However, the company — with its largely homogenous workforce of 20-something tech geeks — has proven to be more than a little naïve about its mission to improve the world through information sharing. Naomi Gleit, vice president of social good, the company’s growth team, says they were slow to understand “the ways in which Facebook might be used for bad things.”
The Facebook News Feed
One of the key features of Facebook that keeps users engaged is the news feed, described by former product manager on Facebook’s advertising team, Antonio Garcia Martinez, as “Your personalized newspaper; your ‘The New York Times’ of you, channel you. It is your customized, optimized vision of the world.”
However, the information that appears in your newsfeed isn’t random. From the very beginning, it was driven by a secret algorithm, a mathematical formula that ranked stories in terms of importance based on your individual preferences. This personalization is “the secret sauce,” to quote Martinez, that keeps users scrolling and sharing.