Should we fear Big Brother Facebook? Not if the worst it can do is out you as an Abba fan

Talk about love-hate relationships. We read this week that Facebook – with a mere 800 million plus accounts worldwide – is now among America’s most hated companies – thanks to the perception that it doesn’t really care about its users’ privacy.

When are we finally going to have the real debate about privacy – the one relevant to the 21st rather than the 20th century ? It’s what we might call Big Brother versus little brother, for reasons that will become clear in a moment.

Facebook was founded, as we all know thanks to the movie, by college geeks who wanted to assess the relative beauty of female students. In that respect, it was an extension of American high school, where the only privacy invaders are your peers.

This Facebook DNA has remained at the core of the company, no matter how world-conquering and gargantuan it has become. The Big Brother is not so much the evil corporate that is Facebook HQ – or for that matter the evil corporates who pay Facebook to promote themselves. No, the Big Brother lurking deep within Facebook is in fact … us. We, the 800 million users.

And that brings me neatly onto my little brother – actually, little sister – story. The other day my younger sibling who lives far across the sea, popped up on my computer screen, via Google Talk, with the words: “Enjoying Abba are we ?” What the ?! How the !! did she know my partner had been blaring out a bunch of Abba songs on her iPhone ? For a couple of seconds it was quite spooky.

But the (prosaic) answer came soon enough. I’d forgotten that sometime recently, in yet another unmemorable online moment, I’d allowed Spotify to tell the Facebook universe all about my music listening habits. That is why Spotify-Facebook assumed it was me listening to Abba and put words to this effect on my Facebook page.

Here’s the problem when it comes to the potential evil of Big Brother: corporates like Facebook and Spotify – both relying on incredibly small numbers of employees relative to their global reach – will do almost nothing of interest with this data that they have collected about ‘me.’

These companies – and indeed most modern companies – have neither the resources nor the inclination to exploit all this data that they are supposedly collecting. I remember writing breathless stuff about the ‘database revolution’ back in the early 90s, waxing lyrical about the impending golden age of ‘personalisation’ and “one-to-one” marketing that was about to dawn. Well, frankly, it never did.

Most companies are utterly incompetent in using our data. Phone calls that are ‘recorded for training purposes’ disappear into a black hole of indifference.

But marketers persist in believing their own propaganda. More to the point, consumers believe in it too!

The fact is, Big Brother died with the end of communism – he’s so last century. Little brother, however, or indeed little sister, is alive and well. Marketers finally caught onto little bro when they realised they were too lazy and incompetent to do the spying themselves. So they outsourced it – to their customers.

OK, I’m being somewhat tongue in cheek. Is forwarding a ‘viral’ email spying ? Is my little sister commenting on my apparent musical taste something sinister ? Odd and unexpected, maybe, but sinister, no. The point is that We-The-People, we the seething mass of little brothers and sisters – we are the only ones who give enough of a damn to spy on each other.

So, the potential ‘evil’ of a massively understaffed company like Facebook amounts to no more than its ability to empower our voyeurism.

The thing we should ‘hate in a most hated company’ is not what they might do with our data but what we might do with it. And maybe we should be grateful for small mercies: my sister at least did something, and in a very timely way, with the information presented.

God bless outsourcing.

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About Stuart Smith

Stuart Smith is one of the most incisive and knowledgeable commentators on global marketing. He was a long-time editor of Marketing Week during the period when it was the UK's leading marketing, media and advertising specialist publication. Visit Stuart Smith Blog.