President Obama gave students a warning about Facebook yesterday. It was wise counsel, but he should have provided a stronger admonition.
Let’s put aside for a moment whether what one posts on Facebook as a youth might come back to haunt him or her in later years. For the record, if your earlier Facebook post relates to an action that was criminal, egregious, or patently unethical, you can be sure it will come back to haunt you like Banquo’s ghost. People, and the times in which they live, won’t change so much that what’s glaringly wrongheaded will become socially acceptable within the span of a few short years.
In the big picture, that’s a secondary concern. A bigger worry — one that should trouble Facebook users more than whether what they post publicly on the site will eventually result in personal or professional grief — is whether Facebook can be trusted with anything that is stored on its servers.
Facebook is a business. Its investors have piled prodigious amounts of money into it in expectation of an obscenely profitable exit. Facebook, because of the way it is constructed as a business, can only achieve that result if it trades comprehensively on the personal, private information that its subscribers have entrusted to it.
Some will counter that privacy no longer exists in the Internet era. Regardless of whether that’s true, Facebook is a new type of Internet beast, designed expressly to make private information a public commodity.
Unlike instant messaging, email, even web search, Facebook’s sole business value turns on its capacity to trade on the personal, private data of its subscribers. I would go so far as to suggest that the full realization of its business model ultimately depends on how thoroughly it mines every last scrap of personal data that its subscribers supply.
The loss of privacy was an unintended consequence of preceding Internet technologies. In the particular social-networking sphere that Facebook inhabits, the stripping away of personal privacy is its raison d’etre.