In January, my mother made an unusual request: Find a person she had last met 30 years ago. All she had was a name — Santosh. She said she had tried Google, but there were just too many of them with the same name. It took me 10 minutes on Facebook and there was Santosh, third on the list — losing a bit of hair but with a wider smile than my mother remembered.
I wondered how I found him so quickly. Did the algorithm process through all the Santoshes and prioritise the ones that spoke my mother tongue; or did it connect to my mother’s profile and check where she had lived, calculate the probability of finding a Santosh that matched who I was looking for. However creepy it seemed, it was brilliant.
Growing up, Facebook wasn’t just any company. With Alphabet (then Google), Microsoft, Apple, and many others, it was part of the cabal that a generation looked up to, including in India. It pushed many engineering schools seriously considering entrepreneurship and, although we are still to reap the benefits, the government bought into the start-up frenzy. It inspired other social media companies, some which Facebook even acquired. They worked on an endless loop of giving people what the wanted: Attention.
But Facebook stood out. Developed in a dorm room by 20-something-year-olds, it soon grew into many things. People weren’t merely “signing-up”; they created a virtual life of their own — photographs were taken with a mind on the next profile picture, ideas were shared; the marginalised found voice; deals done — the possibilities were endless.
In our hands, it became a tool to talk back. No longer were we just passive listeners but active participants. And this was for all across the board, not just the politically-inclined or extroverts. But perhaps its biggest impact was on keeping people connected.
Life got faster. Revolutions happened. People and ideas were under scrutiny. Core-beliefs shattered as cyber space didn’t discriminate. Never before could a word travel so quickly and get hit back with the same ferocity. Cacophony was the price of true democracy. Just as our lexicon changed from “search” to “Google”; our lives were “Facebook’d”. Facebook’s algorithms mined data in such a way that seemed to see meaning in user’s every move, leading to better advertising and user experience. We traded data for shoes. In 2012, the company went public and although it wasn’t an instant success, it was soon called “an integral part of the economy”.
But with Cambridge Analytica case, tough questions are being asked: How much does Facebook know? Have they been responsible enough? The answer, quite clearly, is no. There were early warning signs. In 2009, just five years after it was founded, privacy concerns were raised against the company’s move to retain users’ data even after they deactivated their account. Later, the famous “Napalm girl” picture was censored leading to charges that the company was “changing history”.
This isn’t to say Facebook was guilty from the get-go; mistakes, of course, will be made. The complaints became shriller, pointing to loopholes in its data protection policy. What’s more, once-happy users were asking them. But with each new case, whatever expectations there were of Facebook stemming the rot, seemed to ebb.
There is a sense of betrayal among the people of the internet. A case could be made that the company began putting technology at the forefront, rather than the people it served. It seems Facebook had been blinded, or chose not to look, at the deep moral conundrums that come with handling sensitive data, especially with regard to informed consent that was lacking. Instead, you could not just “like” but show you “love” or “ha-ha” at someone’s status.
And so you have improved experience but the core issue of data protection has festered. The loss of Facebook’s credibility has many actively considering removing themselves from it: #Deletefacebook is their slogan. A knee-jerk reaction, but there really is no escape now. It has become too integral a part of our economy, social order and political space.
Would it be naïve to think that Facebook would go down as another corporate that flouted rules to make a quick buck? Its CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg said he cared less for money and more for the user, a typical dorm room statement that he will do well to remember. For Facebook, a moment of reckoning is perhaps at hand.