Seventies Tower Blocks, Facebook Sponsored Stories and Privacy
Two fascinating programmes on BBC2 this evening. An hour about life in Britain in the Seventies – the rise of Margaret Thatcher, the effects of a culture that tried to make people live in high rise concrete jungles.
By tearing down the Victorian slums and replacing them with modern tower blocks containing indoor toilets and fitted kitchens surrounded by communal plazas and walkways, the developers hoped to encourage the inhabitants to congregate and socialise in the external areas.
But the councils who populated them with one parent families and people from the most desperate parts of society found that most people stayed indoors and it was only the less socially minded who would loiter with a rather different intent in those optimistically named terraces.
The slums they had replaced took centuries to deteriorate into ghettos. It took the tower block culture less than two decades before they too were ripped down to form the neat two or three bedroom properties which form most of the suburban housing estates that we are more familiar with today.
How Social Lessons Were Learned From Seventies Tower Blocks
The discovery that it was social diversity and open interaction spread across a wider area which produced the most tolerant and also the most effective communities would play a large part in the success of the online social networks that were only figments of science fiction imagination forty years ago.
So it was rather illuminating some minutes earlier, to switch on the television and catch the end of a very topical programme about Facebook and its imminent flotation on the stock market.
I turned on about three quarters of the way through to hear how Facebook run a policy of three steps forward and one step back when it comes to their approach to introducing changes. We heard how they launch innovative products that test the waters and then, having gauged the reaction, they pull back and begin to roll it out again more slowly.
It is something that I have commented upon myself. They throw out a very aggressive version of a change, measure the feedback and then relaunch an adapted version that allows them to integrate it effectively and successfully into the current scheme of things.
How Facebook Sponsored Stories Affect User Privacy
Emily Maitlis then drew the focus to Facebook’s advertising mechanism, the sponsored story. She explained how, when you like a business page on Facebook, that business is then able to pay for a little box on your friends’ pages with your picture and their logo saying you’ve liked it. The thing about sponsored stories is that you cannot opt out of it and it is the only type of Facebook advertising that shows up on mobile devices.
I must admit that, if I were to see my name and face on a sponsored story, I would feel pretty aggrieved. People who appear in advertisements on the television usually get paid for their performance, they at least get asked for their permission to use any footage.
Especially as, in the hay day of fangates, many brands used to insist on you liking their page before you could get to see their wall at all. In many cases it is a like which has been claimed almost under false pretences.
Facebook Sponsored Stories Are A Ranking Mechanism Not An Ad…
The issue of sponsored stories was a question that Emily put to Elliot Schrage, VP on Public Policy at Facebook and which produce a quite fascinating response:
“If I press a like button on a brand, that could then pop up on a sponsored story. I might not know about it, I certainly would not necessarily agree to it.”
“Well, when you press a like button on a brand or on an ad or on a page, you are saying ‘I like this’…”
“But I’m not saying I advertise this!”
“Well, when you say… let’s pause… ” You can see him blinking and visibly digesting this piece of information that he had clearly never considered before. His facial expressions were extraordinary.
“That’s an interesting…” Thinks some more.
“I mean you’re asking a profound question – what’s advertising. When I press a like button on an ad, um I’m trying… On the Facebook system I am affirmatively communicating that I am associating myself with whatever I’m liking. What that does is it creates a story…”
“Well, you can call it a story, many people would call it an advertisement and Facebook is getting paid for those by the company.”
“You see, I… I… I think it’s a ranking mechanism. I don’t know if I would call it an advertisement.”
Emily concludes that sponsored stories highlight the critical dilemma for Facebook. How far can it go using personal information before its users start feeling exploited?
Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook Privacy
She went to the horse’s mouth and asked Mark Zuckerberg himself.
“Do you fundamentally believe that people will gradually become more open, that they will regard privacy with less concern?”
“No, it’s not that people will not care about privacy. It’s a fundamental thing and I think everyone cares about it. I think the big cultural change is that now they find they can build a reputation, disseminate information, help people discover stuff and get credit for that. They can be part of discovering other people’s stuff and I think that people are seeing every day that it is awesome and that is why I think people are moving in that direction. People also wake up every day and think what stuff do I want to have out there and what don’t I… and I don’t think that is going to change.”
But how much do Facebook’s business needs create a conflict between privacy and sharing when they have chosen terminology and default structures which encourage sharing and make it seem like the natural thing to do.
“Our goal is to make it so that people share what they want to and we believe that, over time, people will see the benefits of sharing more. We’re not ahead of the trend. If we try to make people share things they don’t want to then they will not like us and will stop using our service.”
With Mark Zuckerberg’s stated goal for this year to be for users to be able to connect to what you want in any way you want, Facebook’s long term value may depend upon users’ concerns about privacy and whether they feel comfortable sending FB their information.
And, despite their treasure trove of information about what users do online – what they click on and what they ignore – their chances of longevity are still limited by their ability to keep things new and fresh so that they can appeal to the next generation who will come online and who may skip Facebook entirely in favour of whatever is the new hottest platform.
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