We saw “The Social Network” this weekend. It was very fine, even if it did give the idea that all the women at Harvard — and Stanford, for that matter — exist mainly to simmer, occasionally leaping to a boil during frenzied bouts of speed-sex in restaurant bathroom stalls. But that’s a quibble. On the whole, very fine, a movie about a modern business with a theme as old as humanity itself, i.e., what is the nature of human connection?
And while I understand that the film is not entirely factual, I can’t even get too upset about whatever wrong ideas people take away from it, about the company or its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. I’ve been wondering what it takes to bug an internet company. Have you ever had a complaint with one? Facebook, Google, one of those? Have you ever tried to get a human being on the phone? Hell, have you ever tried to find a phone number? I guess now we know what it takes — make an expensive movie about them. How comforting.
But because all y’all are smarter than I am, can someone out there with some business experience explain the business model of Facebook? Because while I don’t doubt that Zuckerberg is a billionaire, I don’t understand how. Where is Facebook’s cash flow? I don’t pay for Facebook. I don’t see anything more than a rare ad or sponsored link, all for crap like acai-berry weight-loss solutions and so forth. So what, exactly, makes this company worth so much? Where does the money come from?
I am a business moron, but the Wall Street Journal’s reporting on the dark side of the internet economy has been enormously helpful in answering this simple question, which I suspect is this: Nothing is free, and your payment is your information:
Many of the most popular applications, or “apps,” on the social-networking site Facebook Inc. have been transmitting identifying information—in effect, providing access to people’s names and, in some cases, their friends’ names—to dozens of advertising and Internet tracking companies, a Wall Street Journal investigation has found.
The issue affects tens of millions of Facebook app users, including people who set their profiles to Facebook’s strictest privacy settings. The practice breaks Facebook’s rules, and renews questions about its ability to keep identifiable information about its users’ activities secure.
You know how every time you have to submit your e-mail, you get that cross-my-heart statement about how your e-mail information is secure? “We never sell your e-mail address,” etc.? I’ve come to think of this as one of those soul-brother handshakes jerkoffs liked to give you in the ’70s. We all cool? No, I don’t think so.
I really hope the WSJ wins a Pulitzer for this project. I don’t think most people have any idea how much of their information is out there, being bought and sold on the internet. Some of it is pretty disturbing. Ever hear of “web scraping?” No? Well, then:
At 1 a.m. on May 7, the website PatientsLikeMe.com noticed suspicious activity on its “Mood” discussion board. There, people exchange highly personal stories about their emotional disorders, ranging from bipolar disease to a desire to cut themselves.
It was a break-in. A new member of the site, using sophisticated software, was “scraping,” or copying, every single message off PatientsLikeMe’s private online forums.
PatientsLikeMe managed to block and identify the intruder: Nielsen Co., the privately held New York media-research firm. Nielsen monitors online “buzz” for clients, including major drug makers, which buy data gleaned from the Web to get insight from consumers about their products, Nielsen says.
The story went on to describe the distress of one of the scraped, who had described his problems with depression under a pseudonym, but linked back to his personal blog, which used his real name. Think of all the ways insurance companies have tried to deny health insurance to people who might actually need it someday. Ask yourself if you think any are above a tactic like this. Yeah, I thought so.
Lately I’ve been feeling a little Ted Kaczynski. A friend of ours, a member of our little filmmaking crew who went to Vegas with us last spring, recently had her debit card disabled. She’d paid for some coffee with it at Starbucks next to the Golden Nugget back in April, and last week was presented with a $2,000 charge from that very same coffee shop. Obviously a data theft. Obviously she won’t have to pay $2,000. Obviously it will be handled by her bank, but don’t you wonder, once that stuff is out there, what else is out there? I’ve been thinking for a while of going to an all-cash lifestyle, seeing if it will change my spending patterns, maybe write a story about it and pitch it around. For someone who normally carries about 17 cents in my pocket at any given time, it might be an eye-opener. Certainly it would shield me from at least some data theft. Mark Zuckerberg, I’m not so sure about.
By the way, there’s an error on my Wikipedia page. It isn’t mine, as I’ve had nothing to do with my Wikipedia entry other than glance at it, note the error, and go somewhere more interesting. It appeared during the Goeglein Affair, and I have no idea who wrote it. Actually, now that I look at it, it has a couple of errors. I think I’ll leave them there. If someone’s going to trade in my information for profit, I might as well leave some bad stuff out there, too.
Now I must run. Breaking news on the hyperlocal beat — a missing banker was finally found floating yesterday — and anyway, Monday is always crazed. Later.