While vacationing this week, I had the displeasure of sitting through much of The Social Network. Before I saw it, I was virtually certain that it would do for Facebook what its screenwriter Aaron Sorkin did for the U.S. Presidency, namely execute a clever but thorough whitewash. I was right. A rock should fall on all the pampered, egocentric ciphers behind Facebook. But, by exploiting the old “They just wanted to watch the money” principle, Sorkin manages to flip the inklings of that sentiment and make all the vacant psychos involved seem somehow cool and aspirational. Indeed, the last line in the film is about how Mark Zuckerberg is “the world’s youngest billionaire.”
Sorkin’s film is, of course, silent on the ulterior purpose of Facebook, which is to deploy what appears to be just a new way to stay in touch with friends but is actually a huge, screamingly invasive and profitable engine for marketing research, a.k.a. corporate spying.
Here is a snip from today’s Advertising Age on Facebook’s latest advance:
This month — and for the first time — Facebook started to mine real-time conversations to target ads. The delivery model is being tested by only 1% of Facebook users worldwide. On Facebook, that’s a focus group 6 million people strong.
The closest Facebook has come to real-time advertising has been with its most recent ad offering, known as sponsored stories, which repost users’ brand interactions as an ad on the side bar. But for the 6 million users involved in this test, any utterance will become fodder for real-time targeted ads.
For example: Users who update their status with “Mmm, I could go for some pizza tonight,” could get an ad or a coupon from Domino’s, Papa John’s or Pizza Hut.
The real story of Facebook is that, as “social networking” software, it was a moderately clever idea and minor technological breakthrough. The government, if it were ever allowed to compete with private enterprises, could sponsor or directly develop an excellent substitute for that in a month, and make it non-commercial and secure. But that wouldn’t serve the corporate overclass, would it? They are looking — and paying — for exactly what Zuckerberg and his buddies are providing: new ways of gathering free information about the details of people’s off-the-job activities.
None of that makes it into Sorkin’s sly, product-placing paean to privileged whoredom.