Skepticism

MZ Phone Home: Preaching Facebook to the World

It’s not a Facebook phone, exactly, but the new Facebook Home is a home screen experience and app launcher that makes your phone all about people instead of all about about apps. Is this going to make using Facebook closer to a religious experience, or closer to religion itself?

While people drive most of our interactions, information can too. And if the ability to start interactions from the basis of people, not apps, is actually quite familiar–remember dialing actual phone numbers to reach actual people?–it’s also quite natural. When we want conversations, we (rightly) go to people, not platforms. As Gizmodo rather confoundingly put it, “Your phone is already like a spoon for friendship, so if this all comes together, Facebook Home will maybe be like a spork.”

Weird as it sounds, spork is actually a reasonably good metaphor for Facebook Home, which is not just a way to see what your friends are up to (that’d be the, uh, “spoon for friendship,” I guess) nor just a way to accomplish basic tasks on your phone (“stick a fork in it, it’s done!”). It’s a strange, new, potentially useless, amalgam of interactions that no one will be sure how to use at first–kind of like Facebook or Twitter used to be. It’s also, primarily, a way for Facebook to learn more about you.

They’re smart over there, those Facebookers (or should we call ‘em chatheads?). In introducing Home, Mark Zuckerberg pointed out that Facebook users spend about 20% of their phone time in the app. That may sound like a lot, but you can bet that what Facebook focuses on is that people spend 80% of their phone time not on Facebook. And despite all that time spend, your presence on Facebook is not about the app itself. As Adam Mosseri, the guy behind Facebook Home, told AllThingsD, “people really don’t care about Facebook. They care about the content they can see on Facebook.” Facebook realizes that the Facebook experience itself isn’t all that valuable, so it’s moving from making itself the place where you store your connections to the place where you store everything you do–at least on a phone.

Stephen Poole amusingly points out the incongruity of Facebook making the world all about “people”… through a phone: “The instantly available news feed is apparently ‘for those in-between moments like waiting in line at the grocery store or between classes when you want to see what’s going on in your world’, which oddly implies that ‘your world’ is not what is actually going on around you–which you could, after all, see by simply staring at it rather than fumbling for your phone. No, ‘your world’ is Facebook’s world. Welcome to it!” (The reason for all this, of course, is that what’s actually going on around you is impossible for Facebook to track–unless, of course, you share it.)

Facebook Home, obviously, isn’t selfless. Facebook stands to gain (a lot) from any additional data it can collect from you; if making a launcher allows it to understand more about your behavior on your mobile phone and in your daily life, so much the better–and the more profitable (for the company, not for you). But the unease comes with the attempt to reconcile this corporate reality–Facebook’s need to make (more and more) money–with Zuckerberg’s stated “vision” for the platform:

If you look out, maybe five or ten years, when all five billion people who have feature phones are going to have smart phones, we’re soon going to be living in a world where the majority of people who have a smart phone–a modern computing device–will have never seen in their lives what you and I call a “computer.” […] The very definition of what a computer is and what our relationship with it should be hasn’t been set for the majority of the world. And when it is, I think a lot of that definition is going to be around people first. We’re about to see the most empowered generation of people in history, and it’s really an honor to be able to work on these problems.

You could read this as a powerful utopian vision focused on people-first communication (achieved primarily through trackable technology interactions, of course). Or you could read it as something more cynical: Facebook’s declaration of its determination to reach, influence, and profit from all populations, even–especially–those that don’t yet have good access to technology (or what “we” consider “technology”).

Hey, does that sound familiar?

As an activist blurted (in a totally unrelated article reflecting a relevant sentiment), “Either you’re an honest broker and accountable to the community, or you’re working for a business interest and accountable to that.” Facebook may pretend to be both, but is ultimately the latter. And unlike Apple, which very clearly wants to give you a good experience–made good by its own (paid) product development teams and (under)paid mobile app developers–to make you buy more of its own products, Facebook wants to give you a good experience–made possible by your own uncompensated role in making the product better though your participation–in order to make you buy more of everything. And while Apple’s profit potential is limited primarily to its own products; Facebook stands to profit (in increased ad sales) from almost anything you might be willing to buy, ever.

It’s not just a matter of technology companies having effective, if misleading, meme-driven products and marketing. The problem comes in when a corporation stands to profit from the whole world’s interactions–without giving any of that profit back. It’s bad enough that Facebook should make billions of dollars off rich Americans. Is it now the case that they should profit from, and dictate the life experiences of, everyone in the world?

One of the major reasons for people to adopt new religious beliefs (either from nonbelief or from another belief system) is because they “enjoy the religious services and style of worship.” Look at that again: it’s not because people believe in god, but because they (profess to) enjoy the religious community they participate in. This hits directly on the reason for Facebook’s popularity: it’s an enjoyable experience to interact with the people you care about, unburdened by limitations of time and space. It really is. But it’s not so enjoyable for that interaction to be monetized for the profit of people who are not you (tithes, anybody?).

So if you have a phone that can get Home, and you’re prepared to deal with battery drainage and learning some crazy new gestures and Facebook knowing everything about you, give it a try. But don’t be surprised if it starts wafting fried chicken scents as you round the corner near KFC or tempts you with sweet allelujiahs (or parental guilt) when you pass by church. Because Facebook is not only figuring you out, but also figuring out (very astutely) how to convince you to be who it wants you to be. And that is strikingly close to the activity of religion.

Welcome Home.

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Kerry is a longtime skeptic and technology enthusiast, currently in recovery from too many years spent working in enterprise software. She still believes in the power of technology to do good, when used judiciously. Find her on Twitter or Google+.

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One Comment

  1. Zuckerberg’s statement unnerves me as an open source enthusiast. I’m always alarmed when moguls speak blithely of replacing computers “as we know them” with their proprietary little black boxes.

    This includes Apple and their “post-PC world,” too.

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