Congress can’t regulate privacy on Facebook until it understands what drives Facebook

In the movie Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, the crew of the Enterprise had a dilemma: how to detect and destroy a cloaked Klingon ship.  After a few minutes of debate among its senior officers, Commander Uhura makes the observation, “Well. The thing has got to have a tailpipe?”

It was clear from the questions that a number of senators posed to Mark Zuckerberg during a hearing on Facebook’s privacy policies that Congress has not yet located Facebook’s tailpipe. Facebook’s tailpipe is comprised of its subscribers’ demand for and willingness to use the social media firm’s platform. What is it about Facebook that causes subscribers to ignore existing albeit confusing and vague privacy terms and fork over to Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and the rest of the Menlo Park posse our inner most personal thoughts, our rabid political stances, pictures of our kids, and videos of young women twerking?

I have concluded from my own personal observation of behavior on the medium that it has a lot to do with attention. As an entertainment medium, two billion subscribers take the opportunity emit ego energy by posting the aforementioned twerking videos and kiddie pictures in order to draw attention to themselves. “Look at me! Look at my kids! Look at the European vacation I’ll spend the next twelve months paying for!” Contribution of free content by subscriber A serves Facebook’s business model well by providing the company with free content. This free content is used to grab the attention of subscriber B and if the algorithms are working, provided in such a way as to hold subscriber B’s attention long enough to make her a target for advertisements.

Subscribers A and B may become aware eventually that they are fodder for Facebook’s advertisement machine. Selling advertisement is how Facebook generates almost all of its revenues. What is it about Facebook that causes the need for attention to outweigh the willingness to ignore Facebook’s privacy terms?

The professionals cite a number of reasons beyond my amateur observations for moths being drawn to Facebook’s fire. One post in Adweek sums up some of the professionals’ findings.  One reason that Facebook draws attention is fulfill a need to belong to a group. You have heard the adage, that humans are social animals and this need for community has people gravitating to group pages on Facebook.

Feel like expressing yourself and receive near instant approval of the “you” that you share? Facebook provides its users plenty of opportunity for that. I have often likened Facebook as the dorm that Zuckerberg never left with a user’s profile being a dorm room and the user’s “wall” a bulletin board on the dorm room door where people can drop by and leave a post-it message on the door or the occupant can leave some zany flyer announcing the next beer party.

For students, Facebook is probably used to relieve stress. According to Adweek, students are worried about grades, writing papers, and dealing with professors and going online looking for reassuring likes may be helpful.

Courtney Seiter shared in a blog post how use of Facebook has an impact on our “reward centers”. The more likes we get from our sharing on Facebook, the more our nucleus accumbens lights up.

Also, the “likes” we share on Facebook are currency. Forty-four percent of Facebook users share the love on the content their friends provide by liking it, according to Ms Seiter.

For information theory buffs, the Facebook “like” button carries more information beyond a “yes” or “no” difference. Ms Seiter cites research that found that mining a decision to “like” a post can reveal information about race, gender, political persuasion, or age of the user.

Another piece of information that data on Facebook user participation provides us is on the level of loneliness. Students felt more connected, less lonely when they engaged on Facebook.

This is just a small snippet of the literature out there on why people use a social network like Facebook. The takeaway that is important to me is given what appears to be an emotional or social connection between users of the platform and that this connection is the fuel to Facebook’s business where the connection is so strong that users are not paying attention to Facebook’s disregard for privacy, how best can Congress intervene in this space?

Uhura might say, “Facebook’s got a tailpipe. Are you willing to syphon the gas?”

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