One of the graphics that’s in my project The Human Face of Big Data was created by Nigel Holmes. It is about Facebook, and it describes how the company finds correlations between the things that you’re passionate about and finding other people that share the same passions as you.
One of the essays I also love in the book is by a young guy named Jonathan Harris. And he talks about the fact that when they have meetings at Facebook in the morning to talk about new features or ways that they can create new tools, they talk about what’s the serotonin in this feature. And he said it’s like how do you give people a little endorphin hit by something that’s very pleasurable, something that’s delightful about Facebook.
His concern is that he thinks that there’s two different kinds of software. There’s software that solves the problem and get’s out of the way, where the software is the product. And then there’s software that makes you want to come back for more and more and more and more, to the point where it’s almost addictive. Harris says if you actually look at the effect on our brains, it’s like taking a drug. And the problem in his mind — this is his opinion — is that with software that makes you come back over and over again, you become the product.
So instead of the software being the product, you’re the product that’s being sold to advertisers.
So it’s one of the cautionary notes that we’ve shared in this Human Face of Big Data project, which is about technology that we use for good or bad. Some people think that Facebook is fantastic, other people are very worried about it. I find Facebook absolutely fascinating because I don’t think there’s ever been any one source that had so much information about each of us — who we talk to, who our friends are, what books we read, what we’re buying, what movies we saw, what our travel is.
I actually think that Facebook has been very restrained in terms of how they’ve used that. I think they’ve been very cautious about not alienating the billion people on Earth that are using it. But in terms of future potential, I’m a Mac fanatic, so I like the ads in MacWorld. If you took the ads out, the magazine wouldn’t be nearly as interesting to me. Targeted ads, I think, are useful because I don’t want to see all the crap. I’m not interested in buying a Mercedes Benz, but I am interested in buying a new MacBook Air. So if organizations like Facebook can actually make the ads more relevant to me, if they know what I am interested in, I have no problem with that.
I don’t necessarily agree with Jonathan – Jonathan’s criticism – but I think it’s something we should be thinking about because if it is having the same effect on our brains as an addictive drug, no one’s regulating this, nobody’s even thinking about it that way.