Don't fear Facebook, pity it. It's a datavore with no data

Facebook can draw inferences from your likes. But who has any likes anymore?

Our very own Helen Lewis has a piece in today's Guardian where she throws cold water on the fears that Facebook's users were giving away more than they meant to by liking pages. She writes:

Dig a little deeper and some of this soul-scrying voodoo becomes slightly less terrifying. One of the TV-show likes that's a predictor of female homosexuality is The L Word – a drama about lesbians. Two of the pages associated with being a gay man are Wicked the Musical (no comment) and the No H8 campaign, which advocates equal marriage. I'm sure you could guess my gender from my self-declared love of Jane Austen and the history of fashion on Facebook. Or you could just look at my name.

But there's a bigger reason why we oughtn't be that concerned: who the hell clicks "like" anymore?

Facebook is designed to be used in a way that corresponds with the actual use patterns of fewer and fewer of its members. Even "active users"—its new preferred metric, since the total number of registered users is now limited by the population of the earth—may not be active the way it likes us to be.

The perfect Facebook user checks in whenever they go somewhere; they like the pages of all their favourite bands, movies, TV shows, and even their dentist; they tell Facebook where they work and went to school; they visit other sites through apps on Facebook; and they never, ever change their privacy settings from the default.

Does that describe you? Does that describe anyone?

The fact is that for an increasing number of people Facebook is basically a glorified webmail service. There's still a lot of money to be made in that—targeted ads served against keywords culled from your messages and events is the reason why Google runs Gmail, for instance—but not enough to justify Facebook's market cap, and certainly not as much as Mark Zuckerberg would like.

The company's been big at giving users new ways to get data out of Facebook, such as redesigning its news feed and introducing Graph Search; but it has yet to touch on any changes which would make people more likely to put data in. As Buzzfeed's John Herrman writes, Facebook "is demanding more and more of a graph that is able to provide less and less."

The real problem we all face isn't that the information we put out on the internet might be used against us. Despite looking like it was going to be ubiquitous, the fad for documenting every aspect of one's life is dying off. Foursquare has pivoted to be about providing data, rather than encouraging check-ins; Instagram, which provides ephemeral, context-free images, was poised to overtake Facebook as the leading photo service on line (until it became Facebook); and when was the last time you "liked" something?

We don't have to worry about what we put out on purpose; the problem is what we put out without knowing. It's not scary if Facebook can tell you're gay because you choose to like certain pages; it's more concerning that Google can tell your age because of your search habits; and it's downright worrying that Target can find out a teenage girl is pregnant before her own father based on what she buys.

If you choose what data to share, you are probably not too concerned about the inferences that can be drawn from it. But very little of what we share is done voluntarily these days; and as Facebook struggles to get us to give it the information it wants, they too may start taking it from us without asking. That's when it gets more concerning, because that's when it gets harder to fight.

Photograph: Getty Images.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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A year on from the Brexit vote it’s striking how little we know about where it will lead

So many questions, so few answers.

One year one. Anyone who hoped we’d know what Brexit might look like or even, heaven, forbid, that we’d be inhabiting a post-EU UK by now, must be thoroughly disappointed. Even those with more modest expectations are feeling slightly uncomfortable. Because, a year on, we don’t know that much more about what Brexit means  than we did on 23 June last year (well, we know it means Brexit, I suppose).  

We do know some things. First, that divorce talks are preceding trade talks, as the EU insisted – and David Davies denied – all along. Second what the European Union wants in the initial negotiations is crystal clear and indeed on their website, if you’re interested.

Third, the government, for the moment, remains committed to the kind of hard Brexit it has laid out since the Conservative Party conference. Nothing that has been said or done since the election indicates a softening of that position.

That’s it. That’s essentially all we have to show for the last year. This isn’t to say that stuff hasn’t been done. Both the European Commission and the British civil service have been beavering away on the Brexit issue. Papers have been written, careful, detailed analysis carried out. In fact Brexit has dominated the work of Whitehall since the fateful vote.

But for all this work, it’s striking how little we know about where this process will lead. The government’s commitment to a hard Brexit might not survive. Whether it does so or not will depend on what happens with the things we don’t know. The known unknowns, to coin (well, quote) a phrase.

First, we don’t know how long the prime minister will remain in post. This is obviously important, not least given Theresa May herself has seemingly singlehandedly been defining the kind of Brexit Britain should seek. Yet there is more to it than that. A leadership election would take time, and eat up yet more of the two years stipulated by the EU for the Article 50 process. It would also open the rift within the Conservative party over Brexit. Always a good spectator sport. Never a recipe for effective government.

Second, we don’t know how parliament will behave. Much has been made of the "soft Brexit majority" in the Palace of Westminster. But remember last June? When the significant majority of pro-remain MPs were expected to kick up a fight over Brexit? The same MPs who nodded the triggering of article 50 through with hardly a glance? We just do not know yet how MPs will behave.

And their behaviour will be shaped by both inter and intra-party dynamics. Both the large parties are internally divided over Brexit. The Labour leadership seems happy to leave the single market. Many Labour MPs, in contrast, are fundamentally, and publicly, opposed to the idea. Whether loyalty (not least given the prospect of another election) triumphs over opinions on the EU remains to be seen.

As it does for the Tories. I imagine the phrase "do you really want to risk a Corbyn government" will soon trip off the tongue of every government whip. Whether this threat will prove effective is anyone’s guess. Tory Remainers certainly seemed to rein in their criticism of the prime minister following the "chocolate trousers" affair. Maybe this was simply a case of keeping their powder dry until the legislation needed to make Brexit work hits parliament in the autumn. We’re about to find out. And it will matter much more now the Tories have lost their majority.  Indeed, I think this, more than anything else, is why the prime minister called the election in the first place.

One crucial determinant of how MPs behave will be what public opinion does. Regular polling by YouGov since the referendum has, until recently, shown virtually no movement in attitudes towards Brexit. Around 52 per cent think it was a good idea, and around 48 per cent a bad one. Sound familiar? There has in recent weeks been what could best be described as a slight wobble. What we don’t know is what will happen in the weeks to come. Should the polls show a swing away from Brexit, might politicians swing with it, increasing the pressure on the PM to modify and soften her stance?

Turning from Westminster to Whitehall, will a government with no majority adopt a different style to a government with a small one? This matters, particularly when it comes to business. The May Government before the election was notable for the way it put politics above economics, focusing on the need to ‘take back control’ even if this meant the potential for real economic damage. A number of business leaders report getting short shrift when they visited ministers to voice their concerns.

But can a weak government be so dismissive? We know what most businesses want – certainly the kinds of business that get to knock on ministerial doors. They want single market and customs union membership. They want, in other words, a soft Brexit. Chancellor Philip Hammond, it would seem, has been listening to them from the start. Will his colleagues now start to do so too?

And if government policy does start to shift, this in turn will open up a whole host of new unknowns. Most importantly, might the EU be open to some sort of deal whereby we limit free movement but get some kind of single market membership? That discussion has simply not happened, because of the way in which Theresa May closed it off by stipulating a hard Brexit.

Most EU observers think a compromise is unlikely in the extreme. Yet while the EU won’t be more generous to a non-member state than to a member state, there is no reason a non-member state should buy into all of core EU principles entirely, so there might be some room for compromise. Again, we don’t know. And we won’t unless we decide to ask.

So many questions, so few answers. That is the story of Brexit to date. One year on, and those answers are about to get clearer.

Anand Menon is the director of The UK in a Changing Europe. Read their report: EU referendum: one year on to find out more.

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