In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica fallout, many Facebook users are questioning the security of their data on the site. These concerns are valid but they should not be new: almost every major company that participates in online sales in recent years has experienced a data breach. With an active user base of over 2 billion, Facebook may have one of the largest repositories of user data but it’s in a unique category because users offer up more than the 16 digits of a credit card—Facebook users share the essences of their identities: photos, Likes, and opinions, who their friends, family members, and coworkers are, and more. And when combined, these items constitute a valuable profile of an individual. We have been giving this information to Facebook for over a decade. Why did we give it up so willingly when we hold on so closely to passwords, credit card numbers, and email addresses?
A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center reveals that most Americans online (~75%) understand the requirements for a strong password and that they should not conduct sensitive transactions on public WIFI, but beyond that, their online security literacy drops significantly. For example, only about 54% can identify a phishing attack (which suggests that half of adults online are clicking on suspicious links); only 39% understand the private browsing is not private from their ISP; and only 10% can identify an example of multi-factor authentication. What is surprising about this data is that while education is a factor in online security literacy, age is less so. Users aged 65 and older were seemingly just as knowledgeable as users in the age range of 18-29; while online literacy bias in general is weighted toward younger users, the Pew survey suggests that overall there is a shared standard of what we know and what we don’t know.
Our complicated relationship with Facebook is rooted in this murky understanding of online security and how the web works. When Facebook was founded in 2004 access was limited first to Harvard students and then opened to other colleges before extending to high school students and then the general public. From the very beginning the requirement for joining the site was rooted in transparency: you need a valid email address to join—in the early days of the platform, that meant an email address registered to the college you were attending—and you need to reveal your name. Connecting with others was dependent upon revealing a fundamental aspect of self, which countered the online expectations of an experience mediated by a username that afforded the individual some anonymity.
Through gradually widening circles of inclusion, Facebook normalized sharing facets of a person's real identity. Sharing names in a closed social community such as a college campus is easy but as people move on and their offline networks grew wider, the business decision to open Facebook to everyone under this guise of increasing and maintaining connectivity and relevance to users eased user into sharing their names—and the other aspects of self—with a widening audience of both people and services.
Of course, names by themselves don’t tell the entire story about the person behind the screen, which is why the features that Facebook introduced were so important: the News Feed provided a glimpse of your friends’ activities, compiling status updates, profile changes, birthdays, shared articles and photos; tagging allowed you to tie names to people and broadened the potential for connecting with others; the Like button simplified communicating opinions and feedback; and integration with gaming and location apps further shared information about interests and movement. All of these little glimpses of self were revealed so gradually that users paid little mind to what they were giving up. These features were meant to draw users in based on familiarity and the appeal of participation. And this participation perpetuated a cycle of giving more of ourselves online: We are more likely to pursue an action if we see others who are like us (or who we aspire to be like) doing to those actions. This psychological confirmation of our actions validates our sense of belonging. Validation invokes a sense of satisfaction that taps into the reward areas of our brain making us more likely to return and repeat the same actions.
All social media offers a feedback loop based on gratification. There are seven types of Internet-related gratification, and Facebook manages to tap into them all through various features and extensions:
Facebook Experience
Virtual Community
An outlet to connect with friends of friends (of friends) to increase connections.
Information Seeking
Learn about news events, as well as local and life events via the news feed and event finder features.
Aesthetic Experience
Experience new interactive features with the integration of apps and services.
Monetary Compensation
Find and sell services on the marketplace.
Game app integration. (Remember FarmVille?)
Personal Status
Maintain a social measure of achievements against peers.
Relationship Maintenance
Develop and maintain relationships.
Facebook is a daily activity for many—hourly or constant for others. Our habitual relationship with Facebook grew out of its ability to tap into these areas of satisfaction. By providing a consistent reward for our participation, Facebook became an everyday coping mechanism for the small attention grievances we experience in the daily course of life. It is an experience that we believe is centered around the individual, and we maintain that sense of authenticity by giving over pieces of ourselves.
With #deletefacebook trending on Twitter, users are wrestling with whether they can completely sever ties with the platform as is evidenced by the numerous articles educating users on how to limit and manage their data, and how to download a copy of their data. While there are articles explaining how to delete your account, there are also numerous articles explaining why it may not matter: while you can escape the app, you cannot escape its reach entirely thanks to the prolific Like button. Even if you are not an active Facebook user, your very existence on the web is tracked and that data is stored somewhere. And yet, there are many users who may not want to leave. The foundations that they’ve established on the platform contribute significantly to the ways in which they understand themselves. And others who leave may find themselves perpetuating a similar cycle on a new platform. Facebook has driven and continues to drive so much of our experience and understanding of the online experience that decoupling may be a more involved process than we understand at the moment. We may not recognize the Internet when it stops recognizing us.
Comments have been disabled on Anthropology in Practice, but you can always join the community on Facebook. (Yes, it’s rather ironic. If that’s not your thing, you can also find me on Twitter.)
Boullier, Dominique. "The Social Sciences and the Traces of Big Data: Society, Opinion, or Vibrations?" Revue Française De Science Politique (English Edition) 65, no. 5-6 (2015): 71-93. 
Indeed Song, BA et. al. “Internet Gratifications and Internet Addiction: On the Uses and Abuses of New Media.” CyberPsychology and Behavior 7 no. 4 (2004): 384-394.
Names Park, MA et. at. “Being Immersed in Social Networking Environment: Facebook Groups, Uses and Gratifications, and Social Outcomes.” CyberPsychology and Behavior 12, no. 6 (2009): 729-733.
Suissa, Amnon J. "Gambling and Cyber-Addiction as a Social Problem: Some Psychosocial Benchmarks." Canadian Social Work Review / Revue Canadienne De Service Social 30, no. 1 (2013): 83-100.
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