BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU: Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, delivers a keynote address in this 2008 picture. The social network filed an initial public offering prospectus this month with an eye to raising $5 billion, it was reported. Picture: Kimberly White / Reuters


The announcement that Facebook, the social media giant, is planning a $5 billion (R38.5bn) float on the stock market – valuing the company at $100bn – has led to a frenzy of speculation about the fortunes its young founders will rake in. There will be hundreds of new millionaires, we are given to understand, and several new billionaires, too.

But in all this hysteria about the vast sums involved, has anyone thought to question what exactly Facebook is selling?

The answer is both obvious and sinister: you.

Terrifyingly, the social networking site turns you into a product. It makes your friendships, marriages and children into a product.

Facebook tells its users: “It’s free and always will be.” Now consider this bit of wisdom: “If you’re not paying, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.”

The site – founded by famously low-key American Mark Zuckerberg – has always presented itself as a sort of altruistic social service. Its tagline reads: “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life.”

Now that sounds fairly harmless. What sort of curmudgeon could object to connecting and sharing?

In actual fact, though, Facebook is a gigantic, and really quite frightening, advertising scam.

Its business model is to collect information about individual consumers (you) and sell that information back to advertisers.

These advertisers include global brands such as Coca-Cola and Blockbuster. They are seeking to extend their domination across the globe — and Facebook has provided a brilliant way of reaching “consumers” all over the world, without having to go to the expense of putting up billboards or buying ads in glossy magazines.

Facebook can be compared to an advertising executive walking into the pub, sitting between you and your friend, and flashing ads at you while you chat.

Accepting something for free – in this case, a networking service – actually puts you in the power of the service. They call the tune, and here the tune involves relinquishing your privacy and being subjected to lots of advertising.

One way in which they do this involves using “cookies”.

Each time you search anything on the internet, information about your activity is gathered by the search engine – most of us use Google – and then used to build up a picture of your interests.

A clever piece of programming code, the “cookie” is used to identify your computer “pawtracks”.

This allows information about your interests – be they make-up, historical novels, cars or sport – to be relayed back to companies, so specific advertisements can be delivered to you. When you log in to Facebook, lo and behold, these adverts pop up.

In my opinion, everyone who signs up for Facebook is a fool.

You have volunteered to hand over key marketing information about yourself to a US company that is going to profit from it hugely.

Facebook has 845 million users worldwide, and each is asked to provide information on their spending habits. This they willingly do. Users also upload photographs of themselves. All this information becomes the property of Facebook and is stored on their databases.

News that Facebook’s Timeline feature – which will expose people’s entire history on the site – is to become mandatory has sparked criticism that users’ privacy will be further compromised.

There are very real similarities here with George Orwell’s Big Brother. Through the medium of big screens on the wall of every house, the state in his novel 1984 was able to watch the movements of its citizens in order to control them. “Big Brother Is Watching You” was the famous line.

With Facebook, the difference is that we voluntarily tell it what we have been doing and what we have been buying. And Facebook watches you to gather information, which is then sold back to big companies.

The information it gathers is sophisticated, and it can be very local and very specific. It means that advertising with Facebook has the potential to be more efficient than advertising in a newspaper.

I have recently set up a modest adult education establishment, so, for example, I could ask Facebook to target users in the London area who have expressed an interest in the things we teach – such as life drawing, Latin and English grammar.

More worrying, Facebook gives advertisers access to an important demographic: young people. Hook them young, the big brands believe, and you may have them for life.

Nor is this just teenagers. Although Facebook bans under-13s, there are, reportedly, 750 000 children in the UK who have visited social networking sites illegally.

Indeed, it is young people who are the real victims of Facebook’s stratospheric rise: exposed to relentless advertising, easy prey for the cyber-bullies who haunt sites like Facebook, and worryingly vulnerable to predatory adults.

Child protection teams warned that cases involving bullies and sexual predators trebled on Facebook last year. Between January and March, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre received 252 complaints about Facebook – 40 percent of which related to paedophiles grooming children.

Abuse of such sites doesn’t stop when perpetrators are behind bars.

This week we learned that a growing number of prisoners are using mobile technology to access social networking websites like Facebook, on which they taunt their victims.

Social networking sites enable this anti-social behaviour. The problem is it is so very easy to post a comment.

In the old days, a grievance could be settled face-to-face, or by letter. An ounce of courage might be required to confront another human being. And often we might write a letter in a fit of anger or even drunkenness, and, on reading it back in the cold light of day, decide to bin it.

That is not the case with Facebook, though.

We can write cruel, hurtful comments, press a button, and they are up on that screen for ever, burning their way into the back of the victim’s skull.

Young people are especially vulnerable to this cyber abuse. Through friends and family, I have seen teenagers’ Facebook pages that have featured a worrying level of bullying.

It is no surprise that recent press reports have linked suicides with bullying on social media sites. Thugs at the school gates have nothing on the vicious online community of bullies.

Incidents of vile internet “trolls” (twisted individuals who delight in posting inflammatory posts) writing abusive messages on the Facebook pages of young people who had died shows the depths to which the social networking site, with its lax regulations, allows people to stoop.

Sites like Facebook provide a perfect forum for the bully, too, who can hurl abuse from the safety of a computer screen.

Bullying aside, I’m profoundly worried about the effects Facebook has on wider human relationships.

Facebook can become very addictive. For a while, my wife was on it, and I became jealous. She seemed to be more candid about her emotions on Facebook than she was with me.

Her so-called “friends” – who were really only acquaintances – would be treated to intimate emotional updates. Facebook took the role of a priest: she would confess to it.

I found this sinister, because Facebook is just a business. Why would she be more open about her feelings to a US advertising sales site than to her own husband?

And Facebook values quantity over quality. To have hundreds of “friends” is seen as a good thing, but how many real friends can most of us say we have? A handful?

When we obsessively collect friends on Facebook, we are again playing into the hands of the behemoth, which, naturally enough, wants to reach as many people as possible.

It also encourages vanity. You can choose a really groovy photo of yourself, and post up witty comments. You present only a very small slice of your real self to the world; an edited version, if you like.

Of course, many people claim to love Facebook. I remember going on a BBC World Service phone-in show to criticise Facebook. A call came from a Bedouin in North Africa: he said he loved Facebook as it enabled him to keep in touch with family back home.

I reflected on the fact that Facebook probably loved him as well, as they could now reach that hard-to-target Bedouin community and sell them Coca-Cola.

Indeed, Facebook could be compared to Coca-Cola. Like Coke, it is a completely useless product that, for thousands of years, we managed without quite happily.

Coca-Cola is a fizzy nothing. It is really a triumph of marketing. But anyone can drink Coke, from David Cameron to a street urchin.

It is the same with Facebook. To connect with your friends via Facebook makes you feel modern and with-it.

Will it last? I fervently hope not. I asked a teenage nephew if he was still on Facebook. “No,” he said. “It’s boring.”

So there is hope. – Daily Mail