Facebook, other social media take what most of us are willing to give


My childhood years, at least the ones I can recall, largely took place in the 1970s, the last decade in which the broadcast networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — were the only choices for most TV watchers.

It was a time of The Brady Bunch, Sanford and Son, The Six-Million Dollar Man, Welcome Back, Kotter, Charlie’s Angels and Happy Days.

There was no binge-watching of entire seasons. VHS tape machines didn’t arrive until the late 1970s and weren’t all that affordable to folks like my family until the 1980s.

For kids longing to watch cartoons, you could catch The Bozo Show after school each day, but the big kids’ shows were enough to make me roll out of bed early on Saturday mornings. We’re talking Fat Albert, The Shazam/Isis Hour, Land of the Lost, Superfriends, The Pink Panther, The Bugs Bunny Road Runner Hour, The Jetsons and Scooby-Doo.

Today, we talk a lot about screen time, the total hours each day people have their eyes planted primarily on their smartphones but also on computers and television. We didn’t have so many choices in the 1970s, but it was definitely a decade in which a lot of young people stayed glued to the TV screen (usually one per house in my neighborhood).

TV commercials on the broadcast TV networks were powerful then. Remember the Life cereal ad with “He likes it! Hey, Mikey” or the iconic “I’d like to teach the world to sing (in perfect harmony),” from the Coca-Cola commercial.

Back then, the Nielsen ratings were the king of measurements for commercial television. The company went to elaborate steps to discern an estimate of how many households or persons tuned into different shows. The more to watch a show, the more the networks could charge advertisers to reach out to that estimated audience size.

By today’s standards, it seems the system was pretty rudimentary. It required participating households to keep diaries or put reporting devices on their TVs. It also required a lot of extrapolation. Most people watching television weren’t actually counted; whatever the selected Nielsen families, on average, preferred got good ratings and avoided cancellation.

Contrast that to today’s platforms of engagement, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like. One of the scary things about these social media services is just how much information they acquire about their users. Indeed, it’s easy to make the case that we are not “users”; we are, in fact, the commodity being sold.

Last week, the Democrat-Gazette reported how privacy watchdogs in the European Union were up in arms after reports that Facebook had paid contractors to transcribe clips of audio from users of its services.

In our Internet-connected world, how can any of us really expect the companies that develop the “free” social media apps not to engage in privacy-shrinking behaviors? I place the word “free” in quotes because nothing is really free in this scenario. Facebook has become the behemoth of data gathering. Every nugget of information it can gather about its users becomes a tool it can use to sell something and make its billions and billions of dollars.

We’ve invited them into our lives, far more intrusively than those 1970s TV networks ever were. Why should we be shocked Facebook is monitoring every keystroke, every photo, every recording in search of ways to make money?

Remember the 1970s Charleton Heston movie Soylent Green, about a mysterious new food supply in a world short on traditional foods? Well (spoiler alert, if such a thing can exist for a 46-year-old movie), Facebook’s product is pretty much the same thing Heston discovers.

It’s people.

Commentary on 08/18/2019

Print Headline: Facebook, others take, and we give

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