Broken social scene

Acting under President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967, the CIA began a domestic intelligence-gathering operation code named CHAOS.

Acting under President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967, the CIA began a domestic intelligence-gathering operation code named CHAOS. The goal of the program was to collect information on subversive leftist groups, and to infiltrate and undermine them. Targets included student groups across the nation, anti-war protestors, Jewish organizations and the women’s liberation movement. This illegal gathering of intelligence on U.S. citizens culminated in the Watergate scandal, ending the careers of many high-ranking political officials, including the president of the United States.

One notorious incident involved the CIA purchase of a garbage collection company. In order to gather intelligence on the Jewish group B’nai B’rith, the U.S. intelligence agency collected salvaged documents from their refuse. Domestic intelligence today is not such dirty work. Much of the information that President Nixon risked his office to gather would now be his for the asking. In fact, he would not even have to ask. Mark Zuckerberg would ask for him.

The Harvard dropout and co-founder of Facebook recently told the New Yorker that he “wants to make the world a more open place.” The extent to which Zuckerberg has succeeded would have been difficult to fathom even a few years ago. Over the years, corporations and marketing firms have dedicated untold sums of money to the gathering, processing, and analyzing of precisely the information that anyone with a Facebook account gives the social networking giant.

This is the new model for advertising in a postmodern world. Social networking circumvents the element of trust that advertisers once had to cultivate to sell a product or build a brand. Instead of being sold on a product or idea, we tell the marketing firms what we are vulnerable to being sold on. It is a curious case of advertising to the advertisers how to advertise to us.

While many Americans are aware of identity theft, social networking has created an opposite trend of identity sharing. The effects of identity theft are devastating, direct and immediate. We know the ramifications of losing control over our identity in such a manner. Identity sharing is a much more complex issue. By telling a corporation how to effectively communicate with them, consumers are denied the awareness that was once implicit in advertising. There are, however, some effects of identity sharing that can be immediately harmful.

According to a study conducted at the University of Wisconsin, the Facebook profile that you show the world could impact your ability to gain employment. The study found that candidates whose profile showed an emphasis on family and professional orientation were much more likely to be interviewed. If hired, they were also likely to be offered a significantly higher starting salary. Study participants whose Facebook profiles featured an emphasis on alcohol consumption were found to be unlikely to reach the interview stage.

Beyond giving away valuable demographic information and jeopardizing future employment with candid profile posts, Facebook users also accept the risk of having their words, images or information used in any context that the media giant wishes, and to whatever end. For example, users would have no legal recourse if the company decided to use their profile picture in an advertisement. Users could find their words used to endorse a political candidate, whether or not it is one they actually support.

The real value of Facebook, however, is in the long view.

Analysts speculate that Facebook, a privately held company, is in the process of developing a business plan with the goal of going public. Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel recently told Reuters that he believes the company will make an initial public offering in 2012. With a huge online media presence, and access to priceless marketing data on its half a billion users, the expectations are huge. Initial Public Offering plans are being carefully managed, and a business plan patiently constructed. Facebook is gaining a market legitimacy that will likely strengthen the anticipated public offering.

Social networking platforms have become a two-way mirror. We look in an attempt to see ourselves, and to share what we see with our friends. There are others watching, however, and watching much more closely. For uncomplicated reasons, 500 million people across the world have engaged themselves in the most direct and comprehensive intelligence gathering undertaking in the history of the world. The reasons driving the forces behind social networking platforms are even less complicated. In Mark Zuckerberg’s “open world” consumers are all there for the taking. More aptly, they are there for the giving.