Guess what? Facebook is not your friend.

There has been an enormous degree of outrage and uproar in the media of late regarding Facebook's most recent changes to its privacy policy, most of it asserting that what Facebook provides is not, in fact, privacy at all. Rather, Facebook has betrayed the sacred trust placed in it by its users, who told it their secrets, gave it their photos, wrote on its walls and cultivated its farms. Facebook repaid that trust by becoming the global village gossip.

Well, duh.

It's still possible to post your private thoughts on the web, along with photos, videos, lists of your friends, your interests, your kinks and secrets, and have it all viewable only to a very select group of your friends in whom you have complete faith to keep your secrets. All you have to do is build yourself a web site and password-protect it.

OK, maybe you don't have the skills to build yourself a web site complete with blogging, instant-messaging and multimedia hosting capabilities. Not a problem. Chances are you have a geeky friend somewhere who has those skills and can build the framework for you. They might even be able to swing you a deal on web hosting because they've got a mate who's a sysadmin at the ISP.

OK, maybe you don't have such a friend. That is why you have Facebook. Facebook will provide you with all of the above infrastructure, free of charge. It will even let you know which of your friends and acquaintances and favourite celebrities and creepy ex-boyfriends it has provided similar services for, free of charge.

But here's the thing: Facebook doesn't do this because it likes you. It doesn't. Not because you aren't likeable or anything — it doesn't know you well enough to make such a judgment, and for all it knows you are extraordinarily charming. I like to presume you are.

Facebook provides the services it provides to you because it wants to make money. Just like any other corporation with hundreds of millions of customers, not to mention investors. It's all about the money.

You may notice I'm referring to Facebook as an "it" rather than a "they". This is not only good writing form (corporations are properly regarded as "collective singulars" rather than plural entities), I'm also doing so pointedly. I'm not writing here about Mark Zuckerberg (or "Zuck" as the millions of people who think he is their friend call him), nor am I writing about any individual or group of individuals who work for Facebook. I'm talking about Facebook, the faceless, heartless machine that exists for profit and only for profit.

Like every other company that has ever survived more than a few months in business.

An awful lot of what I've read about Facebook in recent times has dwelt upon "Zuck" and how he has become "evil" much in the manner of Bill Gates. Zuckerberg is not evil. The people who work for him, by and large, are not evil. But they are motivated by profit.

And that's where your stuff comes in. You see, I've been in the media game for a while and I've been around ad sales people a lot, and I can tell you this: what advertisers want more than anything else is demographics. They don't just want to know you've got 400 million customers, they want to know how many are women, how many are men, how many are over 45, how many make less than $25,000 per year, how many are single (and are they looking), how many listen to music, watch TV, rent DVDs and so on. That information is golden.

I should say that information about 4000 people is golden. That information about 400 million people is diamond-encrusted gold on a palladium platter. With cherries on top. Chocolate-dipped cherries. You get the point.

That's Facebook's business: demographics. It's a gigantic market-research experiment, nothing more and nothing less. Like other market-research organisations it offers you inducements — but rather than scratch-lottery tickets or the chance to try a new breath mint before the general public, you get a free web site with all the fixings. All in all, it's not a bad deal.

Except — and here's the quandary — the more of your information you want to keep to yourself, the less valuable you are to Facebook and the more you're a drain on its finite resources of storage space and bandwidth. Facebook wants to encourage as many people as possible to take advantage of the fantastic service it offers at better than mates' rates, but it needs you to tell it as many of your secrets as you can in order to afford to do so.

In that context it's easy to understand why Facebook wants you to leave as much of your information open as possible, and doesn't really have a strong incentive beyond altruism to make it easy for you to do otherwise. The bad news is that altruism is not a good business strategy.

The good news is that Zuckerberg seems open to the idea of being a little bit altruistic if it will help his business. It's happened before, when Facebook's Terms of Service changed and there was outcry because one way you could read a certain paragraph made it seem like Facebook would own your children if you took pictures of them. Facebook retreated from that stance and now only demands your first-born.

Unless I'm reading that wrong.

At any rate, Zuckerberg and others at Facebook have made encouraging noises of late about "listening to customers" and "understanding their needs" and things like that. Chances are before too long there will be changes to Facebook that will make it easier and clearer to determine which of your information is public and which is not.

But don't think for a minute it will make any of those changes because it likes you.

Discuss this with me at MacTheForum!

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