Can Facebook’s business model be redeemed?

As a platform Facebook has helped connect people across the world with updates, photos, videos, stories, groups, and more. As a business, it monetizes users’ attention and data about their online behavior and personal interests by selling it to third parties that want to influence users in undisclosed ways.

If we view business as a means of value exchange, then the question is whether or not Facebook’s business model is a just exchange. Since Facebook’s role is as an influential intermediary, let’s look at this exchange from both directions.

 

Consumer Interest to Producer Knowledge

Users of Facebook exchange their personal information and attention for a convenient and money-free way to give and receive information from others. In the setting of a local community, finding out what people like and sharing that information with those who want to serve them for a fee is reasonable.

However, the more detailed, exhaustive and involuntary this surveillance becomes, the more problematic it is—the situation has amplified from being a friendly neighborhood canvaser or curious ethnographer to an AI-powered stalker serving the interests of a shadow power.

 

Producer Product to Consumer Behavior

Such exhaustive knowledge is terrifying in and of itself, but the real clincher is when that knowledge is applied hard and fast in the form of advertising and other social influence. Again, to take the analogy of a local community, a restaurant giving away free samples and showing delicious food photography to attract customers is not only legitimate, but shrewd. But scale it up to a crafty AI stalker and no wonder so many of us feel a kind of internet PTSD.

 

The power of opting in

Thankfully, this could simply be a situation of bad defaults. Facebook is largely designed to require users to opt-out of privacy-invasive capabilities. What if the default, instead, was opt-in in exchange for specific benefit? This would in the short term reduce adoption for certain features, but in the long term could align the interests of users, advertisers and Facebook itself. It is not enough to give users a choice;  in order to build trust it is necessary to continually respect users’ rights by default and invite them to freely share what they wish to be shared to gain clear additional benefits.

There would be much gain and no legitimate loss in giving users clearer, simpler and greater control over not only their online presence, but also their online attention.

When this utmost respect for human beings is built into a company culture that builds products like Facebook, we have a business that can deliver the benefits of discovering what users need and love and connecting them with businesses that serve them.

 

How Christians contribute to building company culture

This respect for human dignity is something long witnessed to in the ancient wisdom of the Bible.

In the Bible, Jesus plainly stated that “You cannot serve two masters for you will love the one and hate the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” And when asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus said it was “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength. And to love your neighbor as yourself.”

Connecting these two teachings, we see that fundamentally the corruption in Facebook’s business model lies in its idolization of money and dehumanization of people. But therein lies its redemption as well.

When a company is willing to sacrifice short-term profits, market share and even restrain its ability to influence people’s behavior in the interests of its customers and users, it begins to practice the biblical concept of righteousness—it begins using its market power and technological prowess to empower people to make free decisions—and within that freedom, to love.

This mindset shift would mark the first step in the way forward for companies like Facebook and set them on a path to long term gain which benefits users, shareholders and society at large. Christians inside companies like Facebook have a unique contribution to make towards this human-respecting, righteousness-oriented business/technological mindset because they are people who in their personal lives desire to authentically align their work with their faith in and obedience to Jesus.

To adapt Proverbs 14:34 “ Righteousness exalts a company, but sin is a disgrace to any organization.”

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