Nobody’s Perfect

December 17, 2020

Two of the say, maybe six companies that run the world are fighting. This time, it’s Facebook and Apple. Fortunately for those of you who don’t really pay attention to this kind of thing and want to get up to speed quickly, it’s a very simple argument.

Apple makes money off of a lot of things, including selling gazillions of phones and a variety of rapidly growing services (music, cloud space, etc.), but one thing they don’t make money off of is user data. It’s entirely plausible that they choose to do this because either (a) people in charge like CEO Tim Cook find it kind of gross and don’t really want to do, or (b) they just don’t think it’s a very good business and, unlike companies that do, they have extremely lucrative alternative models a data-selling or advertising business might compromise. It’s also possible that Apple is just not very good at this. Either way, it’s not how they make money (and they are very good at making money), which is the safest way to predict that a company won’t do something.

Facebook makes almost all of their money from advertising. They sell a bunch of random stuff like VR goggles and TV webcams and stuff like that, but the vast, vast, vast majority of their very large profits comes from selling targeted advertising. They target these ads by hoovering up as much data as possible about anyone who uses Facebook products, including data that has nothing to do with using Facebook products. For example, Facebook has always attempted to (and often succeeded) in tracking your browsing and application behavior (again, outside of Facebook properties) adding it to their information about you, and targeting to you with it. There are other things they might do with that data, but that’s the main one we know they make most of their money from, and as mentioned when discussing Apple, we therefore know it’s something they’re probably going to keep doing, and continue to try to grow.

Inevitably, we’ve reached a conflict. Apple wants people to buy phones and use Apple services. There is real financial benefit for Apple from building these complex user behavior models. Maybe they can build a better experience for their products with it (or at least one you’re more likely to buy), and they do that to some degree with their action recommendations and stuff like that. But they don’t need to guess what you want to buy, so in general they don’t really try to find out.

In fact, it’s even more than that. Since there’s no opportunity cost there for Apple (or, again, because this is some principle they have, but we’re talking about pretty big, very profitable companies here so I’m trying to stay away from that argument), they’ve attempted to leverage the other direction increasingly structuring their ecosystem around user privacy, or more accurately, user control of their own data. Since this has some technical disadvantages (notably a lack of magic cloud services that guess everything you want before you want it), it makes sense that they would stress the advantages as well — namely, that when you’re using an Apple device, it’s less likely that advertising companies are constantly tracking your every move and attempting to monetize it.

Pick your poison, or don’t

In my opinion, Facebook is now extremely gross both for its increasingly creepy business model and the general low-quality information and interactions available on its product. I haven’t used it or WhatsApp (which it owns) in nearly three years, and I’m just about done weaning myself of Instagram (which it also owns). Obviously I’m not putting a freaking camera or whatever from these guys in my house, either.

That being said, I don’t think Facebook’s revenue model is entirely immoral. It’s just a choice; do you prefer free products & services that are subsidized in ways you may not fully understand, or do you prefer paying what is frequently quite a bit of money for products where that cost is more directly related to the value you get? Say whatever you want about Facebook — it’s does a lot of stuff for a free service, and as a company, it offers a LOT of things without every actually asking any of its users to spend any money. That works for certain people.

As mentioned, while I prefer Apple’s stance here (and, more broadly their general approach to business — there is a reason I own a lot of Apple products), they’re not some benevolent charity. Completely unrelated to these issues, I think they’ve engaged in a mix of anti-competitive and high-leverage revenue maximization strategies that are either illegal or should be illegal. I say unrelated because unlike “free product” and “opaque user monetization”, Apple’s abusive App Store policies aren’t necessary to support its strategic focus on privacy that I prefer. Facebook, on the other hand, is stuck — you can’t coherently argue that Facebook should remain free while not monetizing your usage in other ways.

Stan in the Place That You Are

Now, the reason I mention all of this “Apple’s no angel” thing (even though it’s completely unrelated) is because I’m surprised at how necessary that seems to be to make a compelling argument that Facebook’s user data policy/strategy sucks. It’s seems obvious to me that Apple’s anti-competitive App Store policies, for instance, or their dependance on (and kid-glove treatment) of the Chinese government have literally nothing to do with a stance on user data. But somehow, evaluating billion dollar conglomerates is often treated by people as some kind of character test, like we’re trying to figure out who handles arbitrary moral challenges better and then just defending that actor from any and all criticism (at least relatively) by default.

Now, if this were the way I felt issues and policies should be evaluated, I’d totally be an Apple Stan. But it’s not, and that means no matter how often I agree with Apple on different policies, I’m never simply going to agree with something they do just because they do it.

(For those of you — likely my more life-experienced readers — who don’t what a “Stan” is, here you go.)

Instead, the purchase decision for a product of service will — as with all similar things — come down to some kind of cost/benefit analysis that includes whatever relevant moral component is involved, and I’ll go on a case by case basis. I don’t need to buy half my products from Apple and half from Amazon or whatever to prove this, either. I choose to take part in the Apple App Store despite it’s bad policies, because in general the store is better for me even with them in place. This is also why I’d like many or all of those policies investigated and potentially regulated away. I can literally choose Apple (or anyone else) over various technology rivals 100% of the time, and still think something Apple chooses to do is the wrong choice.

In some ways, the way we’re starting to think about this smaller and smaller number of companies that effectively define and advance consumer behavior is uncomfortably similar to how we think about political parties — the ultimate zero-sum duopoly. Now, it’s worse for a lot of reasons, namely that there are even fewer options (although you really only have two options for phone platforms), and because tech companies generally overlap in weird Venn diagrams while our two political parties increasingly seem to exist primarily to oppose each other.

But… it’s still bad, and just as with political parties, Stans don’t challenge the things they love, which is a necessary part of not just holding them accountable, but making them better. That’s why the point isn’t to both-sides everything, but to look past the actors involved and assess the thing they do, propose, or stand up for. Your favorite brand or politician can be right 98% of the time (in your eyes), but you still need to be ready to call out actions and concepts that aren’t right.

People refer to the instinct of the moment to bring everything down to an equal, terrible level as cynicism, and maybe that’s right. But I don’t think useful, constructive cynicism (my favorite kind) is about looking for terrible things from a faction so you can ignore or, God forbid, justify other terrible things from another. There are an infinite number of things to beat up for being terrible, immoral, or wrong. So many, in fact, that if we find it especially reassuring to know that our disfavored factions are wrong, we’re never going to get to the part where we make anything right.