Hidden Lives: Why Facebook Needs You to Remain Anonymous

04/06/2012 12:33 BST | Updated 04/08/2012 10:12 BST

Felix Danczak is an SPS Finalist at Cambridge University:

The homepage proudly displays the governing principle. 'Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life' reads their friendly by-line. With 500m subscribers, the success of Facebook is, on the surface, predicated on the ease with which it allows us to communicate with others.

But as every idle, procrastinating individual knows, there is a darker pleasure to the newsfeed. 'Facebook stalking' as it is commonly known (at least in the UK) is the practice of spending time exploring the profiles of others for reasons other than 'connecting and sharing' - specifically to make judgments about the subject based around their profile information.

This observation isn't new - numerous studies have highlighted the distance that Facebook can encourage between individuals, and the objectivity that it creates in social relations. The illusion of interpersonal connectivity provides the cover for Facebook's most-used function: a semi-covert (although usually benign) surveillance on the lives of others.

This has some interesting repercussions for understanding Facebook's business strategy. A free service, it supports itself (at least in theory) by selling advertising space on its pages. The more times a page is viewed, the more times an advert is placed, so the more money Facebook makes. Simples. So Facebook needs to keep your attention to make its money: a quick on-and-off to check messages and reply to a friend request is no way to run a business.

But how to keep your attention? By providing you with something interesting - the lives and times of ex-boy or girlfriends, those school friends now moved away or that colleague from work. What they're up to, who they're talking to and what they look like now (and maybe whether they're in a new relationship) is interesting for a whole host of reasons. Statistics are unavailable (for obvious reasons) but from personal experience and anecdotal evidence, this ulterior activity - Facebook stalking - makes up a large portion of the use of Facebook as a time-wasting, interest-grabbing tool, even if it eventually results in a genuine piece of communication.

So Facebook keeps your attention (and thus its ad revenues) by offering you the ability to quietly and surreptitiously spy on those around you. It has little to do with caring and sharing, despite their marketing bumpf. To demonstrate this, imagine Facebook let you see who had been looking at your profile. Great! - always nice to know who's interested, and it might even make you feel popular. But it works both ways: That friend-of-a-friend knows you spent 10 minutes looking at his photos - and that girl you saw for coffee knows you didn't just check who she was for recognition purposes, but went back four times over an afternoon (just to check).

What might this do for how people use Facebook? Curtail it. Heavily. The social embarrassment of having others know that you were interested in their photos, links and comments at 2am overwhelms the desire for entertainment. Looking at a person's profile must now be a conscious decision to connect with them. Facebook ceases to be fun, as each move lets people know where you've been. They know you were there, like a ghost in the machine.

For Facebook, such an event would be a nightmare. Facebook's value would plummet, and Mark Zuckerberg, esq. would lose a lot of money. As noted, our attention is valuable, and without procrastination, we'll give Facebook much less of it. At a single stroke, the capacity for Facebook as an entertainment tool is rendered void. Why? Because the entertainment suddenly comes at a price greater than time: visibility.

By revealing us to our peers - by making a link between a page-view and social conversation - Facebook would undermine it's business. By making its social network more 'social', and less like a series of invisible personal surveillance cameras with uni-directional visibility, Facebook would bring with it all the social horrors: embarrassment, humiliation, loneliness.

This isn't going to happen - Facebook knows all too well how the system works. But what it does reveal is that Facebook makes money not out of our desires to keep in touch, to continue to be social with each other, but out of its ability to let us invisibly keep tabs on everyone around us. Facebook, ironically, makes money out of our anonymity.

More uncomfortably, Facebook only needs this anonymity to be one-way. In fact, they need it - the more invasive the surveillance, the more interesting it is to spend time on someone's profile, the more cash is generated for Mr Zuckerberg. Anonymity for the stalker, full disclosure for the subject.

This doesn't make Facebook the bad-guy - this isn't a call to curtail its operations in the slightest. Remember, everything people are watching and knowing about you on the social network was approved or published by you. How many windows on to your life you open is up to you. But it makes it easier to understand why social networks are loath to update and simplify privacy settings, and why at heart they remain reluctant partners in the beginnings of the war to protect your data online.

Facebook: Helping you connect and share with the people in your life? As long as they don't know about it, sure.