The latest celebrity cat fight is playing out over the Internet, and this time, it involves a couple rather unlikely players — Mark Zuckerberg is calling Tim Cook's statements about Facebook "ridiculous," and he's making no secret of his great disdain of both Apple products and their prices. In an interview with Time Magazine, the Facebook founder lashed out at Cook and his claims that free online services, like those offered by Facebook and Google, treat users like products rather than customers. Bristling at the suggestion that Apple was more in touch with its consumer base than Facebook, the Zuck exclaimed,
A frustration I have is that a lot of people increasingly seem to equate an advertising business model with somehow being out of alignment with your customers...I think it's the most ridiculous concept. What, you think because you're paying Apple that you're somehow in alignment with them? If you were in alignment with them, then they'd make their products a lot cheaper!
These remarks came in response to an interview Cook gave to Charlie Rose in September in response to the enormous iCloud hack that left many Apple users concerned about the safety of their personal information. Cook defended himself and the company by pointing out that Apple doesn't rely on user information to turn a profit, and is instead dedicated to making a tangible product for their customers to use. On the other hand, companies like Facebook monetize by collecting massive amounts of information on their user base and selling rather effective advertisements to the highest bidder — let's be honest, who among us hasn't been a bit perturbed by the accuracy of those targeted ads that show up every time you log into your Facebook account?
During his interview, Cook noted,
We take a very different view of this than a lot of other companies have. Our view is, when we design a new service, we try not to collect data. So we’re not reading your email. We’re not reading your iMessage. You’re not our product.
Apple, Cook pointed out, makes its money off the (ostensibly enormous) profit it can turn from selling a $350 Apple Watch, or an up to $849 iPhone 6 Plus. But regardless of how wide their profit margins are, Cook's point still stands — their money trail leads straight to an Apple device, not your private information.
Conversely, the "other companies" Cook referred to, likely Facebook and Google, offer free services that make their money using a very different business model. Said Cook, "I think everyone has to ask, how do companies make their money? Follow the money. And if they're making money mainly by collecting gobs of personal data, I think you have a right to be worried."
Sure, maybe we should be worried, but Tim Cook may also need to steel himself against the wrath of The Zuck, who retaliated, guns blazing, in the midst of the Time article entitled "Facebook's Plan to Wire the World." Despite Lev Grossman's description of Zuckerberg as an "enthusiastic high school kid delivering an oral report" with somewhat awkward conversational skills, Zuckerberg was anything but unsure of himself when he expressed his distinct irritation with Cook's underhanded attack. Zuckerberg may have called the notion of people as products "ridiculous," but as Grossman himself notes (and a Facebook publicist probably noticed as well), there is some truth to the statement.
In his article, which explores Zuckerberg and Facebook's plan to provide Internet to every single person across the world, Grossman points out Facebook competitor Ello states in its manifesto, "You’re the product that’s being bought and sold." Ello, of course, differs from Facebook in that it is not a free social network and promises not to collect your personal information or show you any ads. But Zuckerberg, now the savvy businessman as well as the tech genius, responded, that such a business model simply isn't scalable, adding, "Our mission is to connect every person in the world. You don’t do that by having a service people pay for."
But even if you're not paying for Facebook using dollars and cents, you are devoting some other pretty precious resources to the site — as Grossman suggests, "Facebook’s users are paying, just with their attention and their personal information instead of with cash." But before he is allowed to continue this line of questioning, "A publicist changes the subject."
So what's the big deal? If Facebook users are paying with attention and personal information, as long as it's a voluntary and willing transaction, no harm no foul right? Maybe. I won't argue that Facebook and other social media platforms that have connected the world in ways we've never seen before are bad things — far from it. The level of communication and information sharing that we are capable of today would be absolutely inconceivable without these companies. But to what degree are we actually connected in a way that builds empathy and compassion amongst users?
In August, the Pew Research Center revealed a troubling trend amongst Facebook and Twitter users that has since been termed the "spiral of silence" — active social media users are actually less likely to engage in discussion about potentially controversial topics than their non-social media using counterparts. So if your newsfeed is inundated by videos of cute cats instead of Mike Brown and Eric garner protests, there's a reason for that. In spite of all of our so-called connectivity, we're not exactly utilizing our platform to affect meaningful change or engage in productive dialogue, at least, not for the most part. In fact, lead researcher Keith Hampton went so far as to tell the Associated Press, "People do not tend to be using social media for this type of important political discussion. And if anything, it may actually be removing conversation from the public sphere."
So fine, maybe Tim Cook's statements are "ridiculous." But regardless of whether your users are your customers or your products, maybe Facebook should be thinking a little bit more about what connectivity really means.
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