So it's out there officially: Mark Zuckerberg wants to turn the whole Internet into Facebook. Or the other way around. Who can tell? What matters is that the social-media juggernaut needs an endless supply of souls to feed its bottomless appetite (and Wall Street's expectations), and it's going to go after them like a hawk chasing rabbits. Appropriately enough, an interactive music video called "The Facehawk" sucks in your Facebook activity and morphs it all into the menacing 3-D shape of a winged predator.
The technology driving The Facehawk is, of course, very impressive. And the song ("Dangerous" by Big Data) is catchy. But as a data visualization, The Facehawk paints a more complicated picture than its titular imagery suggests. When I saw my own profile cut up and animated, I had two reactions:
- That's it?
- Who the $*#& are these people?
I'll admit, I'm not the heaviest Facebook user, but I do visit it every day to do my requisite share of Like-ing and friend-list pruning—I'm even pretty active on a private group or two. But most of what constitutes "me" to Facebook, at least in terms of what "The Facehawk" can show me, is a thin soup of contextless near-nonsense and total strangers. This is my vaunted social graph? Seriously, I must have friended some of the folks I saw in the photos spinning around in that hawk shape, but I could not tell you who, how, when, or why. In this visualization, the "predator" imagery seems unintentionally ironic. If Facebook is a hawk, it looks like a pretty blind, dumb, and scrawny one—at least when seen through the lens of my profile.
Of course, your Facehawk may look totally different. And I don't know what data the application has access to and what is hidden from it. But the eerie thing about The Facehawk isn't whether it supports or belies Facebook's reputation as a rapacious devourer of people's identities. It's that what Facebook really consumes—and turns into money and influence in its distributed network of data-center guts—isn't easily visualizable. It's bigger, weirder, and more alien than pat biological metaphors of predators and prey. My "real" social graph would probably look even more nonsensical than what The Facehawk showed me, but just because it's not easily human-readable doesn't mean that it's not real. The meaning that Facebook mines and monetizes out of my sporadic, disjointed activity isn't a "picture" of me—it's more like the firing pattern of a single neuron in a vast brain. Alone, it's just squirting, sparking nonsense. Connected, it's a $100B market cap.
What happens in between can strain the powers of common-sense comprehension, which are the same powers that data visualizations rely on to drive their metaphors and imagery. What should you fear, if anything, about Facebook? Not what you can easily picture—like a sharp-beaked bird swooping for your throat—but what you can't.