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“Personal information gathered by [Facebook] been used by others not only to predict our behaviour but also to influence and modify it; and this has had disastrous consequences for democracy and freedom.”
Shoshana Zuboff - The Age of Surrveillance Capitalism
Last week, Facebook announced it's subsuming another rich source of data into it’s already vast hoard.
For $400 million, it’s buying Giphy, the favourite tool for millions of internet users, to express themselves online when words fail.
Giphy is an online repository of GIFS. A GIF is basically a short and snappy, looping video without sound. Typically, they capture celebrity or animal expressions, and like an emoji, can be quickly dropped into a message or email to convey a personal, usually humorous, sentiment.
There's a problem though.
Giphy's scraping and indexing of GIFs, a once anarchic yet vibrant internet culture, has made this novel medium feel jaded, while Facebook’s quest to serve the world and it’s mother has made its content formulaic.
And what happens when one company, who has homogonised a sizeable corner of the internet, buys another that's basically done the same?
I can’t help but feel it’s going to be more dumbing down of digital culture.
On a more sinister note however, this latest acquisition by Facebook will give the tech giant, not to mention it’s other surveillance tools - Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram, access to large swathes of new data about our personal experiences and behaviours.
Let me show you what I mean.
Firstly, Giphy has over 300 million daily users. It’s integrated into Pinterest, Reddit, Slack, Twitter and much more besides. Because Giphy’s tool is embedded in so many apps (and I’d wager this is the primary reason Facebook bought Giphy in the first place), it gives the social media giant a window into user behaviour, far beyond the boundaries of its own products.
Furthermore, these companies who use Giphy in their products, must give them access to its device tracking ID. This makes it easier for Giphy to match your identity across your app usage on your devices.
And there’s more.
Every time you search for or send a GIF using Giphy, the company can track not just how and where the image is shared, but also, the sentiment the image conveys. Additionally, each GIF is embedded with a piece of code, signalling where the image has been loaded, while a tracking identifier also follows your browsing habits.
What bothers me most about all of these intrusions however, is how benign the simple act of sharing a funny clip with friends can seem. Most users have scant reason to suspect they're being tracked.
Either way, together, Giphy and Facebook have not only helped make the web boring and predictable, they’re also masters of surveillance.
And that's why, unfortunately, I think they’re a match made in heaven.
Thanks for reading.