Is Facebook’s ‘Messenger Kids’ Social Media’s ‘Joe Camel’ Moment?

For those not remembering the aforementioned, “Joe Camel” it was the cartoon advertising mascot employed by R.J. Reynolds™ to promote Camel® cigarettes in the late 80’s. It ran for about a decade ending in 1997.

Although it was said to be an attempt to bring attention back to an already established brand. What it did in conjunction, was bring attention to the fact via a 1991 study published in the Journal of American Medical Association™, that by the time children were of age 6, they could correctly associate “Old Joe” with cigarettes, as well as they could associate the Disney™ logo with Mickey Mouse®.

This was that defining moment when everything seemed to change when it came to smoking. I know, because I was an avid smoker myself at that time. The moment this product and habit was seen for what it was (e.g., a true physical and psychological dependent habit) where a link, whether intentional or perceived, could be argued that the intent was to link a brand or logo to children as to perpetuate or indoctrinate the idea that smoking was cool or hip – everything changed. And I mean just that – everything.

Just a bit for context: Near overnight, suddenly “lighting up” anywhere indoors was seen as the equivalent of fumigating the area for roach infestation, while demanding everyone remained in the room. The office, restaurants, airplanes, cars, et cetera, et cetera slowly became, “No Smoking” areas.

Not entirely at first, but little by little. First, quarantine areas were set aside for the “smokers” where one was now demanded to be sequestered from polite society to go “enjoy” our “filthy”, “vile”, “disgusting” (their words, not mine) habit, away from the upright, oh-so-better-than-thou, non-smoking community at large. Till it seemed the entire planet became a “smoke-free-zone.”

Personally, I only quit out of aggravation of needing to find an abandoned coal mine shaft every-time I felt the urge. But I digress.

So with the above for context, let’s see where we stand in comparison to this entire “social media” phenom shall we?

For a moment let’s move away from “the children” per se, and move into the adult arena.

Can you think (be honest now) of anyone that can’t put their smartphone down, or not pick it up every-time it chimes, for more than a minute? If you can say yes, to even one, how about if you increased the time to 10 minutes?

Here’s an even better question: Can you? Have you tried? What if I said no social media perusing, notifications, or messages of any type would be allowed till after 12 noon? Of course official work duties or necessities are exempt.

How about – how many times are you in a meeting, or out to coffee, supper, or just trying to have a conversation with someone and there’s more importance paid to the conversation on their phone, rather than the conversation that’s supposed to be taking place with you?

Have you ever asked them to put the phone aside for a moment, then watched as they twitched, fidgeted, and stirred until they could finally get “a hit?” Sound or look like anything familiar? (cough-smoking-cough)

During this period (i.e., 90’s) was when the entire sue-them-into-oblivion campaigns arose like weeds. Everyone wanted a piece of the tobacco industry’s check book. Individuals, States, and more began suing in one form or another.

Yes, there were legitimate health reasons against deceptive practices as a prime motivator, but another motivation was also there in the forms of great mountains of real money available if their cases could win. And in 1998 the, “Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement” was entered between the four largest U.S. tobacco companies culminating in $206 Billion over the first 25 years of the agreement.

Hmmm, big four, with that kind of wallet. (i.e., large, very large.) Now where could that same analogy be applied?

For those whom may not remember, this was a period where “secret documents” and “whistleblowers” were all the news of the day when it came to “big tobacco.” The companies CEO’s and more were brought before congressional committees where they were asked and responded, “…that they did not believe that cigarettes were addictive, but they would rather their own children did not smoke.”

I could go on and on, with example after example, for comparison. But let’s just use the above, for the moment. Because the similarities are striking, indeed.

Suddenly you have calls coming from everywhere to regulate social media for the “fake news” issues alone. Watchdog groups, government “think tanks”, government agencies, social justice warriors of all stripes are calling for some form of regulation to satisfy their concerns, starting with non-intrusive oversight, to out-and-out Orwellian styled authoritarian control.

Hint: Once the “government” gets the idea that control may be warranted, and there’s money to pay those presumed hefty fines? You can bet your bottom dollar some form of legislation is forthcoming – it’s only a question of when, and how much, both in oversight and money.

What’s a little different this time is that we don’t need any “secret documents”, “whisleblowers”, or congressional summonses to get the creators of this product to tell us what the powers-that-be are thinking about it behind closed doors. For they’re actually holding conferences and professing it to anyone that’ll listen via their own mouths.

Here are a few excepts made by Chamath Palihapitiya, former Facebook executive in a recent talk at Stanford Graduate School of Business™. To wit:

When asked how he feels about Facebook: “Tremendous guilt.” About the dopamine-driven feedback loops they created: “…destroying how society works.” Does he let his own children use it: “…aren’t allowed to use that shit.”

I would suggest you watch the entire talk and come to your own conclusions, Yet, notwithstanding, do you see the cigarette/tobacco/ parallel here? How about a little more? This time from the founding president of Facebook, Sean Parker speaking at a recent Axios™ event. Here are a few highlights, again, to wit:

“… It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

“The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?'”

“It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

And what I see will be used as the coup de grâce by the army of attorneys salivating for the next big class-action battle in front of a jury…

“The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”

Let that sink in: “And we did it anyway.”

Once again, let me implore you to read, or watch, the above interview and come to your own conclusions. Lest I remind you – we are now talking about actively marketing via brand and product to 6 year olds.

But just like “big tobacco” executives of the past, big social media exec’s like those employed by Zuck and Crew are more than willing to tell you, like this response to a question from Wired™:

“It’s important to remember that Messenger Kids does not have ads and we don’t use the data for advertising. This provision about sharing information with vendors from the privacy policy is for things like providing infrastructure to deliver messages.”

Well, if that’s the case – then why offer any service designed for 6 year olds in the first place? After all, when Buzz Feed News™ asked Messenger® head, David Marcus, if this was a cynical attempt to get kids hooked on social media, the response was:

“The goal is not to get kids onto Facebook,” he said. “There’s really no other reason for us to do this than to actually enable kids to communicate with their parents and vice versa, and kids to communicate with their friends within a safe zone that’s controlled by the parents.”

Call me skeptical, but the last time I heard something similar, it was CEO’s saying something to the effect that they believed “cigarettes were not addictive.” After all, I hear all Mark Zuckerberg wants to do is “connect people.”

I have a feeling the next “connection” coming towards everything social will be via settlements directly into government/lawyer coffers. After-all – when it comes to anything about “saving the children” the government loves a blustery, righteous indignation, feel-good campaign made possible via someone elses wallet. And social media has one, very large wallet to affix a bullseye on.

On an aside, I also believe the smart phone, as it is used today, will be seen going forward in the not-so-distant future the way smoking in general morphed into an unsightly or unruly habit.

Did I mention that lawyers and politicians just love, love, love big, stuffed, bull’s-eyes? If not.

Just ask “Old Joe.”

© 2017 Mark St.Cyr