Posted by: coloradokiwi | November 30, 2007

Facebooking up to reality

As I mentioned before, I have a MySpace account which I keep active in order to access the pages of actual friends of mine who refuse to communicate in other media, which is otherwise featureless. I also have a Facebook account, which I’ve been pressured to put up at least a handful of things on (because those Facebook-only friends are even more stubborn about the way in which they communicate….argh). There are a couple of things about Facebook I’ve noticed that I find to be a little…well, too handy for keeping tabs on people. For instance, I’m notified not only whenever someone contacts me or writes something on my “wall” (argh), I am notified when they post or make changes to pictures of me on their page. And so on and so forth. In fact everything that person does is tracked on their page, unless they choose to hide it (and you can’t do this in advance).

But this user-enacted surveillance goes beyond merely what people are “up to” and with whom. So much of what happens on Facebook and MySpace which is about “sharing interests” and so forth serves the dual function of providing a cross-referenced database for marketers, of course. How many college educated, white, single, heterosexual, Christian people from Milwaukee list as their favorite movie, say, “The English Patient”? Well, now we know. For those of you who’ve read Max Weber, among others, your alarm bells are already ringing. But for the rest of you (which is probably still nearly everyone), I bring you information which might actually give you willies, which is really nothing more than the logic of capital as applied in the information age:

Last week the social networking website, which is under pressure to convert its vast user numbers into cash, angered its members when it emerged that Beacon, a newly unveiled advertising tool, publicised details of their shopping habits without their permission.

Users were especially angry that opportunities to opt out of the Beacon system were fleeting at best, taking the form of small boxes on participating retail sites that were easy to miss.

Wait, what? You mean Facebook has made arrangements with other large websites to track my purchases, which then show up in my news feed, as a means of peer to peer marketing? Yep. Some people are complaining about how this has “ruined Christmas” because surprise gifts have been put up on people’s Facebook page for the world to see, which I admit is an extremely irritating thing. But the implications are much greater:

Under the Beacon system, retail partners pay Facebook for what the social network calls “trusted referrals”. When he announced Beacon, Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, called trusted referrals the “hold grail” of online advertising.

Meanwhile, eBay, a Beacon member, argued that communicating to consumers through “the people [they] already know . . . has the potential to be a powerful tool”.

Analysts agree. The Future Foundation, a think tank, recently published a report that said social networks will be a force in online retail. It found that the “ultimate endorsement for a product now comes from the ‘lips and clicks’ of friends and contacts on sites such as Facebook and MySpace, as purchase is more likely to come from recommendation than any other form of marketing”.

To be fair, Facebook has since backed off as a result of the backlash to this. However, don’t think this sort of thing will just go away — they’ll just retool it so Christmas won’t be ruined (waaaaaah!). So, let’s parse this from least to most disconcerting. First, I don’t know about you but not all my friends are created equal; that is to say, some friends are more important to me than others. Further, some of my friends are really old friends from school/growing up, which means they will always be my friends, but we probably lead somewhat different lives now (and crucially, we all have ties to the same gossipy community). In short, I have different tiers and spheres of friends, and not all of my “recommendations” (willing or not) will be worthwhile.

This brings us to the next most disconcerting thing, the privacy issue. If I decide to buy a book about, say, “open marriage” or perhaps an item that may indicate to my friends lifestyle choices about which the less they know the better, I would prefer that such things remain private. No amount of “recommendation” is going to convince any friends of mine to get “into” the art of Cleveland Steamers if that’s what I do in the privacy of my own home.

***Aside: in order to find that link to furries, I had to type into Google “fursuit sex,” which is another problem with this sort of auto-linked surveillance: both the government and various corporations know/will know/could know that this is what I was looking for, but they can only make assumptions as to why. I betcha “blog entry” is not the first theory they come up with.***

All of this seems fairly obvious, right? But there are other aspects of this that are not immediately worrisome to most people, although they should be: the fact that (1) initial or frequent consumer choices are increasingly an indicator of what we will be able to consume in the future, thereby delimiting our cultural (and ultimately political) world; (2) companies are relying on their customers to do the work of marketing for them, which is to say we are being charged not only for the product, but also charged (not compensated, mind you) for the labor we perform in bringing that product to others.

The latter point is merely, as I said out the outset, an aspect of the information age shot through with the logic of capital. It is something which requires our attention and maybe if we’re lucky revolution, but it’s hardly surprising. The former aspect, however, is far more immediately troubling, because it is a trend that will (if it hasn’t already) impact on the very information we have access to in order to make sense of the world. This little piece lays out the implications nicely (please watch the flash presentation — I cannot recommend it highly enough; the dates of its predictions aren’t quite on, but the prescience with which it predicts trends is astounding): the trajectory of synergy and catering to our every consumptive whim means that in the future our news will be assembled for us individually according to our consumer habits. A likely outcome is that people are increasingly atomized, if you will, according to overlapping consumer networks, or interest networks, whereby the only things they know about the world is that in which they are “interested” and nothing more:

For too many, it is a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it shallow [and] sensational.

This is happening already, of course, but it will get worse. You know those conversations you have with Fox News watchers, where you can’t even agree on what the basic facts of an issue are, much less which issues matter, and what’s going on in various sectors of society and/or the world? Picture this scenario times ten, only it’s the conversation you have with anyone not in your network. Sure, you could find all the information you can out there, but it sure is tough to sift through all of that when the stuff that really floats your boat is streamed to you, prepackaged, exactly as you like it. The implications for an informed citizenry, which is vital to a healthy democratic republic, are dire.

So let’s review: everything you do, say, like or show interest in is a matter of public knowledge; all of this is also tracked by extremely powerful authorities in what is looking more and more like an oligopoly; not only are we mostly willing participants in this, our own habits and desires are the new opiate of the fractured masses, almost ensuring that hijinks will ensue. But you know, in the meantime enjoy being “poked” by your friends (ugh).



  1. “A likely outcome is that people are increasingly atomized, if you will, according to overlapping consumer networks, or interest networks, whereby the only things they know about the world is that in which they are “interested” and nothing more”.

    I think that the negative implications of this “atomization” are overblown. Although it might indeed be a time of increasing specialization and more focused interests online, I think the breadth and availability of varying sources of information and interests trumps any threat of the consumer becomming cut off and adhering to an increasingly narrow cultural or political view.

    Furthermore, I think these “extremely powerful authorities” will continue to be checked by an increasingly powerful and fickle (in terms of brand loyalty) base of users who can much more easily expose shady corporate tactics to the online masses. Perhaps the atmoziation works both ways in this sense – we saw today how someone who had a strong (narrow) interest in privacy issues created a facebook petition to end privacy indescretions.

    And while the video brings up some interesting hypotheticals, I think there’s a good chance that many of those who subscribe to the idea of the NYT losing to “googlezon” in the Supreme Court are also donning tinfoil hats.

    Last, why is viral marketing, or for that matter, crowdsourcing, worrysome? Is there an injustice in not compensating consumers monetarily who (in most cases) voluntarily recommend or review a product to others or deliver creatives for exposure and recognition? Surely these consumers experience benefits that make it worth their while or they wouldn’t participate.

  2. Good points, Mike.

    I guess I should parse here more of what really worries me:

    1. That these companies think they have a right to our every online move, and that people either don’t notice this or are unconcerned.

    2. Not so much that atomization is bad per se (you’re right–it seems more dialectical, really), so much as that you really can go down the rabbit hole and never come back. I think a lot about the debates I’ve gotten into with Global Warming skeptics or the 9/11 conspiracy believers. There is SO MUCH info out there, and you can choose to subscribe to whatever bits of it adhere to your worldview, that in these debates nobody has a very firm hold on what “truth” is, and you can go and find “truth” on your own time according to what you consume (this includes news). I guess it’s that part that worries me: not that you can’t find other information, but that you can find SO MUCH information that may or may not be useful, so you will undoubtedly choose to believe what you already “know.”

    As for viral marketing, if they just let it happen as it happens, then that’s fine. In fact, this will be the future of most of the media we consume: it will look like recently defunct Oink meets Amazon meets iTunes: huge database, lots of variety, user recommendations, etc. What irks me is how companies try to force the issue by gaming the recommendations system, and sometimes even creating “plants.” In other words: recommendations are great, but really what they want to do is use recommendations to further the old model of production, which is “Let me convince you of the value of whatever it is I’m selling.” And admittedly from a production standpoint, the very idea of a fickle marketplace that works on buzz and viral networks is extremely scary for them.

    And you have to understand as someone whose ideal form of government is some kind of socialist anarcho-syndicalism, I am probably overly touchy about what large corporations and/or governments do. 🙂

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