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On Facebook, you are not the customer. You are the product

January 6, 2011

Most of us make a major conceptual error when using Facebook. We assume, because we have created an account, that we are in some ways customers. Even though the service is free, this is still the way most of us conceptualise our relationship with web 2.0 companies – Google, Spotify, last.fm, and so on. Many of these companies employ a freemium model and hope to turn us into paying customers in future.

But on Facebook, you are not the customer. You are the product.

Every time you ‘like’ or ‘recommend’ something on Facebook, you’re contributing to the creation of an increasingly sophisticated database for marketers. This is worth a lot of money – $50 billion, in fact, which is what Facebook is valued at. Which means that your Facebook profile is worth $100.

And because you’re the product, you have no rights. You’re packaged and shipped in a way that suits your corporate overlords, not you. Anything you upload to Facebook becomes the property of Facebook. Anything you post that conflicts too strongly with their capitalist realist perspective can be removed by Facebook, and you have no right of appeal. If you invest emotionally in your Facebook profile, and it gets taken down or sold on by Facebook – is that not identity theft?

Mark Zuckerberg has built his career on stealing data and profiting from it, and yet we trust him with our most intimate personal details and the most precious thing we have – our relationships with other people. Facebook’s approach to privacy is unethical, and many of us are tricked into revealing more than we want to.

I feel that Facebook corrodes my relationships. Facebook cheapens them and makes them more superficial. Instead of really connecting with people, I am reduced to ‘liking’ their status updates. Everything is reduced to an anaesthetised world of likes and recommends. What happened to heart to heart conversations down at the pub? Lying on the grass together, looking at the stars? What happened to meeting some one, finding them attractive, and slowly getting to know them over time, through shared experience? There is something very beautiful about the slow unfolding and blossoming of human relationships that is collapsed into a perpetual ‘now’ by Facebook. Everyone you have ever known is in a room together, at the same time, passing comment. It’s like the worst Big Brother episode ever.

Politics, spirituality, culture, philosophy, art – all the things that make us human –  are reduced to lifestyle choices indicated by ‘like’ buttons. Walton likes Revolution on Facebook. Walton likes Biko and Žižek. Walton likes Hans Fallada, Sunn 0))) and sacred minimalism. But what does it mean? Just that online retailers know what books, T-shirts and CDs to try and sell me. Capitalism is a remarkably innovative and adaptable system, and make no mistake, it’s quite happy to sell revolution as a cutting edge cultural product.

There is something insidious about the ideology of Facebook: the self-surveillance, panopticon society that turns us all into cyber-stalkers. What does it mean for politics, and global culture? We don’t know yet, but this article has the beginning of some ideas.

This is an extreme example, but the story of the women who posted a Facebook update saying she had taken an overdose of pills shows how low the value of Facebook friendship can be: instead of helping her, many of her 1,048 ‘friends’ mocked her, and she was found dead.

The other danger, of course, is the one inherent in all cloud computing: your data is one some one else’s server, and you have no control over it. The attacks on Wikileaks show how vulnerable the cloud is.

I’ve been toying with the idea of closing my Facebook account for some time. For now, I am still on Facebook, because I want to be accessible to people. But as soon as we get a viable, decentralised network that values privacy, I am jumping ship.

For me, twitter is still a bit of a free space. It doesn’t have a viable business model yet, which means to a large extent you’re still free to make what you want of it. If Facebook is full of people you know but wish you didn’t, twitter is people you don’t know, but wish you did. Twitter is a news source, rather than a social network, but the quality of interaction I get there is much better than Facebook. On Facebook, I get idiotic comments from god botherers I haven’t seen in 20 years; on twitter I get intelligent – or at least funny – comment from strangers.

A social network is a great utility – it is very useful to me to be able to easily keep in touch with people I care about. The fact that I live far from where I grew up makes this doubly important. We are who we are through our relations with other people, and my sense of identity suffers when I am isolated from people who know me.

But maybe allowing old relationships to fade away instead of keeping them artificially alive on Facebook is the better approach.

 

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Nikki Reynolds permalink
    January 17, 2011 6:08 am

    Hello Red Star:
    My Facebook account was randomly disabled about two weeks ago.My account was used mainly to keep up with friends and family living far away and I confess that I never gave Facebook much thought until they hijacked it and sent it into some cyber sink hole. On mission to restore my account, I discovered that FB has no customer service, and has a dark side I was completely ignorant of. As I searched Google to educate myself, I found your blog and your thought provoking commentary on FB. Thank you for your insightful take on the customer is the product.Brilliant!I may eventually get my account restored, but I will never look at Facebook the same again!

  2. February 25, 2011 12:52 pm

    I assume you’re aware of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTlYJ8EWMgo, which is based on this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nbvzbj4Nhtk ?. After which comes FB of course…

  3. Karen Young permalink
    April 28, 2011 6:22 pm

    Young v. Facebook
    Facebook Account Deletion Lawsuit
    http://facebookaccountdeletion.blogspot.com/2011/02/facebook-account-deletion-lawsuit.html
    Or, write to – mskbyoungblog@aol.com

  4. May 7, 2011 8:00 pm

    “If Facebook is full of people you know but wish you didn’t, twitter is people you don’t know, but wish you did”

    What a fabulously accurate phrase!

  5. May 10, 2011 5:29 am

    Good post – mirrors some of the thoughts I’ve also been having for a few months. Also quite tempted to close my FB account, though it’s now quite an active portal for a NGO I’m involved with – so not sure how to keep that community strong while avoiding the downsides. Perhaps I might just keep using it as a ‘page’, but ‘unfriend’ everyone, and stop ‘liking’, etc. In general, though, your observation on the value of Twitter is spot-on – much better interaction, and also a far more efficient source of news, commentary etc.

  6. Alan M permalink
    May 10, 2011 8:00 am

    Facebook vs. real relationships is a false dichotomy. I think it weakens the core of your argument here. The problem with Facebook is not how it replaces relationships with something more superficial – it clearly doesn’t.

    It’s that it uses its popularity (which is caused by its utility) as a data-mining opportunity for groups that we may not wish to support. The lack of interest in users as customers but rather as sources of revenue for their true customers, the corporations as you rightly point out, is the sole problem with Facebook.

    The existence of social networking creates new ways of interacting – just as the telephone and widespread literacy did in their turn. They did not erase previous forms of interaction.

    And just as phone companies in many countries were state-owned monopolies (not a useful enterprise for the state to control), Facebook is a monopoly simply because of its ubiquity. That’s why I opted back in. There is no choice.

    • May 10, 2011 7:51 pm

      Hi Alan

      I disagree with you. I think social networking is a wonderful thing, and I have no problem with technology facilitating my interactions with other people. I prefer to meet in person, of course, but social networks are a wonderful way to interact with people you can’t see because of distance.

      It’s Facebook in particular that’s a problem. My relationships with other people are the most precious thing I have. The fact that they are mediated by a company that uses me as a nothing but a data source really is a problem – I keep getting that image from the Matrix in my mind, of Zuckerberg feeding on our relationships.

      I am not particularly paranoid about surveillance and privacy, but it’s worth noting Assange’s recent comments about Facebook being a massive spy machine for the US Government. In East Germany the Stasi went to great lengths to monitor people – we are happy to fill in databases for the security services ourselves. And the recent Facebook purge shows it is subject to political influence.

      The West is in financial and existential crisis, and civil liberties are already threatened as a dying empire clings to power. I think this will probably get worse, and I don’t want to be exposed more than absolutely necessary. Also, Facebook is an instrument of US, and neoliberal, soft power, and it’s a post modern space I don’t want to inhabit. Clicking on ‘like’ is not, for me, human interaction. It’s a vacuous commodification of our most intimate relationships.

      I also don’t like what Facebook does to me: we are interested in The Lives of Others, and so it turns me into a voyeur (and I suspect I am not alone in this). Far healthier, I think, to actually ask people about their lives than to cyber stalk them.

      Also, I do think there is a degree of either or: I think people make less of an effort to connect in meat space because of Facebook. It makes us lazy, and we are not really there for each other in the ways we should be.

      And there certainly are choices. Before Facebook, I scheduled regular Skype calls with people who were far away, or just spoke on the phone. Also, the development of web 3.0, which embeds metadata in our online actions, means we will be less tied to individual services, as our different online identities are increasingly able to talk to each other. Facebook is a ghetto, and part of a developing “splinternet” where we are separated from people who use different services.

      We need a social network that is open source, secure, and distributed over peer to peer connections so that our data is not stored on anyone’s servers. I am hoping that when Incliq launches, it will be all of this.

      In the meantime, email, twitter and identica are fine for me.

  7. Margaret Sutherland permalink
    May 10, 2011 9:43 pm

    Hi, Walton, As ever your views are always ahead of the game. I think you may have been a bit suspicious of me in the past, but you should know that all I have ever cared about is people helping others to help themselves and obviously I know from your posts that that is what you want too.

    Margaret

  8. Kair permalink
    June 13, 2011 2:47 pm

    cyber-stalkers, interesting. I always thought of FB as consensual voyerism. I am just grateful to see that my non-engagement with FB has some resonance with others
    now I wish all those blogging and comment websites would stop bugging me to comment through FB, oh, wait, here is another one…
    thanks for the guest log in

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