Mark Andrejevic on Wed, 7 Mar 2012 10:11:06 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> The $100bn Facebook question: Will capitalism survive 'value abundance'?

Facebook's biggest problem, at the moment, is to live up to its reported $100 billion valuation -- a big challenge for a company whose material assets and actual revenues fall far short of warranting such a big number. So brace yourself Facebookers, for increasingly aggressive forms of "monetization"! 

I heartily agree with Brian that understanding how the "subtler forms of domination work" is an important task in the emerging online economy. Not so much because I'm particularly anxious about the forms of exploitation to which Facebook users are subjected -- more because I'm concerned about how these fit in with an exploitative system that continues to rely on brutal de-humanization, immiseration, and direct violence and cruelty. I'm particularly sensitive to the critique (which has been repeatedly directed toward me) that it's hard to get worked up about the ways in which people who are spending hours of "free" time networking with friends and posting photos of themselves are "labouring" under conditions of exploitation and appropriation. Why not spend our time worrying about "real" forms of brutal exploitation -- there is certainly enough of this to go around? But the more I think about this critique, the more I'm worried about the way in which it fetishizes and abstracts the Social Web from the larger system of which it is a part -- indeed it reproduces a series of potentially misleading rhetorics about the new "information economy", the "attention economy", "immaterial labour" and so on that posit a clear discontinuity between what takes place online and off (or in the "new" economy vs. the "old"). I'm less sanguine about the  notion that there is a discontinuity or a qualitative shift taking place. If you boil it down, the valuation of Facebook is based on the promise of the power of the social graph and detailed forms of targeting and data-mining to do what? To serve the needs of advertisers. What needs? To move products and sell services. There may be all kinds of fascinating networking going on, but in economic terms, Facebook is about selling cars and iPads, mobile phones, diet supplements, beverages, and so on. OK, it's also about selling online dating services -- but I'm not yet ready to imagine that these online services are going to eclipse and displace the non-virtual, non-"affective", quite material forms of production upon which the capitalism continues to rely.

I enjoyed the way Brian frames the capture of user data: as a form of enjoyment in getting ripped off as you walk down the street, though I'd probably qualify it. Facebook (and other social media companies) harvest data as part of their terms of entry. It's like those nightclubs that stipulate on your way in that, by the very act of entering, you agree to be photographed and have your image used in any way they see fit. If you don't like it, don't come in. It just so happens that this nightclub is the one where all your friends are, where your history is -- it's one that you've devoted a lot of time and effort to helping construct, and if you went somewhere else you wouldn't be able to take either your friends or the fruits of that labour with you. Because it's a privately owned "space," Facebook can set the terms. As Marx observed, separation begets separation: once you have a privately owned commercial site, the privatization of that platforms allows for the appropriation and privatization of what takes place on it. This is why the post about how venture capital shapes what types of applications get developed is, to my mind, right on target. Social media companies argue that acceptance of terms of use constitutes a kind of informed consent of the terms on offer: turning your pockets inside-out to get into the club, but this is a vexed argument for a number of reasons: a) people don't understand the terms b) people know they're going to use the site so they don't even bother to read them c) the terms change all the time d) the terms are so vague has to cover almost anything.  To the extent that participation in such sites becomes a requirement for particular kinds of jobs, the "freedom" of this exchange is further called into question.

So the economic model of Facebook is predicated on the promise of advertising, and that, in turn, is predicated on other parts of the economy devoted to selling goods and services. Advertisers would like us (as opposed to their clients) to believe that advertising and marketing don't really affect us, except insofar as they perform the service of informing us about goods and services we might be interested in. In fact, advertising had a crucial role to play in transforming the US (amongst others) into a consumer society over the course of the 20th century, which meant changing patterns of domestic production and consumption, changing expectations regarding levels of consumption, and encouraging patterns of debt and spending associated with this shift. It was not the sole cause of these shifts, but played an important role (see Roland Marchand's work). It's easy to imagine that particular ads don't affect us (by saying things like "I never look at them"), but they do much more than deliver specific messages about specific products: they colonize our physical and media environment building the types of associations that we come to take for granted over time. People who tell me they never watch ads can easily rattle off the brand alphabet (  or , depending on generation and location). 

Research indicates that children can identify brands before they learn to read -- and brands themselves serve as a kind of crafted shorthand for a series of associations.  I don't think we should downplay the role that advertising plays in creating our shared culture. Anyone who has studied the media knows that commercial imperatives don't just shape advertising, they shape the content to which we are exposed. The need to please advertisers dictates what types of news and entertainment programming people are exposed to -- not just the ads that they might skip. It's worth asking the same question about social media: how do advertising imperatives shape the search the information environment to which we are exposed (Eli Pariser makes some strong claims about this in The Filter Bubble)? It's no accident that Facebook only allows you to "like" things, that its algorithms are reportedly designed to maximize its commercial imperatives over other possible goals such as fostering informed citizenship, etc.

Just as it's misleading to try to break off the online economy from the material offline one upon which it relies, it is misleading to break advertising off from the forms of content it shapes and the information structures it supports.

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