Values

Facebook, Surveillance, and Unhappiness

If you’re still not sure if Facebook is evil, read John Lanchester’s “You Are the Product” (London Review of Books, August 17, 2017). TL;DR? Here are my favorite excerpts:

“No human enterprise, no new technology or utility or service, has ever been adopted so widely so quickly [as Facebook]. The speed of uptake far exceeds that of the internet itself, let alone ancient technologies such as television or cinema or radio.

“… the company is the fifth most valuable in the world, with a market capitalisation of $445 billion. …

[An internet entrepreneur on ethical problems:] “Facebook just doesn’t care. When you’re in a room with them you can tell. They’re’ – he took a moment to find the right word – ‘scuzzy’. …”

 

On fake news:

“Facebook has no financial interest in telling the truth. No company better exemplifies the internet-age dictum that if the product is free, you are the product. Facebook’s customers aren’t the people who are on the site: its customers are the advertisers who use its network and who relish its ability to direct ads to receptive audiences. Why would Facebook care if the news streaming over the site is fake? Its interest is in the targeting, not in the content. …

“Facebook works hard at avoiding responsibility for the content on its site – except for sexual content, about which it is super-stringent. Nary a nipple on show. It’s a bizarre set of priorities, which only makes sense in an American context. …

“Jonathan Taplin points to an analysis on Buzzfeed: ‘In the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York TimesWashington PostHuffington Post, NBC News and others.’ This doesn’t sound like a problem Facebook will be in any hurry to fix. …”

Why artists and makers should care:

“The fact is that fraudulent content, and stolen content, are rife on Facebook, and the company doesn’t really mind, because it isn’t in its interest to mind. Much of the video content on the site is stolen from the people who created it. … in 2015, 725 of Facebook’s top one thousand most viewed videos were stolen. This is another area where Facebook’s interests contradict society’s. We may collectively have an interest in sustaining creative and imaginative work in many different forms and on many platforms. Facebook doesn’t.

…[FB] isn’t too keen on anyone apart from Facebook making any money from that content. Over time, that attitude is profoundly destructive to the creative and media industries. … If the content providers all eventually go broke, well, that might not be too much of a problem. There are, for now, lots of willing providers: anyone on Facebook is in a sense working for Facebook, adding value to the company. In 2014, the New York Times did the arithmetic and found that humanity was spending 39,757 collective years on the site, every single day. …

Lanchester follows this by citing the hollowing out of the music and journalism industries.

This goes to the heart of the question of what Facebook is and what it does. For all the talk about connecting people, building community, and believing in people, Facebook is an advertising company.

Taking Tim Wu’s lead, Lanchester explains a shift from growth (increasing the number of users) to monetization (how to make money off us). The first was spurred by its IPO. The second relates to how users are now mostly on mobile devices, and how to connect multiple identities and Experian and other bureaus to track you in an unprecedented manner:

So Facebook knows your phone ID and can add it to your Facebook ID. It puts that together with the rest of your online activity: not just every site you’ve ever visited, but every click you’ve ever made – the Facebook button tracks every Facebook user, whether they click on it or not. Since the Facebook button is pretty much ubiquitous on the net, this means that Facebook sees you, everywhere. Now, thanks to its partnerships with the old-school credit firms, Facebook knew who everybody was, where they lived, and everything they’d ever bought with plastic in a real-world offline shop. All this information is used for a purpose which is, in the final analysis, profoundly bathetic. It is to sell you things via online ads.

What this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.

Lanchester also mentions a shocking habit of price-gouging based on users’ class status. See the article to read it.

What can be done?

Perhaps the biggest potential threat to Facebook is that its users might go off it. … as we’ve seen in the disappearance of Myspace, the onetime leader in social media, when people change their minds about a service, they can go off it hard and fast.

The other thing that could happen at the level of individual users is that people stop using Facebook because it makes them unhappy. … The researchers found quite simply that the more people use Facebook, the more unhappy they are. A 1 per cent increase in ‘likes’ and clicks and status updates was correlated with a 5 to 8 per cent decrease in mental health. In addition, they found that the positive effect of real-world interactions, which enhance well-being, was accurately paralleled by the ‘negative associations of Facebook use’. … To sum up: there is a lot of research showing that Facebook makes people feel like shit.

This article provided much-needed perspective and a reconnection to media studies and cultural criticism, which was hugely influential on me in the 1990’s and aughts. I loved that Lanchester mentioned Neil Postman. The 90’s anti-corporate and anti-advertising ethos seems anachronistic against today’s influencers and sponsored content. The landscape of what media is, how our daily experiences and culture are influenced by corporations and capitalism, has shifted so much in the past decade. I’m interested in further reading, especially Tim Wu’s “The Attention Merchants.”

I deactivated my Facebook account a few years ago. I realized that using Facebook lowered the quality of my life: it made my days feel worse. The level of discourse is low. I didn’t want to participate in a platform that single-handedly launched an industry of click-bait. The experience is highly mediated and manipulated. (Facebook’s tinkering with user’s emotions was a nadir.) It is addictive. It’s too easy to use FB to substitute for IRL interactions. I couldn’t allow such a counterproductive corporate product to undermine what I’d learned about positive psychology for maintaining psychological wellbeing.

It took some time to break the habit, but the longer I’m off Facebook, the easier it is. I have zero regrets about my decision.

I have only temporarily re-activated my account to engage art audiences in smaller cities. In Albuquerque and Wichita, locals told me that Facebook is the primary platform for connecting with art audiences online. Often they’d acknowledge that Facebook sucks, but there’s no alternative. I would encourage small art organizations (including artist-run collectives on the coasts) to post events on their websites, and not only on FB. I know FB is easy, but updating a website has never been easier.

I’m on Instagram and Twitter. As Instagram becomes more like Facebook (I’ve noticed the feed seems increasingly manipulated), I’ll look to disengage.

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