Lanchester (2017). You Are the Product.

Lanchester, J. (2017, August 17). You Are the Product. London Review of Books, pp. 3-10.

“Facebook’s mission used to be ‘making the world more open and connected’. A non-Facebooker reading that is likely to ask: why? Connection is presented as an end in itself, an inherently and automatically good thing. Is it, though? … For instance, Facebook is generally agreed to have played a big, perhaps even a crucial, role in the election of Donald Trump. The benefit to humanity is not clear. … the new mission statement spells out a reason for all this connectedness. It says that the new mission is to ‘give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together’.” (¶3)

“An internet entrepreneur I know has had dealings with both companies. ‘YouTube knows they have lots of dirty things going on and are keen to try and do some good to alleviate it,’ he told me. I asked what he meant by ‘dirty’. ‘Terrorist and extremist content, stolen content, copyright violations. That kind of thing. But Google in my experience knows that there are ambiguities, moral doubts, around some of what they do, and at least they try to think about it. Facebook just doesn’t care. …'” (¶5)

“Wu argues that capturing and reselling attention has been the basic model for a large number of modern businesses, from posters in late 19th-century Paris, through the invention of mass-market newspapers that made their money not through circulation but through ad sales, to the modern industries of advertising and ad-funded TV. Facebook is in a long line of such enterprises, though it might be the purest ever example of a company whose business is the capture and sale of attention. Very little new thinking was involved in its creation.” (¶8)

“In real life, Zuckerberg was studying for a degree with a double concentration in computer science and — this is the part people tend to forget — psychology. … He is very well aware of how people’s minds work and in particular of the social dynamics of popularity and status.” (¶9)

[Peter Thiel …]

“… there was a particular reason Facebook caught Thiel’s eye, rooted in a byway of intellectual history. In the course of his studies at Stanford — he majored in philosophy — Thiel became interested in the ideas of the US-based French philosopher René Girard, as advocated in his most influential book, _Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World_. Girard’s big idea was something he called ‘mimetic desire’. Human beings are born with a need for food and shelter. Once these fundamental necessities of life have been acquired, we look around us at what other people are doing, and wanting, and we copy them. In Thiel’s summary, the idea is ‘that imitation is at the root of all behaviour’.” (¶10)

“We are keen to be seen as we want to be seen, and Facebook is the most popular tool humanity has ever had with which to do that.” (¶11)

“For all the corporate uplift of its mission statement, Facebook is a company whose essential premise is misanthropic.” (¶12)

“The highest-profile recent criticisms of the company stem from its role in Trump’s election. There are two components to this, one of them implicit in the nature of the site, which has an inherent tendency to fragment and atomise its users into like-minded groups. The mission to ‘connect’ turns out to mean, in practice, connect with people who agree with you. We can’t prove just how dangerous these ‘filter bubbles’ are to our societies, but it seems clear that they are having a severe impact on our increasingly fragmented polity. Our conception of ‘we’ is becoming narrower.” (¶13)

“In the open air, fake news can be debated and exposed; on Facebook, if you aren’t a member of the community being served the lies, you’re quite likely never to know that they are in circulation. It’s crucial to this that 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. … If your only interest is in connecting people, why would you care about falsehoods? They might even be better than the truth, since they are quicker to identify the like-minded.” (¶14)

“In _Move Fast and Break Things_, his polemic against the ‘digital-age robber barons’, 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 Times_, _Washington Post_, _Huffington Post_, NBC News and others.’ This doesn’t sound like a problem Facebook will be in any hurry to fix.” (¶17)

“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. … We may collectively have an interest in sustaining creative and imaginative work in many different forms and on many platforms. Facebook doesn’t. … It is only now starting to care about the perception that much of the content is fraudulent, because if that perception were to become general, it might affect the amount of trust and therefore the amount of time people give to the site.” (¶18)

“… lots of willing providers: anyone on Facebook is in a sense working for Facebook, adding value to the company.” (¶20)

“Its news feed directs traffic at you based not on your interests, but on how to make the maximum amount of advertising revenue from you.” (¶22)

“After waking up to the importance of monetisation, they added to their own data a huge new store of data about offline, real-world behaviour, acquired through partnerships with big companies such as Experian, which have been monitoring consumer purchases for decades via their relationships with direct marketing firms, credit card companies, and retailers. There doesn’t seem to be a one-word description of these firms: ‘consumer credit agencies’ or something similar about sums it up.” (¶31)

“… 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.” (¶33)

“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. … 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.” (¶35)

“Facebook has done a huge amount to lower the quality of public debate and to ensure that it is easier than ever before to tell what Hitler approvingly called ‘big lies’ and broadcast them to a big audience.” (¶39)

“… social scientists at the company had deliberately manipulated some people’s news feeds to see what effect, if any, it had on their emotions. The resulting paper, published in the _Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences_, was a study of ‘social contagion’, or the transfer of emotion among groups of people, … These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks.'” (¶44)

“… _American Journal of Epidemiology_. The paper was titled ‘Association of Facebook Use with Compromised Well-Being: A Longitudinal Study’. The researchers found quite simply that the more people use Facebook, the more unhappy they are. … 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’. … they did go so far — unusually far — as to say that the data ‘suggests a possible trade-off between offline and online relationships’. … To sum up: there is a lot of research showing that Facebook makes people feel like shit.” (¶45)

“An early experiment came in the form of Free Basics, a program offering internet connectivity to remote villages in India, with the proviso that the range of sites on offer should be controlled by Facebook. ‘Who could possibly be against this?’ Zuckerberg wrote in the _Times of India_. The answer: lots and lots of angry Indians. The government ruled that Facebook shouldn’t be able to ‘shape users’ internet experience’ by restricting access to the broader internet. A Facebook board member tweeted that ‘anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?’ As Taplin points out, that remark ‘unwittingly revealed a previously unspoken truth: Facebook and Google are the new colonial powers.'” (¶47)

“That’s the crucial thing about Facebook, the main thing which isn’t understood about its motivation: it does things because it can.” (¶49)

Selected Notes

  • “6. … A paper from 2013 in Plos One showed that ‘Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults’: in other words, Facebook makes young people sad. A 2016 paper in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, entitled ‘The Facebook Experiment: Quitting Facebook Leads to Higher Levels of Well-Being’, found that Facebook makes people sad and that people were happier when they stopped using it.”

Selected References

  • Kramer, A. D., Guillory, J. E., & Hancock, J. T. (2014). Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(24), 8788-8790.
  • Kross, E., Verduyn, P., Demiralp, E., Park, J., Lee, D. S., Lin, N., … & Ybarra, O. (2013). Facebook use predicts declines in subjective well-being in young adults. PloS one, 8(8), e69841.
  • Martinez, A. G. (2017). Chaos Monkeys: Inside the Silicon Valley Money Machine. Ebury Publishing.
  • Shakya, H. B., & Christakis, N. A. (2017). Association of Facebook use with compromised well-being: a longitudinal study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 185(3), 203-211.
  • Taplin, J. (2017). Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy. Little, Brown.
  • Tromholt, M. (2016). The Facebook experiment: quitting facebook leads to higher levels of well-being. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 19(11), 661-666.
  • Wu, T. (2017). The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
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