Facebook’s poor, huddled masses
“Whosoever hath, to him shall be given”, said Matthew (13:12) – a text for our times, and if it were a Facebook status, I would like it to death.
Facebook’s IPO at the end of last week valued the company at $104 billion. It netted $16 billion, the biggest haul from an initial offering after General Motors and Visa. It added some more heft to founder Mark Zuckerberg’s bank balance, now weighing in at about $17 billion. Others who were in at the creation were propelled deep into multimillionaire land.
But us? Those of us, nearly a billion of us, who spend (if we’re American) some 20 percent of our online time on Facebook are more likely to get poorer than richer from the Facebook experience. “Whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away, even that which he hath,” continued Matthew, illogically, but correctly.
Facebook has proved, at least enough for a market looking desperately for star stocks that it’s an alchemy company. Even if the market turned a little tepid after the launch, the company has shown that it can turn socializing into gold. Its business – a business as light as the air, as insubstantial as a little gossip – is the monetizing of relationships. And this, as the company and many, many of its users will claim, is win-win. Look how much richer Facebook is making social life; look at the friendships you form, and how quickly; look what you give them – in news, gossip, pictures, thoughts, and look what it gives you: the ability to do all that, for free.
Yet here’s how Facebook can make us poor.
I have a friend – the real kind – who is an aspiring actor. In a recent conversation, he mentioned his fear that his Facebook activity might prove embarrassing if he becomes well-known.
Borrowing from Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello – one of Shakespeare’s towering monsters who gets even better lines than the hero – we reminded ourselves of the much quoted lines: “he that filches from me my good name/Robs me of that which not enriches him/And makes me poor indeed.” A “good name” is a fragile thing today: destroyed by a tabloid sting – or a Facebook entry.
I (not a Facebook user) recommended that my friend close his account if he was so worried. He looked at me with some irritation, dusted with pity for one who had only friends, not “friends.” How could he quit? The information for his social life was there, and increasingly, for his professional life. He who leaves Facebook leaves his world. He cannot get off, yet he fears impoverishment in later life if he stays on.
Facebook makes us attention-poorer, too. There are so many hours in the day, and into these hours we must fit our work, our affections, our enjoyments and that which engages our minds. Many of us have engaged our minds in reading: sinking into stories that transport us for hours, days, weeks.
But now these habits of deep reading are distracted. In a much-noticed piece in the Atlantic in August 2008, a brief version of his 2011 book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr said that the Net and all the technologies associated with it – of which Facebook, with Google, is among the most powerful – change not just the way we read but the way we think. Readers become “bouncers” who jump between messages promiscuously, either because these are brought to our attention with a beep on the phone or a blip on the screen, or because we have become so scatterbrained that a few minutes of reading needs the relief of something completely different. Citing a piece of research from University College London, Carr quotes the UCL researchers’ claim that “it is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense: Indeed, there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging, as users “power-browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts, going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.” (Emphasis mine.)
Is it so bad that we don’t read War and Peace but garner a hundred bits of purposeful (and purposeless) information, and maybe 20 more friends, along the way? What did War and Peace ever do for anyone? It doesn’t, after all, help you to be strong, beautiful or even good. It just means you’ve read War and Peace.
Yet it also means you’ve given yourself over to a story that has the power to move, and to force reflection – not just on the Franco-Russian war of 1812 but also on relationships, especially those of men and women; and on the nature of the force Tolstoy sees as driving events – a force he came to call God. A smart evil person could gain as much from War and Peace as a smart good one; both would likely end up as good or evil as they were when they began. But in that time of reading, the good and the evil were transported. If we are losing that, we are losing much.
And last, more literally, it makes us poorer by jolting us into consumption. Facebook gets its money by offering advertisers access to nearly a billion people. It will grow now as a public company, and satisfy its new and old investors, by monetizing that mass more effectively. Notwithstanding many challenges on the ethics of its behavior, Facebook believes it has been rather protective of its users’ privacy and that it helps make the world a better place by doing things like urging them to be organ donors.
Its value lies in the information the masses put up on the site, in all innocence, on what they like to do and see and hear and wear. It could, in theory, be a gold mine for advertisers because they can zero in with business-to-person precision, offering stuff that is so suited to one’s desires that you just have to have it. But to be that gold mine, which its new investors will demand, it must give companies more information on its users’ habits, desires and lifestyles.
It is, of course, up to us what we buy. We don’t have to get obese eating yet another piece of pie. But just as the numbers of those who are obese rise steadily, so the targeted ads will clutter up our houses and our brains, and drain our accounts. Facebook will have to monetize our relationships more effectively and more invasively – and it may already be doing so, with predictable effects: It’s being sued, for $15 billion, over allegations that it has improperly tracked the Internet use of its members.
For Facebook, and the 28-year-old Zuckerberg, now comes the harder part. As with Google, the information remorselessly gathered by its sleepless computers and pored over by its employees will come under closer scrutiny, as we begin to realize what we give away when we let so much hang out, and spend so much time doing it.
PHOTO: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, his image televised from company headquarters in Menlo Park, California, moments after the IPO launch in New York, May 18, 2012. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton