The Social Network Facebook: The New Home of the Bourgeois Individual
[Translated from Gegenstandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 4-11, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich]
Facebook, the social network, has been extremely popular with its members: 900 million registered users worldwide tap away at their keyboards, making the site one of the most visited on the web. Facebook, the company, is no less in demand among investors: they look forward to its IPO, estimating its value at $100 billion.
But there are also critical voices: politicians and the media denounce the lack of data protection. The German Consumer Protection Minister has indignantly deleted her user account while warning users to be more careful with their data.
Meanwhile, the “Facebook generation” is said to have instigated the revolutions in the Arab world that have been named after it, thus having advanced global democracy a great deal. The Pirates, the recently founded German internet party, has congratulated them on it.
I. The user as a public persona: the really existing caricature of the bourgeois competitor and market participant
In principle, any Facebook user can decide for himself what purpose he wants to use the platform for. He can use it as a mere medium of personal communication, or as a means to establish and maintain a shared interest with like-minded people. Such a harmless use of the site almost borders on its misuse: the Facebook creators designed and developed it for a different purpose; and millions of users visit it everyday for exactly this purpose — which they understand quite correctly.
As soon as he has created his profile, the user, private person that he is, has already programmatically turned himself into a public persona: he takes the liberty to present himself to the world. He tells other users whatever he considers worth telling about himself: age, occupation, relationship status, family situation, hobbies, likes, dislikes, etc. He does not refrain from revealing everything about himself that in his opinion serves to distinguish his individuality. With the same liberty, he decides which circle his world on the net encompasses: the virtual ‘friends’ already won or added later, or maybe the entire global ‘community’? As things stand, it is the latter: After all, he wants to go public. So hardly has he logged on that he is part of the big, virtual Facebook universe. The mere possibility that his user profile can be clicked by millions of surfers honors his person — in the most conceivably abstract form.
But there is more to it: this individuality groomed for the public needs to be active and wants to be respected. The user needs to communicate with acquaintances in the virtual community from all around: “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life.” (www.facebook.com) This is exactly the point: messages are ‘pinned’ on one's own page as well as on other members’ pages, views and opinions are ‘posted,’ pictures uploaded, ‘events’ publicized, the ‘community’ is encouraged to comment on all this, messages from others are ‘shared’ and acknowledged with ‘like’ buttons or rejected with a ‘dislike’ note. Where ‘sharing’ defines the agenda, it is not the content of the information shared that matters: sharing trifling concerns of everyday life — extremely popular — is as significant for the user as is commenting on a celebrity’s gaffe or the explosion in a nuclear plant; all and everything is equally suitable for attracting attention from the virtual audience to oneself, and to create ‘feedback’ from the ‘community’; for the receiver of these messages, everything and anything is good enough to be relished as interesting or commented on in whatever way; that is, good enough to reply to the sender with an acknowledgement. The user has control over which details of his life he shares with the world: all his private moments and the public affairs he has made his own could possibly be considered worth sharing. In their randomness, all the interests, activities, feelings, and opinions have one quality in common: they are a means to portray the Self. It's all about publicly elaborating and cultivating one’s personality, and having it highly valued.
Appropriately, this is how the user takes note of the objective world: it serves as the material for his self-presentation, and he regards it — from the launch of a new fashion sneaker to the latest public appearance of the head of government — as a multifaceted offer which he takes the liberty ever anew to consider. This results in his arbitrary and selective view of the world, and in what, under which point of view, is important for him. The networker himself defines the perimeter of his outer world by expressing, acknowledging, and commenting on everything in the entire public arena he thinks worthy of sharing and being judged, and at the same time he creates, with the active support of the online community, a public sphere of his own, meant for him and his cosmos. Since public events of all kinds serve to distinguish the user’s personality, the ‘statements’ made and ‘feedback’ given with reference to them rarely go beyond the level of personal taste. Conveniently, Facebook provides the appropriate means of communication. Its simplest form is using the “like” button to say that this public event or another is, firstly, of significance to the user himself and, secondly, that it pleases him. Or the user ‘posts’ an unambiguously critical brief comment. Both suffice for everything it takes to foster the feeling that one is the center of one’s own, self-defined world.
Not only is the image created about oneself on the internet intended to be ’appreciated’ in the constant network chatter. Successfully acquiring ‘friends’ results in quantifiable recognition. Potential candidates can be found aplenty in the network exchange with likeminded people. Or one can have them recommended by the system’s computers that use highly personalized criteria. If a net-mate is considered worthy of friendship, he is offered friendship status; if the offer is accepted, the user obtains what all his net activity was aimed at — he is appreciated as what he views and presents himself: as a personality. Conversely, his counterpart is pleased that he was found worthy of the new tie. If they want, all parties can glean their success in terms of appreciation by the ‘community’ from a very appropriate yardstick: the number of friends is recorded in the user profile at a prominent position. The concept of friendship is turned on its head: it is not based on sharing a common interest. Facebook friends become friends because their purpose is to become friends; this is what they have in common. Facebook programmatically and thoroughly practices this paradox and instigates it. The reason for this need is not to be found there. People always try to gain interpersonal closeness in such an abstract form when they are demanding recognition for their private self. The people around them become the audience to whom they present their distinguished personality — whatever constitutes it — in order to win them over for oneself. Facebook provides the perfectly rationalized, worldwide, virtual platform for this competition of the bourgeois individual for recognition. And in this sense, the operators of the network never tire of inventing ever more adequate, that is, more absurd forms of communication between their members: calling attention to oneself is possible even by regularly posting the coordinates of one’s very personal current location on the globe; or by ‘poking’ — the virtual nudge. The SELF reports to his ‘friends’: “It’s me, I exist, I’m right here!” This merits a “Real cool!” reply — after all, the message was not meant for just anyone…
The Facebook designers, however, still deny their users one button: the “dislike” button. It doesn’t fit the good image of the network that wants to convey an entirely positive attitude towards life. As for the actual use of their website, their ideal of harmony is rather off the mark: not only do millions of members — of course on yet another Facebook page especially set up for that purpose — testify to that by vehemently calling for the introduction of the “Yuck!” button; but also the extremely popular exchange of spiteful comments about anybody or anything, all the way to programmatic assaults on other users by ‘posting’ and ‘sharing’ degrading “content” in droves. Those are not, however, inexplicable gaffes; these kinds of messages belong to the Facebook world: the most effective way to make oneself important is still to bad-mouth the poor taste or slip-up of this celebrity or that classmate — preferably in unison with like-minded people. Recognizing one person and defaming the other form a matching pair: the competition for respect includes both sides. This competition, too, has its winners and losers.
Fostering the image of one’s own personality, assessing and appreciating each of the other personalities — this circle of mutual recognition unites the users in the ‘community.’ Participating in it can become both real and effective — not only in front of the screen! The need for it, in its entire abstractness, finds its appropriate form: the ‘flash mob,’ pure action, programmatically without meaning and purpose. “A flash mob is a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and seemingly pointless act for a brief time, then disperse, often for the purposes of entertainment, satire, and artistic expression.” (Wikipedia) In this manner, a ‘flash mob’ rides the subway back and forth between two stations until the police arrive. This suffices every time for the mutual proof that the community that one wants to be part of really exists. The identity of the user is complete. But only for the time being.
The outward display of privacy has a counterpart that is recognizable through all of Facebook’s distortions: the market participant.
The reason for this opportunity to present oneself on Facebook ad nauseam as a distinguished personality does not lie in the widespread drive toward self-revelation. There is an entirely different interest in the user that enables him to do this: he is interesting as a prospective customer; he represents spending power that a company tries to attract. Thus he himself — or more accurately, his data — are coveted by all those who want to sell their wares to the customer and thus pocket a profit. Facebook has an attractive offer for them. The possession of the data of umpteen million Facebook ‘members’ and their further utilization increases the chances — though it doesn’t guarantee them — of sellers of goods around the globe increasing their sales. For their marketing purposes, they don’t have to stop at purchasing names, birth dates, and addresses from Facebook. Its business model is based on the complete subsumption, under the category of customer, not only of the user profiles, but of any of the members’ activities ever shown on the platform. This is the billion-dollar link between private chatter and the great commercial trade. Whatever the user may think of the marketers’ interest in him — nothing at all, at the start — once he has logged on, he can’t escape the logic of profit-making. After all, his goal is nothing other than making himself a public person with all his needs, tastes and preferences. As the economic character that represents demand, i.e., the willingness to part with his money, he is the object of commercial interest to such an extent that any message ‘posted,’ any text line in the ‘chat’ forum, and any info on the ‘pinboard’ is considered relevant. The sets of data thus obtained are screened and further processed, adding more pieces to his ever-refined marketing profile as a prospective customer. This profile can then be utilized: for personalized banner ads for the bridal shop around the corner, to the global campaign of the sneaker manufacturer that no Facebook teenager will ever be able to ignore. The competition for market share raises the figure of the consumer, who is commonly concerned with making ends meet, to the level of coveted supplier of data which is used to coax him with targeted promotions.
For this end, every possible user datum is gathered; software developers work at developing ever better — of course user-friendly — opportunities to enable users’ coming out; Facebook saves all data in its archives, even those previously deleted, and tracks members’ entire surfing behavior including that of their guests who are not part of the network; and so on and so forth. On the basis of this collection of data, Mark Zuckerberg calls on the businessmen of the world: “Be part of the conversation!” They don’t have to be told twice, and they become members of the ‘community’ themselves, pay a visit to the pages of the target groups whose data they have acquired, place application programs there, welcome their fans on their ‘fan pages’ and simply chatter along until the self-presenters-cum-consumers with money to spend have forgotten which of these two characters they really are. And at the same time, Facebook has assigned them another role: being interactive consumers of marketing and promotion, they themselves become communicators of the same.
In every respect, the dominant economic interest shapes the user: as the perfectly exploitable object of its profit making.
The commercial cooperation of Facebook and the marketing industry has its solid foundation in the capitalist identity of the bourgeois individual: he can satisfy his needs only if he has first, as a buyer, completed the business of the commodity owners who compete for his purchasing power; this is because all the material things he uses and consumes are commodities and thus withheld from him. No sooner does he theorize about his preferences than he is mentally in the world of commodities, which is given to him, which continually invents new fashions and trends and creates new needs in order to drain his money from his pockets, and which, in effect, shapes and creates the preferences and tastes of the consumer. From the point of view of the market economy, there is nothing more appropriate than Facebook congenially tying the self-presenter styling himself as a public persona together with the customer, two initially disparate characters. For they intrinsically belong together.
The vast majority of users are quite happy with this: they feel well served. They would find the notion that they are a means of profit-making to be absurd. They see it the other way round: from an overwhelming range of goods, they are at last offered precisely those that suit them. They translate the marketing interest in them into their freedom to be able to roam their world of goods, and to have at their disposal all the products offered to them — at least notionally — that ultimately were made for them and because of them. There is no reason to complain about the marketing efforts if they accurately reflect your own tastes and lifestyle. With self-confidence — the structure of their needs adapted by the marketing departments of the big brands and the small ones, too, to the company’s sales interest — users live up to the idea that they created their lifestyle themselves and use business to cultivate it.
If it all gets out of hand, King Customer quickly turns critical: too much marketing, wrong marketing! Then it means more interacting, personally visiting the websites of his ‘brands,’ and hitting the ‘like’ button… But criticism can also become more fundamental. A small minority see their freedom on the web damaged. They insist that the social network is their playground, and the business that created it and maintains it must not degrade them to a mere object. Paradoxically, they point out that it is still their own data that they themselves take the liberty to make public. They seek the right relation between freedom for all on the net, and data protection, and find support from consumer protection officials.
II. Everything for the user: new laws and educating the people
Communication in social networks raises a lot of legal questions. Some are traditional: insult and slander have to be prosecuted, especially if they degenerate into ‘mobbing’ (bullying). But to a far greater extent appear those of a more recent kind, arising from the commercial use of the endless stream of data on the net. The members of the ‘community’ do not simply tap away on their keyboards; in the process and whether they want it or not, they are attributed a property-like right over their data vis-à-vis their peers, that is, all other competing entities — in this case the network provider and its customers.
The state guardian of the rules of competition, in the form of its officially employed data and consumer protection agencies, sees this legal position quite generally affected when such new practices find their way into its society that enormous amounts of all kinds of personal data are intentionally put on public display on platforms such as Facebook, and are gathered by the network operators and used for commercial purposes. This raises questions. Is it sufficient to reinterpret and strictly enforce existing laws? Or does the law need to be changed when substantial parts of the population, by means of a simple click, release all their data entered now and in the future for commercial purposes? Should such a click have the capacity to effectively license such permission? Don’t the legal consequences to which the user agrees have to be made much clearer? How can it be that data deleted on the network remain on the servers of the network operators, and that Facebook’s ‘like’ button, distributed across the internet and standing in the merciless crossfire of public criticism, be used to collect even the data of nonmembers? In short: is the user’s granted position in terms of data rights, this special molding of the state-defined competitor, still protected or not? Is his legally protected free will respected or not? Those responsible have their doubts and press for action.
The need for action arises not only because of the insatiable hunger of the data-monster, Facebook, but especially because of the peculiarity of the user who is the owner of a right he chooses to ignore. Instead of — as is their normal custom — insisting on their right, users virtually fly in the face of it by making their own personal data known to anybody on the net, permanently and without constraints. While the state makes the citizens’ private sphere a legal interest, the citizens disregard their privacy because all that matters to them is presenting their own personality.
So it is high time for those responsible for data protection — as befits governmental bodies — not only to lash out at Facebook and urge it to comply with existing laws and voluntary self-regulation, to threaten to tighten up legislation or, if necessary, to introduce new bills. In addition, the nation needs to be taught a lesson: users should kindly remember that in all their ‘posting’ and ‘messaging’ they are still operating as legal persons in a competitive society; that the state as guardian of the market economy has had its own good reasons to set up rules about who has to reveal what information about himself to whom, and which information to withhold; that all the internet drivel about everything and everybody along with publicly displayed online photo albums not only invite burglars and pedophiles but may indirectly have legal consequences in the nonvirtual world of the bourgeois struggle for survival. After all, authorities such as bosses, prospective employers, teachers, landlords, or health insurers shouldn’t always get to know everything. Politicians reprimand their internet-using citizens: kindly compete as the legal persons we define you as, and do not carelessly waive the rights we grant you for protecting your competitive position! Rights are not granted by the state for the fun of it — you’re supposed to exercise them!
III. And to top it off: the “Facebook generation” makes revolutions and rejuvenates democracy
The digital, central organ for self-presentation and commerce has even brought about political effects of a completely different, much higher sort: the comprehensive communication it enables is claimed to have produced and spread the freedom-loving, democratic spirit of an entire, young generation in the Arab world, a spirit that has erupted in uprisings and successful coups d’état.
Does one need to be reminded, however, that no rebellion, in Egypt or elsewhere, can be explained by the means of communication by which it is organized? Certainly, the “dead-end youths” who gathered on Facebook and other platforms on the internet mutually confirmed and generalized their dissatisfaction. Such a network is definitely as appropriate for disseminating political revulsion against an unjust and corrupt leader and his ruling entourage as it is appropriate for the call “to do something on Tahrir,” particularly because no further formation of a political consensus> is required for this kind of protest. The internet serves as a vehicle for discontent. The content of the protest, however, does not arise from its medium: it is to be found in the explanation the rebellious Arab masses find for their miserable living conditions. Nor is the ability to stir up trouble caused by its distribution channel via social networks. And to make the web an effective instrument of “Arabellion” — i.e., totally or partly escaping the grip of state power — a little more than the workings of a “free spirit” within it is required. It needs rather more substantial support: without the help of foreign agencies such as NGOs or secret services, who have the technology and the money to keep the network operational, the insurgents would soon have gone ‘offline.’ Apart from this, the leading Western powers have long discovered Facebook as a means for their propaganda. In this publicly accessible way, they teach their peoples around the world ever new reasons for dissatisfaction, and the right type, too, which they should turn against their rulers.
The ideologues of the World Wide Web in homelands of the capitalist world, however, by no means want to see the social networks reduced to an effective means for transporting and distributing opinions, and to a medium of conspiracy. The success of the Arab rebellions demonstrates for them precisely the power they ascribe to the networks. They adopt the riots as “Facebook revolutions” and declare them to be an expression of the liberal and democratic spirit that users create and imbue worldwide. They cite the Arab riots as evidence of the liberating power of an extensive public sphere: with the internet in general and social networks in particular as a means of unrestricted communication between citizens, and the creation of complete transparency of government action, any authority can be deprived of the ability to undertake secret, undemocratic machinations, and can be urged back onto the path of true democracy.
What is entirely left in the dark, however, is how the possibility of critically examining a government is at the same time supposed to guarantee its benevolence. The fact that in Western democracies, all hardships officially decreed by the government are publicly flogged to death, has, in any case, never spared any of their targeted population anything. Even if the doings of political rule have been made known (and the public is informed about them), it is still necessary to assess and judge it. In the Arab world as in the home countries of democracy, all channels of public and private communication — and no matter how autonomous they are — are nothing in themselves, and are worth just as much as what one knows to tell the world by using them.
© GegenStandpunkt 2012