'Connecting the Dots', by James Robert Douglas

Illustration by Benjamin Urkowitz.

Facebook celebrated its tenth anniversary in February, an occasion it marked with the debut of a video feature it called ‘Look Back’. This feature, for those not in the know, allows Facebook users the option to have the website create an automated video celebrating their time using the site, with content culled from their pictures, status updates, and most-liked posts. Look Back represents a kind of dizzying vortex of Facebook strategy. The company already uses this information in order to sell their customers to the advertisers that float the business; now they are using that same information to sell back to their users the very experience of being on Facebook, a forthright emotional plea to ensure their continued use of the site.

The feature drew the attention of the bereaved. Facebook allows the ‘memorialisation’ of an account, in which friends or family can request that a deceased person’s profile be maintained on the site after their death. In a post on Facebook’s Newsroom blog, Facebook Community Operations workers Chris Price and Alex DiSlafani related the story of John Berlin from Missouri, who, in making the unanticipated request that a Look Back video be created for his deceased son, had “touched the hearts” of Facebook employees. Now the Look Back feature is available upon request to all memorialized accounts. Having made decisive strides in colonizing the lives of its users, Facebook now also follows them into death. It can, in effect, sell the Facebook experience back to a deceased person’s friends and family by appropriating the details of that person’s life.

In a status update commemorating the anniversary, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, in reflecting on his site’s success, concluded that Facebook “just cared more about connecting the world than anyone else.”

Facebook’s product is seventeen per cent of the global population.

In 2013, Facebook claimed to have 12 million monthly active users in Australia, or just over half the current population. Worldwide, it holds 1.23 billion monthly users. On the home page, under the exhortation to sign up for its service, Facebook proudly displays the adage: “[i]t’s free and it always will be.” But, as the saying goes, if you’re getting it for free then you’re the product. Facebook’s product is seventeen per cent of the global population.

Like Google, Facebook is in the business of advertising. It offers users the opportunity to pay to have their content promoted on Facebook in various ways, like moving a post higher up a person’s timeline, for instance. It also offers advertisers the opportunity to target their advertising at Facebook’s users. To do this, and in order to convince its clients that their money will be well spent, Facebook collects and analyses information on its users: their ‘likes’, the content of their posts or status updates, the various locations from which they access the service, and their behavior on other websites while away from Facebook. In this way, for instance, the company can know to market certain forms of medication on the profile page of an epileptic user, even though that person may have diligently avoided mentioning their condition on Facebook.

Google’s methods are similar, and its reach is similarly wide. In 2012, an estimated 1.17 billion people made searches on Google; its revenue amounted to $37.9 billion, 96 per cent of which came from advertising. Two of its main income streams are the AdWords and AdSense programs. AdWords offers advertisements shown alongside Google’s search results, related to key search terms (sometimes in the form of sponsored links). AdSense is a broader ‘content-targeted’ advertising service that analyses the content of a given webpage (like those hosted by the New York Times, for instance) to determine what kind of ads will best suit it. Like Facebook, Google is a ferocious analyst of its users’ behavior. Ads can be targeted to users with respect to the content of their Gmail accounts, their search history, and their general behavior online – right down to the amount of time their mouse cursor might have spent hovering over ads.

There are also hundreds of other companies that track Internet users’ behavior in order to create consumer profiles that can be sold on to advertisers. And, of course—as the information revealed by Edward Snowden helped to indicate—governments do something like this as well, with varying degree of lawfulness and morality.

On the whole, web users are unable or unwilling to effectively conceal themselves from these companies’ data collection mechanisms. Leaving aside people who use Tor and the like, Facebook and Google and other sites have a pretty accurate understanding of their users.

As described in Perspectives on Psychological Science—in the meta analysis ‘A Review of Facebook Research in the Social Sciences’—Facebook profiles have generally been found to present accurate representations of their subjects, despite the obvious opportunities to falsify information or massage personal impressions in other ways. In one study, strangers’ ratings of Facebook profiles corresponded more closely to an ‘accuracy criterion’ of the profile subjects’ self-rating and the rating of their known acquaintances than to the subject’s ideal-self rating, suggesting that the strangers could easily see through any self-aggrandising the users had undertaken on their profiles.

One plausible cause for this apparent accuracy could be due to the tendency of Facebook users to develop their roster of Facebook friends IRL first, thereby enhancing the likeliness that those friends will notice any bullshit, and enhancing the incentive to be truthful. Of course, social media technologies still allow their users the impression of psychological self-determination in this regard, since the sharing of personal information or material with ‘friends’ is in most respects a matter of choice. Google users don’t necessarily have the same luxury of choosing what to share or withhold from the search engine’s data collection. After all, web searches are usually more a private matter of expediency or necessity than one of public image cultivation.

Prognosticating the side effects of new media technologies is a tenuous cottage industry, and one that is liable to make its practitioners look out of touch (just ask Jonathan Franzen).

So, what are the consequences of an individual’s embroilment in the designs of companies like Facebook and Google? Well, prognosticating the side effects of new media technologies is a tenuous cottage industry, and one that is liable to make its practitioners look out of touch (just ask Jonathan Franzen), but a few things seem provisionally clear.

Facebook has been reported to be a contributor to its users’ feelings of happiness or loneliness, depending on their behaviour on the site. In that same meta-study from Perspective on Psychological Science, the authors Robert Wilson, Samuel Gosling, and Lindsay Graham write that users who passively view friends’ content reported feelings of increased loneliness and decreased social capital, while those who actively interacted with friends’ content reported the opposite.

Google has been known to tailor search results to best fit what it understands to be the preferences of the user. So, in theory, a search for ‘climate change’ could produce different (or differently ordered) results based on whether Google identifies the user as a partisan of, say, Christopher Monckton or Al Gore. This raises the concern, as Sue Halpern pointed out in her 2011 article ‘Mind Control and the Internet’ for The New York Review of Books, that personalized search results could artificially bolster the confirmation biases of its users. The concern that search engines are eroding their users’ capacity to retain information is also a popular fear.

So there are, at least, psychological consequences, and, as the Snowden imbroglio in part suggests, legal and moral ones as well. But there is surely an existential dimension that bears consideration as well. What does it mean for the self to be interpellated as a product by the economic mechanism of sites like Facebook and Google? A Marxian perspective, here, is a useful one.

The alienated condition of humanity is a core aspect of Marx’s analysis of capitalism. Loosely described, alienation refers to the relation under capitalism of each individual to their life’s ‘work’, or whatever it is they do, or produce. A loaf of bread to a baker—in capitalism—is not just the baker’s breakfast (or lunch or dinner), but also, maybe, it is equivalent to a dozen of her neighbour’s eggs, or six dollar coins, or $6.00. The baker is thus alienated from her work – it is no longer hers, and the work itself carries a whole load of meanings, like value, that are not intrinsic to it. This state of affairs produces a general condition of competition. Each work possesses a surplus value that is redeemable only in exchange with another work, creating an incentive for trade for profit. Class tension inevitably follows, and, in this way, each person is also alienated from her fellows.

In the mode of being resulting from alienation, Marx writes in Gesamtausgabe, the whole of society has gone topsy-turvy: a person’s works—previously the natural expression of their identity—now “appears to him (sic) as a torment, his own creation as an alien power, his wealth as poverty, the essential bond linking him with other men as an unessential bond, and separation from his fellow men, on the other hand, as his true mode of existence.”

The commodification of internet users by Google and Facebook can therefore be understood as another wrinkle in the saga of the alienation of the individual under capitalism.

The commodification of internet users by Google and Facebook can therefore be understood as another wrinkle in the saga of the alienation of the individual under capitalism. Marx doesn’t necessarily make a distinction between a person’s leisure time and their labour time (in his thinking, producing stuff seems to be something like the essence of humanity) but it could be said that in this current phase the cleavage between a person’s leisure time and their working day now comes closest to being erased. The value of the Facebook user to Facebook is not extracted from something they make or produce (as, say, the value of the shoe factory employee is to the factory owner), but in the very fact of their going about their personal, private activities.

To the alienation of the self from the products and purpose of labour, these current circumstances now add the alienation of the self from leisure and personal activity. It’s no accident that those studies on the happiness of Facebook users couch their results in terms of the participants increased or decreased feelings of social capital. The intrusion of the logic of capitalism into the realm of private behaviour can now be seen as wholly complete (if it wasn’t before).

Friendship, affection, interest, curiosity, hobbies, human life: these are the products monetised by Facebook and Google. In one way, this looks like a pleasant convenience. The acquisition of goods and services is, under this model, not always a matter of labour—backbreaking and time-consuming—but rather a matter of passivity. The cost of using Facebook is, by some invisible mechanism, activated as advertisements or packets of content, which the user is at liberty to attend to or ignore, as they choose.

But there’s something unbearably totalising about this state of affairs. The distinction between work and play (already precarious under capitalism, in which choices of leisure activities are determined, to a large part, by market conditions) is here almost completely eroded. A worker’s time ‘off-the-clock’, so to speak, is now, if they are a Facebook or Google user, still spent producing value. To share pictures of an infant child, to reconnect with distant family, to find out screenings time for the latest blockbusters, to search for gainful employment: to do all these things is to be, in some existential sense, on the job.

But the rhetoric of exploitation is not often applied to this state of affairs. Part of this could be due to the language Facebook and Google use as they explain their business. Both companies are on a relentless drive for new users. In that tenth anniversary post Zuckerberg bemoans all the world citizens that are still outside the reach of Facebook. “Today”, he writes, “only one-third of the world’s population has access to the internet.” He believes that in the next decade people will “have the opportunity and the responsibility to connect the other two-thirds.” Google has also employed this two-thirds-unconnected mantra. Each company has announced ambitious plans to reach that poor unconnected two-thirds by cloaking the entire globe in wifi. In 2013 Google unveiled its project Google Loon: a series of solar powered wireless signal generators that might be carried on balloons floating through the stratosphere. In March this year Facebook revealed its Connectivity Lab, a group with similar aims that might deliver wireless networks signals by laser, or satellite, or even by drone.

The verb ‘to connect’ carries a heavy load of meaning in this context, a lot of it concealed.

The verb ‘to connect’ carries a heavy load of meaning in this context, a lot of it concealed. A person can ‘connect’ to the internet, and use the internet to ‘connect’ with their friends, family, and interests. But in doing so they are also ‘connected’ as a link in the chain of products collated and sold to advertisers. This altruistic, inclusive sentiment conceals a desire to extract these individuals’ identity and value. This concept of connectivity seems well on its way to joining the lexicon of capitalism’s weasel words, right alongside ‘productivity’: an aura of humanism surrounding a core of exploitation.

How much are the users of Facebook and Google being exploited for? According to the PrivacyFix app, which calculates social media users’ value in corporate revenue, a female Facebook user in the United States with 368 friends, who has 35 ‘likes’ per month, and one post and one photo, is worth US$20.75 per annum. That same female user is worth $223 per annum to Google. (PrivacyFix also estimates American women generate more value for Facebook than men, with the highest value category of women yielding US$37.98 p/a vs. US$30.38 from the highest value men.)

By some lights, this looks like a low cost for the services these companies offer: $20 to help maintain friendships and interests, $200 for all the world’s knowledge at a click (plus 15gb free data storage!).

The value of memorialised accounts and deceased users is surely trickier to calculate, although no doubt there’s something to extract there, too. But the dollar figure cannot represent the significance of these companies’ actions. Facebook and Google have inserted themselves into and successfully monetised the private lives of their users, and in so doing they have represented this state of affairs as desirable. In their mission to connect everyone in the world like links on a chain, Facebook and Google are shifting the meaning of what it is to be a person.

James Robert Douglas is a freelance cultural critic and Interviews Editor at The Lifted Brow.

This piece was originally published in The Lifted Brow #23. Get your copy now.