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Pressing your nose again the sweet shop of how others look



Below are extracts adapted from an excellent article by John Lanchester in the London Review of Books





You Are the Product

John Lanchester


  • BUYThe Attention Merchants: From the Daily Newspaper to Social Media, How Our Time and Attention Is Harvested and Sold by Tim Wu
    Atlantic, 416 pp, £20.00, January, ISBN 978 1 78239 482 2
  • BUYChaos Monkeys: Inside the Silicon Valley Money Machine by Antonio García Martínez
    Ebury, 528 pp, £8.99, June, ISBN 978 1 78503 455 8
  • BUYMove Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon have Cornered Culture and What It Means for All of Us by Jonathan Taplin
    Macmillan, 320 pp, £18.99, May, ISBN 978 1 5098 4769 3



While in his first year at Harvard, Marc Zuckerberg suffered a romantic rebuff and out of that came an  idea


The idea was that people wanted to look at what other people like them were doing, to see their social networks, to compare, to boast and show off, to give full rein to every moment of longing and envy, to keep their noses pressed against the sweet-shop window of others’ lives.


At the end of June, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook had hit a new level: two billion monthly active users. That number, the company’s preferred ‘metric’ when measuring its own size, means two billion different people used Facebook in the preceding month. It is hard to grasp just how extraordinary that is. Bear in mind that thefacebook – its original name – was launched exclusively for Harvard students in 2004. No human enterprise, no new technology or utility or service, has ever been adopted so widely so quickly. The speed of uptake far exceeds that of the internet itself, let alone ancient technologies such as television or cinema or radio


The principal backer of Facebook was one Mr Thiel who had 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’.


Girard was a Christian, and his view of human nature is that it is fallen. We don’t know what we want or who we are; we don’t really have values and beliefs of our own; what we have instead is an instinct to copy and compare. We are homo mimeticus. ‘Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and who turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires



There was a a teleology emerging here - the capture and sale of attention


Zuckerberg, was very well aware of how people’s minds work and in particular of the social dynamics of popularity and status. The initial launch of Facebook was limited to people with a Harvard email address; the intention was to make access to the site seem exclusive and aspirational. 



For all the corporate uplift of Facebook's  mission statement, Facebook is a company whose essential premise is misanthropic. It is perhaps for that reason that Facebook, more than any other company of its size, has a thread of malignity running through it.


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.

American context, where any whiff of explicit sexuality would immediately give the site a reputation for unwholesomeness. Photos of breastfeeding women are banned and rapidly get taken down. Lies and propaganda are fine.

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
 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.

Something similar has happened in the world of journalism. Facebook is in essence an advertising company which is indifferent to the content on its site except insofar as it helps to target and sell advertisements
If I want to reach women between the ages of 25 and 30 in zip code 37206 who like country music and drink bourbon, Facebook can do that. Moreover, Facebook can often get friends of these women to post a ‘sponsored story’ on a targeted consumer’s news feed, so it doesn’t feel like an ad. As Zuckerberg said when he introduced Facebook Ads, ‘Nothing influences people more than a recommendation from a trusted friend. A trusted referral is the Holy Grail of advertising.’
After a certain amount of boilerplate bullshit (‘Our goal is to give every person a voice. We believe deeply in people’), he gets to the nub of it. ‘Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99 per cent of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news 

 $20 billion industry in 1999 was a $7 billion industry 15 years later. He saw musicians who had made a good living become destitute, journalism (no bad thing) has also been decimated

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 companys 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.

 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. 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. 


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