Monday, September 26, 2011

Enclosed and commoditized on the Open Graph

Mark Zuckerberg evangelizing for the Graph
Last week, I was having flashbacks to the late 90s. When I first entered the software development field in 1999, Microsoft was the "evil empire," the "800 pound gorilla" that everyone (myself included) loved to hate. Yet that loathing was rather paradoxical in that everyone around me was neck-deep in Microsoft products. At this particular job, an e-commerce company, our company's very existence depended on Microsoft!

In those halcyon days before social media and dot-com bubbles bursting, nerd culture was still marginal. Most of my friends had only just learned what e-mail and web browsers even were, much less how to use them. Those days are long gone. The web is ubiquitous and Grandma's on Facebook.

With nerd culture now mainstreamed and Facebook being the latest champion of that process, the company seems to serve the same purpose that Microsoft once did for me and my nerd buddies: People just love to bash Facebook.

It usually happens whenever they change something, which is often. The way I typically learn that something's changed in the first place is never a notice from Facebook, but rather my friends complaining about whatever's changed in various ways, usually by way of status updates that instruct you how to make things "normal" again or to "like" pages which protest the changes. These are often accompanied by encouragement to copy/paste the tip into your own status update. This last bit I've come to call "copy/paste proselytism."

This last round of changes got people especially riled up, even prompting a few of my friends to openly wonder about switching to Google+, which is "worse than a ghost town" at this point. With the introduction of Timeline and the expansion of the Open Graph, Facebook is poised to make the platform even more addictive and far-reaching than it already is. As the title of this Ars Technica post makes clear, "Facebook wants your past, present, and future..."

So why does Facebook want so much information about our lives and interests? Why have they come up with increasingly clever ways to actually get us to volunteer this information to the system? Because as Douglas Rushkoff suggests, "we're not the customers. We're the product." The voluntary giving of so much personal information presents what I think is a first in the world of advertising. Who needs focus groups to sell product when you have 800 million people acting as digital billboards. The real customers of Facebook are the companies lining up to make use of the most sophisticated marketing platform ever created.

And it's not the overt ads on Facebook which are my focus, though they are there, thankfully few and not obtrusive like other free sites or apps (Spotify's free offering is pretty annoying that way). No, the real concern for me is that we become the ad. As the Open Graph expands along with our use of it, knowing the difference between saying you "like" something and advertising it becomes increasingly difficult. Indeed, "like" is going to be outdated in short order with this latest update as new verbs are added to the Open Graph lexicon. You'll "watch" a movie in an app where - if you've given it permission - something like Netflix or Hulu will automatically publish that to your Timeline on Facebook. You'll "read" a book on an e-reader whose software will - again, if you've given it permission - wirelessly register that on your Timeline.

Music service, Spotify, was one of the main partners in this new update. I got hooked in last week and gave the service permission to publish to my Timeline, so I could see the new tech at work. Sure enough, Facebook let all my friends know that I listened to 14 songs last night on Spotify, listing them all, providing links into the app. (You're welcome, Spotify.)

My concluding point is that Christians in such an environment should think critically about how profoundly consumeristic our society is in general, and how in the case of Facebook, a simulacrum of "sociality" is being encouraged and mediated by corporate interests. Christian theological notions and practices of sociality and economics should not be subverted by such systems, and in fact should be countered in concrete ways.

In other words, I'll keep using Facebook and Spotify, but will resist swallowing the Zuckerberg kool-aid (which is indeed sweet). Just ask yourself: How far down the rabbit hole do you want to go?

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