Last year Facebook denied it was going to charge for user access. In this way, in the piece of semi-private real estate – a virtual parallel universe – it has succeeded in carving out of the open web, it continued to mimic the ground rules of the latter. This year, however, this all begins to crumble. And it does so as Facebook is launched on the stock market with an initial valuation of $104 billion. As the BBC reported a couple of weeks ago:
Facebook has started testing a system that lets users pay to highlight or promote posts.
By paying a small fee users can ensure that information they post on the social network is more visible to friends, family and colleagues.
In this, of course, Facebook’s own walled garden also mimics what the monetisers have been doing to the open web itself. Whilst access in a world of almost totally free publishing is multifarious – all you need is a broadband connection and the most humble sort of Internet device – visibility is quite a different matter. In order to get your site at the top of Google’s search rankings, you don’t need just to provide good content: you also need to pay any broad range of intermediaries, from SEO optimists to Google’s own AdWords system, in order to get any chance of being seen by the public you’re after.
In fact, in this sense it’s not all that different from newspaper classifieds of yore: the newspaper editors put before us the news and features they judged through “human algorithms” to be of value – and then the very same companies charged us to advertise our wares in order that through their algorithms (ie their newspapers) we acquired the necessary visibility.
Facebook isn’t social media any more. With its stock market launch and its now frantic and imperious need to monetise its “news”, Facebook is the 21st century rewriting of what a newspaper once used to be.
A final question, then, to be getting on with: now all you Facebook data is ultimately owned and administered by shareholders, does this make you less or more likely to want to continue playing their game? As I pointed out not long ago now in relation to how the knowledge economy which was going to benefit us all has been hijacked by supposedly social media:
Let’s just rewind and see how it could’ve been: a society where brains, applied to ideas, developed and implemented technologies on a massive scale – technologies which became cheap enough for everyone to remove drudgery from their ordinary lives and so release the human mind for much better things.
What do we have instead? Poorly paid – or even unpaid – worker bees (that’s you and me on Twitter and Facebook) inputting data for the software code of such a social web to generate outputs which fascinate companies and allow them to better identify their markets.
Yes. We are now generating the data for corporations which not only make money out of us directly through advertising (Facebook and Twitter) but also sell our personal details to other organisations (food and consumer-durable manufacturers for example) in order that they may better sell their products to us. We are now an outsourced part of this latter group of companies’ marketing departments. Instead of costly opinion polls and focus groups, all they have to do is pay a modicum amount of money to examine Twitter’s firehose (its full complement of content to which the rest of us cannot have access beyond about a maximum of seven days of search) and thus use our freely inputted data to better sell us their products.
Facebook has been amazingly clever – setting us all a trap as clever as that which Twitter has extended. It has made out that its alternative to the open worldwide web provides us with facilities and guarantees that web could never provide – and then it has proceeded to hand over our collected wisdoms to about as private a set of individuals (ie the anonymous shareholders of a massive transnational corporation) as you could possibly expect to find.
A privacy for some, an absolute absence of intimacy for others.
And even as we admire their astuteness, the serious monetisation – the maximisation of profit which becoming a stockmarket-quoted corporation inevitably attaches to any organisation – has only just begun.
We are now all part of a massive virtual Murdoch-like publication, in fact – where, for the benefit of distant investors and their managerialist classes, any and every intimacy reaches the light of an all-too-public day.
Whilst Murdoch’s News of the World ceased publishing last year, in Facebook’s reconversion of what a global tabloid should now look like, his spirit will live on – mark my words; and with a vengeance.