Facebook now has two billion users. This is not a threshold we should celebrate.
Facebook recently announced that they had passed the threshold of two billion monthly active users. Visitors to the site were greeted with a special video thanking them for being part of their “community.” “We’re getting to a size where it’s worth really taking a careful look at what are all the things that we can do to make social media the most positive force for good possible,” Facebook Chief Product Officer Chris Cox told TechCrunch. The Wall Street Journal already showed us last year with its Blue Feed Red Feed feature that Facebook is anything but a “community,” but underneath the guise of this faux-communitarian newspeak is a far more sinister process.
Many of us are now familiar with the arguments that they “if it’s free, you’re the product” or that our data is being extracted from us, financialised, used to target us politically by foreign billionaires, or fed to governments. These are important and serious practical consequences of our use of Facebook, and to a lesser extent other social media platforms. But in addition to these worrying features of the role social media may have in our political or social lives, there is also a broader story to be told about what it means for Facebook to become so much to so many people.
All software aims to mediate between its users and aspects of their world that are important to them. Facebook already takes this to the next level, and yet they have plans to go much further, even investing in virtual reality technologies, through their subsidiary Oculus. Think about your own use of Facebook — what is it actually for? Journalists insist that it’s a vital news discovery tool; Marketers use it for selling; event organisers use it to manage guest lists and announcements; friends use it to share features of their lives, say happy birthday or congratulations, and millions use it when they are bored, lonely, simply feel empty, or out of habit when they have nothing better to do. There can be no denying that the role of Facebook is increasingly general, and whatever you use it for, you are indeed creating value for Facebook’s shareholders.
The optimists stop at this point in the discussion. It’s a fair exchange — users get something and so does the company and its shareholders, so this is an example of capitalism working well. Efficient creation of value, everybody wins, and low emissions to boot. That gets a “like” from liberal capitalism.
But, as I say in my book, capitalism functions best when nobody questions the terms of the deal they are getting. The more you think about it, the more you might agree that it’s not such a positive development for those two billion people, the others that will inevitably join them, or those left out for that matter, for one powerful company — a company that has no compuction about allowing their advertisers to target only white people — to be in the position of being so many things to so many people.
Facebook has already bitten off more than it can chew, in fact. Their spread into our lives has gone too far, both for us and for them and it should have surprised nobody that, twice this year, people live-streamed themselves committing murder using Facebook’s live video platform. If Facebook were smarter and less greedy they would stop growing, at least in scope, but they typify corporate hubris perfectly. They now consider themselves the authority on what is or is not sexual about the unclothed human body, what is or is not hate speech as opposed to “debate,” what is or is not “fake news,” what is or is not criminal evidence, what is or is not holocaust denial, or what constitutes a dangerous event that requires we notify our friends we are safe.
In May they suffered an embarrassing leak of the documentation they give their low-paid workers who make these calls, sometimes spending as little as ten seconds on each decision. Consequently, Facebook has repeatedly had to back down, and their strategy of mediating as much as possible for as many people as possible has resulted in countless backlashes and PR-driven apologies relating to almost every area of life.
How many people, and how much of their lives lives, need to be swallowed up into Facebook’s world before we admit this is an unsustainable and worrying trend. We are not content with one person, such as Rupert Murdoch, controlling a large slice of our conventional media — why should we feel happy about one Silicon Valley company pervading the lives of so many people and in so many increasingly intimate ways? When Facebook’s number of users starts to decrease, I will lead the celebrations. Until then, we need to be very careful what we are getting into.