Facebook and Capitalism

15 May

I recently wrote a university essay on the British government’s Digital Economy Act 2010 which introduced measures to combat online copyright infringement to protect Britain’s creative industries. Essentially, the government is using power to protect the financial interests of these creative industries. But the effect of capitalism on the internet is more than just what has been legislated on by governments. It is omnipresent, but especially pertinent in the case of Facebook.

The cyber-libertarian John P. Barlow argues in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace that the online world is somehow removed from the power relations of the offline world:

Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are based on matter, There is no matter here.

Two recent contributions to this debate fundamentally disagree with the cyber-libertarian view and argue instead that the relations prevalent in the offline world apply equally to online society. In the BBC’s excellent The Virtual Revolution series, Doug Rushkoff made the observation that:

the way we represent ourselves online has devolved from the quirky, personalised HTML webpage, homepage of the ’90s, to the somewhat modular but still strange presence of a MySpace page, to the completely formatted and market-friendly presence of a Facebook page.

Just yesterday, Andrew Brown, a writer for the Guardian who usually blogs about religion, posted an article about Facebook and the website’s well-documented misuse of users’ data. He ends the article on an interesting point:

Ever since money was invented, the people who have made money out of aimless chat have been the landlords, whether they were selling beer, coffee or a space on the web…The only people to whom that information is worth even a fraction of a penny are those who want to take advantage of it to sell you something you don’t need – except, that is for your real friends.

The implications of all of this are clear. Not only is power omnipresent, but so is the effect of capital and the continual need to acquire capital. The vast majority of the online community has — after an initial period of market-unfriendly websites — created its online identity on Facebook. This is a website which has a particularly privileged position from which to use these identities for its own capital’s interests. Facebook does not charge money for the use of its services, but users pay instead with their privacy and personal data which can be used to make money by selling adverts and data to third party companies.

In the same way that small, independent shops are going out of business because customers find it easier and more efficient to go to large shopping centres to do their shopping, internet users have turned from complicated HTML sites, to slightly less complicated Myspace pages and finally to the easy-to-use Facebook to create their online identity. What both of these phenomena have in common is a societal shift towards a more market-friendly behaviour.

There are issues here which I won’t attempt to answer in this short space. Are societal shifts to a market-friendly behaviour an inherent effect of living in a capitalist society nevermind which context people are acting in? Or are capitalist interests at work to create a population which conforms to capital-producing behavioural norms? Or is it just that capitalism creates the conditions for entrepreneurs to make highly efficient products which make everyone’s life easier or more enjoyable, whether they be expensive trainers or social networking websites?

We need to be sure that we have considered the implications of giving companies like Facebook access to the most personal and sometimes private aspects of our lives. We don’t pay for Facebook with cash, but we do pay with our privacy. It’s a new business model, but it’s business nonetheless. The only difference is that we, the users, are both its customers and its products. These are questions with which I imagine Marxists in particular would wish to engage. But these issues should ideally be tackled by everyone who uses Facebook.

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One Response to “Facebook and Capitalism”

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  1. Capitalism in the Offline and Online Worlds: the Domination of Tesco, Facebook and Google « Ed Paton-Williams - 29/09/2011

    [...] building do seem to be the effect of the same phenomena though. I made a similar point a while ago here where I said In the same way that small, independent shops are going out of business because [...]

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