The Politics of Facebook

This article was written by John Kidly, student of Media and Cultural Studies at Kingston University, in response to the following task:
Discuss critically the following quote: ‘It is not simply the application of technology which is biased towards certain ends; the very design of the technology is embedded in political, economic and cultural values.’ (Sholle, 2002:6)

The aim of this critical esssay is to focus on the impact of technology on society, its ideological values and lifestyle in relation to the fact that technology does not come from nowhere but is created by people, who have their political, economic and cultural values. The discussion will be mostly based on the example of Facebook – the American networking website that describes itself as “a social utility that connects you with the people around you”. In this analysis the main emphasis will be on the people who stand behind the technology, and their values.

The main question is: are users free to construct their identities on the internet? If so, what is the role of creators of the technology? Are they only providing the platform that enables users to be ‘online’, who they really are ‘offline’, or is it more than that? Is it the case that the values of designers determine identities and behaviour of the internet users? Tom Hodgkinson [2008] argues that:

Facebook did not simply happen by accident. It is a well-funded project, and the people behind the funding, have a clearly thought out ideology that they are hoping to spread around the world. Like PayPal before it, it is a sort of social experiment. (…) On Facebook, you can be free to be who you want to be, as long as you don’t mind being advertised at by the world’s biggest brands. As with PayPal, national boundaries are a thing of a past.

Many may think that it is only Mark Zuckerberg who stands behind Facebook. In reality this Harvard student is just the media face of the website. The important people behind it are: Peter Thiel and Jim Breyer. The first – a futurist philosopher and neoconservative activist – is a co-founder of PayPal. Thiel is against the multiculturalist ideology and believes that there is no value in real manufactured products, but in relations between human beings. Tom Hodgkinson [2008] defines Thiel as an admirer of Rene Girard’s theory, that people are sheep-like and will copy one another without much reflection (p.16).

Jim Breyer who is the third board member of Facebook is also a board member of Wal-Mart and used to be chairman of the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA). Hodgkinson [2008] links Breyer with Howard Cox, who like Breyer used to be chairman of NVCA and now is on the board of the company called In-Q-Tel (p.18). On their website we can read:

In-Q-Tel was tasked with building a bridge between the Agency (CIA) and a new set of technology innovators. In-Q-Tel’s mission is to discover, adapt, and deliver leading edge commercial technologies that can enable the CIA’s and the broader U.S. Intelligence Community’s critical intelligence work.

Howard Cox and his other companies have recently invested $27.5 millions in Facebook. This of course might be just a coincidence and there might be no link between Facebook and CIA but we need to bear in minds that Facebook is about… connections.

These are the people who created Facebook. These people have their values. How do these values relate to Facebook users? Peter Thiel is against multiculturalism and supports the idea that people are sheep-like. These are the values of Facebook! Facebook is like a country and all users are like citizens. There are no physical or even virtual boundaries. Users are not treated as antonomous individuals but as statistical details, that can be easily exposed to a commercial content (advertiesments). Most of the people (flock of sheep) do not realise to what extent Facebook is collecting their personal data. They are actually giving this data for free, which might be risky. Aaron Ben-Ze’ev (2004) is concerned that the possible release of this information to governmental agencies or commercial companies may intrude upon peoples life and may harm them in the future. He believes that somebody might possess too detailed and too complete a picture of people and this data might be used against them at some time in the future (p.99). Although in his book Ben-Ze’ev does not specifically write about Facebook, the connection can be easily found.

Are users completely free to construct their identities on Facebook? On one side they can say that they are. Anyone can write anything they want about themselves on their profile. On the other hand it is more complicated. Charles Cheung (2004) thinks that ‘the personal homepage is a self-defined ‘stage’, upon which we can decide what aspects of ourselves we would like to present.'(p.56). Tom Hodgkinson [2008] adds:

Facebook appeals to a kind of vanity and self-importance in us. If I put up a flattering picture of myself with a list of my favourite things, I can construct an artificial representation of who I am in order to get sex or approval.

Facebook in reality is full of artificial profiles of people who show who they would like to be, rather than who they really are. Right next to people’s profiles Facebook is showing adverts of the leading international brands. Naomi Klein (2001) defines these brands sarcastically not as products ‘but as a way of life, an attitude, a set of values, a look, an idea.’ (p.23). These are simply adverts of consumption ideologies based around certain products. But does it really matter? Facebook users still behave like a flock of sheep, that are easily guided to their shops or ‘Buy Now’ buttons by the website’s owners and its advertisers. Thiel’s dream of a unified society with no boundaries is becoming a reality – at least virtually.

In conclusion, when thinking about Facebook and its values, all of its users probably suffer from a delusion, which is defined by the online Compact English Oxford Dictionary as ‘a belief or impression that is not in accordance with (…) reality’. The cult of artificial representation of who people really are, has become now a modern religion. R. M. Pirsig, as cited by R. Dawkins (2007), thinks that ‘when one person suffers from delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called Religion.'(p.28). Just change word ‘many’ for millions and ‘Religion’ for Facebook.

References:

Ben Ze’ev, A. (2004), ‘Love Online – Emotions on The Internet’, Cambridge University Press

Cheung, C. (2004), Identity construction and self-presentation on Personal Homepages: Emancipatory Potentials and Reality Constraints, in Gauntlett, D. and Horsley, R. (ed.) ‘Web.Studies’ , London: Oxford University Press

Dawkins, R (2007) ‘The God Delusion’ Great Britain, Black Swan

Hodgkinson, T. [2008], ‘We Want Everyone – Facebook & The New American Right’, Bracketpress

Klein, N. (2001), ‘No Logo’, London: Flamingo

Compact Oxford English Dictionary (2005) [online] Available from www.askoxford.com [Accessed on 03 May 2008]

In-Q-Tel website [Internet] available from http://www.in-q-tel.org/about-iqt/history.html [Accessed on 1 May 2008]

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