Facebook division of labor and the rewired society

by Rob Horning

3 February 2012


I’m reading through the summary of findings of this Pew survey of Facebook users. (It is based on phone polling, so caveat emptor.) The point they are foregrounding in their report is that Facebook has “power users,” which means that the division of labor on Facebook’s social factory is uneven—some active users work harder at building the network and feeding its flows, which makes using the site more engaging for passive users. Thanks to the Facebook freaks (and it seems that everyone is linked to a few of these), the less involved users have something new to see or do when they log in.

Niemann Journalism Lab interprets this as good news for the old media business:

If Facebook activity disproportionately relies on a subset of power users with busy hands, that’s an opening for news outlets or individual journalists to fill that need. The conversation is far more distributed than it was pre-Internet, but it’s still not evenly distributed.

In other words, big media can figure out a way to hire and control the power users, and make them into A&R curatorial types for social media. Or they can try to supplant those people who are already in your networks—make them seem more like kooks with TMI disease while their paid mavens hustle to dispense objective and relevant cultural information.

Other notable findings: women update more than men, your Facebook friends are less likely to be Facebook friends with one another than is the case with friendship outside the network (One’s Facebook network is larger but shallow and made more of weak ties, which is partly why people tend to underestimate how many friends they have), and people don’t stop using it once they’ve gotten in the habit of it. “The more Facebook friends someone has, the more frequently they contribute all forms of Facebook content and the more friend requests they tend to send and accept.” That’s how networks tend to work; you get enmeshed in them. And that’s how media work too—it’s not like people get bored with the concept of reading books or watching TV. The more you use a medium, the more you accommodate it in everyday life. That is how Zuckerberg intends to “rewire” the way sociality works in the world, as he announced in his grandiose IPO letter (annotated here by Tim Carmody) to potential investors.

People sharing more — even if just with their close friends or families — creates a more open culture and leads to a better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others. We believe that this creates a greater number of stronger relationships between people, and that it helps people get exposed to a greater number of diverse perspectives. By helping people form these connections, we hope to rewire the way people spread and consume information. We think the world’s information infrastructure should resemble the social graph — a network built from the bottom up or peer-to-peer, rather than the monolithic, top-down structure that has existed to date.

Zuckerberg’s dogma is pretty explicit, as Gigaom’s Matthew Ingram notes: “He doesn’t just want to enable these changes in society — on a fairly fundamental level, he wants to control them.” The message is: We will reprogram you to see privacy as some sort of despicable antisociality and corral you all into a kind of mandated intersbjectivity. It’s being singular plural! As another revolutionary leader once said, “However much the reactionaries try to hold back the wheel of history, eventually revolution will take place and will inevitably triumph.”

But Facebook’s revolution is obviously less Maoist than feudal. The “social graph” is the inheritor of the great chain of being, the new master metaphor to make everybody’s place in the world fixed and quantifiable. Everything that occurs must have its distinct plotted point in the society that has been reduced to a grid. If it can’t be plotted as data, it probably never happened. If you aren’t on the graph, you don’t exist. Those thoughts you have that don’t get shared? They aren’t real and aren’t a part of who you are in the rewired world.

Zuckerberg also channels his inner Tom Peters and lectures investors on the “Hacker Way,” which is his appropriated term for a horizontalist management scheme in which everything is always beta. “Hacker culture is also extremely open and meritocratic”—of course it is, just like neoliberalism, or capitalism itself. Markets always let the deserving “win.” I’m sure the employees really love the “hackathons” he describes, where they are forced to create products on spec and participate in a corporate tournament to see who among the employees will need to be humiliated for failure to innovate. The hacker way is the precariat way: employees bear all the risk but the company will take all the value they create in the process. As Chairman Zuck proclaims, there are five tenets of the Hacker Way: Focus on Impact, Be Fast, Be Bold, Be Open, Create Social Value.” If you aren’t moving fast enough to “break things” (like your spirit) and not taking enough risks, and you will not create “real value.”

I don’t know; I’d prefer that hacking still mean anarchic subversion, just to remind ourselves that subverting things is even still possible. In Facebook’s world, it isn’t.

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