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Facebook as vanity press

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Tuesday, Dec 15, 2009

At Freedom to Tinker, Ed Felten offers an interesting way of conceiving the problem with Facebook and its efforts to commercialize sociability. This is the key paragraph:


Some of you may be wondering why Facebook users are complaining about privacy, given that the site’s main use is to publish private information about yourself. But Facebook is not really about making your life an open book. It’s about telling the story of your life. And like any autobiography, your Facebook-story will include a certain amount of spin. It will leave out some facts and will likely offer more and different levels of detail depending on the audience. Some people might not get to hear your story at all. For Facebook users, privacy means not the prevention of all information flow, but control over the content of their story and who gets to read it.


Facebook offers a commercial tool to help people shape and present their story, and an infrastructure through which to tell it. By Felten’s logic, it is an interactive vanity press, only it doesn’t charge users up front for the self-flattery it enables. Instead, it is trying to find sneaky ways of monetizing the information users provide without their feeling like their information has slipped out of their control. If we want to pay upfront for the sort of service Facebbok provides, we could simply pay to register our own domain name, and hang our shingle on the open internet, and send out updates to all our friends at regular intervals.


What Facebook proves is that we want to control our story, but we don’t want to have to generate the form for that story or manually produce and distribute it. We sacrifice control over the particulars and submit to some standardization of our self-constructed story so that its broadcast can be automated. Facebook’s business model is about increasing that sacrifice, intensifying our laziness about the finer points and details, prompting us to permit more standardization and more shaping of our story at their hands, so it fits commercial uses. Hence we tell our life story in terms of the pop cultural product we enjoy, by becoming fans of various brands, by playing games like FarmVille in which we involve a third party to secure the privilege of sending tokens of approval to one another. It’s yet another example of the dubiousness of convenience as a value. The lesson is always the same: What we gain in convenience, we give up in autonomy. We have an easier and easier time personalizing ever-smaller compartments in which our subjectivity must fit.

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