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The Facebook "lobster trap"

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Friday, Jul 24, 2009

It’s foolish to say this without data to back it up, but it feels as though the Facebook fad is losing steam. Critiques of the business model— that it’s somewhat unseemly to allow a third party to monetize your friends, that it’s creepy to have your social life surveilled directly by marketers, that once you deploy intrusive advertising on your site you become more of a rent-seeker rather than a service provider—seem to be taking hold and are becoming almost commonplace. And people don’t seem to be as insistent and enthusiastic about others using it. Maybe it has integrated itself into people’s lives to the degree that they don’t mention it anymore. The opposite happened with me—I felt browbeaten into logging on to Facebook every day or so for a period of a couple weeks, then slowly I forgot about my own account with the site and went back to thinking of Facebook as an abstract evil that others are caught up in. It failed to integrate itself into my everyday life, didn’t prove irreversibly useful. This may be because I am unusually antisocial, but I have this hope that my experience mirrors that of many social-network dabblers.


The site seemed a place to turn in anxious moments of loneliness or existential vertigo for pseudo-sociality and pseudo-connectedness; it was a place to turn to relieve the sense of being hopelessly mired in ourselves how we are and do some illusory work on our own characters instead by fine-tuning some settings, making some updates, passing some surreptitious judgment on those friends of ours who seem, judging by their updates, to be even more desperate than we are. Of course you’d have to sort through the chipper updates from the pathologically narcissistic who evince absolutely no trace of self-doubt or troubled introspection, but they made for a bracing backdrop; they set up a kind of grim ideal for what we’d have to eventually become, or else. But now it is starting to seem like that the threat of that dystopia is receding.
  
Anyway, Kottke linked to this piece by Michael C. Gilbert about Facebook, and reading it felt blessedly like received wisdom, all of a sudden. Offering advice to nonprofits, Gilbert likens Facebook to the pre-industrial-revolution practice of enclosure, by which the commons were privatized so they could be harnessed to capitalist ends and be made more reliably “productive.” Gilbert argues that, “The acts of enclosure of the information age are about social assets, they are subtle and invisible, and they are being implemented, to a large degree, by peer pressure.” His analysis of the Facebook “lobster trap” is astute:


This walled-off nature has three interesting layers to it. First, it’s hard to get your content out of Facebook once you put it in. When someone figured out how to create a simple outbound RSS feed of your own updates, Facebook managers blocked it. You can’t just export all your content in a form you can use elsewhere, without going to a lot of trouble. Facebook is a content management system (CMS), among other things, and should be evaluated by any responsible organization just like any other CMS, including interoperability and exit costs. Second, the more content you put into Facebook, especially if it’s in a form that people can’t get elsewhere, the more you’re serving as Facebook bait yourself. It’s even worse if you start inviting your stakeholders there directly. All the same exit costs apply at this level as well, only multiplied by the difficulty of being bound by expectation that it’s inside Facebook that you’ll connect with your stakeholders and them with each other. Third, this scales up to entire social networks and communities. If everyone’s friends are at the mall, then we’ll abandon the public spaces as well. That’s enclosure.


If information wants to be free, as the technoutopians argue, then Facebook should be as doomed as Compuserve. An open-source version of the modest services it proides may come along at any minute and wipe it out—it will just be a matter of getting everyone to go to the trouble of setting up networks again. Facebook will fight like mad to keep your networks proprietary to itself, making overt the essential problem: Facebook needs to act like it owns us and our friends in order to “serve” us.


Obviously Gilbert is skeptical of the similar bargain Facebook offers nonprofits: “When you invite your stakeholders to join Facebook, you’re handing over your list to a company that will provide them some useful web-based tools, expose them to other companies (advertisers) that will try to sell things to them. And you don’t get a cut. That’s better, right?” So he sensibly advises that groups make the structure of their social networks explicit in such a way that prevents Facebook from owning the infrastructure. “Always work to make your network’s social maps more generally visible. In other words, one of Facebook’s strong features is being able to meet friends of friends. In the case of your networks, don’t let Facebook be the only place that happens.” This seems like good advice for everyone.

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