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The Attention of Last Resort

Instead of promoting the sharing of ideas and opinions among friends, social networking sites promote posturing and marketing, friendship as spectatorship, surveillance, and imitation, and give us the attention we crave.

Recently Facebook has received some bad press for forcing on its users an intrusive advertising venture, code named Beacon, that spied on what places they went to on the Web while logged on to the social networking site and reported it to other members. ("Apologetic, Facebook Changes Ad Program", by Louise Story, 06 December 2007). It was only a matter of time before social networks became more explicitly about marketing, since they were already about measuring influence and people defining themselves as a certain sort of marketing target to attract attention.

By letting brands have their own pages as if they were ordinary users, social networks also let brands represent themselves as peers, things people can have relationships with as dynamic and replenishing as the ones they have with other humans. It also encourages users not only to see themselves as brands, as well (the metrics component of social networks encourages this, too) but also monetizes their personal brand and treats their friends as a demographic to exploit.

Beacon's main innovation is to track users' commercial behavior -- when they buy something, or link to a brand's page -- and spread news of it automatically across the user's group of friends to mimic word-of-mouth advertising. Then, when friends use Facebook to keep track of what we have been up to, we are not being "friends" so much as being rather like an "exhibit", a kind of brand loyalty to the lifestyle marque we've developed, with Beacon's help.

Basically, Beacon forces you to be a shill unless you opt out. By turning our commercial activity into news, it furthers as well the general perception that we all shop to be noticed. Shopping may inevitably be a social activity, but Facebook was trying to semi-covertly make it the basis for friendship. Then you could share such momentous occasions as buying shoes online as if that were deeply significant personal news. After all, consumer culture is always encouraging us to think we are what we buy and that spending money is the only way we can signify we're truly serious about appreciating something.

But surprisingly enough, Facebook users weren't ready to concede that point. Instead, they resented the invasion of their privacy -- particularly the ones who had planned gifts spoiled and affairs inadvertently revealed -- and petitioned for the ability to opt out. The negative publicity eventually forced Facebook C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg, who had hailed the program as a revolution in media that would set the foundation for "the next 100 years", to reverse course and apologize. "I’m not proud of the way we’ve handled this situation, and I know we can do better," he wrote in a blog post on the site.

Real-world attention is a severely scarce commodity, but with the number of internet users -- and the ease with which they can simulate attention through automated aides -- it can seem limitless. By letting us harvest and quantify all that attention, social networking sites give us some solace in the existential loneliness that comes with staring into a screen.
I admit to rooting for Facebook to fail, in part because virtually everything about "founder" Zuckerberg rings false, whether it's his denials that he stole the idea for the site from his college buddies, or his wardrobe-based attempts to emulate Steve Jobs, or his visionary claptrap about the social graph. ("Poking Facebook" by Luke O'Brien, December 2007). But my skepticism goes behind that to a fundamental suspicion of the entire concept upon which the site is based. I'm as narcissistic as the next person, but I'm not self-involved enough to want to generate an online feed of everything I'm up to on the internet. And I'm certainly not interested in continuous updates of what other people are doing. In fact, Facebook threatens to ruin voyeurism altogether by institutionalizing it, destroying its whole illicit thrill and rendering it bland. Instead of a prurient peek into a secret world, it becomes data processing.

It's no doubt useful to advertisers to have access to an enormous interconnected repository of data on this highly desirable demographic, but it's less clear to me what benefits from the social graph ultimately accrue to users. Facebook may seem so irritating to codgers like me because it shines a spotlight on how little time adults have for non-familial relationships. As Fortune columnist Brent Schlender (who is 53) explains, "Once people have demanding jobs and marriages and kids, their social lives narrow a lot, and they just don't have the mental bandwidth or time to stay current with so many friends." Thus, Facebook's demographic would seem to have a built-in expiration date.

In expressing its own skepticism about Facebook's future, The Economist points out that a social network is essentially a fancied-up address book, and when it reaches a certain size, it becomes useless. It ceases to organize or filter information and becomes just another digital data dump crying out for grooming, like email inboxes and iPod playlists. ("Social graph-iti" 18 October 2007) And presumably the friends in our network are supposed to resemble our real-life circle of friends, the colonization of the networks by marketing reduces the incentive for use to groom their networks to make them match our real ones. Who wants to invite someone with whom you have a relationship built on trust into an arrangement so patently exploitative?

Another Economist article cites Paul Martino, a proprietor of an early social network, who argues that most people's social networks degrade over time. ("Word of Mouse" 08 November 2007) Because few people dare to dump former friends or to reject unwanted friend requests from casual acquaintances, "social graphs degenerate to noise in all cases,” he says. If he is right, social-marketing campaigns will descend into visual clutter about the banal doings of increasingly random people, rather than being the next big thing in advertising.

Sites like Facebook purport to want to help organize the never-ending flood of information, but it instead seems a tool to make information proliferate, to generate more linkages that I'm supposed to spend my time finding uses for. And now that it has become a platform for third party applications, it promises to manufacture even more pseudo-meaningful connections between people, automating the work of friendship while stripping it of substance.

Because Facebook starts from the premise that people can be reduced to self-reported data, it implies that friendship is mainly a matter of having a high percentage of shared interests. But even a moment's consideration of our actual friends reveals friendship to be a process, rooted in familiarity and perpetuated by the continually renewed conscious choice to find out what the other person is doing. Social networks seem to provide another forum for exercising the will to reciprocity, but it seems more like a way to evade them or render them so convenient as to be inconsequential.

In The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (Vintage, December 2007), Lewis Hyde argues that gifts, unlike commercial exchanges, form meaningful relationships between giver and recipient. Commercial transactions are designed to be reciprocal and neutral, to cancel one another out and eradicate the need for gratitude or graciousness. "In commodity exchange it's as if the buyer and seller were both in plastic bags; there's none of the contact of gift exchange. There is neither motion or emotion because the whole point is to keep the balance, to make sure the exchange itself doesn't consume anything or involve one person with another."

That lack of intimate contact or interpersonal obligation seems integral to amassing large social networks; it's much more convenient to accumulate things without accumulating relationships. The fair, impartial exchange idealized in the market in which you get what you pay for (caveat emptor and all) is a way of stifling relationships that occur outside of commercialization. Insisting on a fair deal and making that the cornerstone of one's morality seems reasonable enough at the flea market, but it's probably not a way to secure friends. Still, the convenience of exhibiting our identity though collecting goods -- through a series of choices in the marketplace -- is similar to that of the isolation from ties and evasion of responsibility that we sometimes mistake for freedom.

But who wants to be free on those terms? Often I am secretly happy to feel obliged; it gives me a reason to get out of bed, a sense that I matter. But consumer society is set up so that if I wanted, I could live my entire adult life without having anything but frictionless, emotion-free commercial interactions with other people, and I'm embarrassed to admit how seductive this can seem sometimes -- particularly in the holiday season, confronted with the task of buying gifts for relatives I hardly see, with no idea of what they would really want. How much easier it would be to write them a check for the amount I was willing to spend, dispense with the pretense of a relationship, and reduce it to the level of commercial exchange.

Consumerism encourages us to replace relationships grounded in gifts with ones grounded in the market, since commercial interests may then take a cut of the action that occurs every time people interact. Facebook, as Beacon demonstrates, clearly adheres to this ideology. Every bit of human interaction generates an opportunity for market mediation, allowing Facebook to extract profits.

Hyde's theory of the gift helps clarify what is so insidious about Beacon. Word-of-mouth recommendations, when sincerely offered, are meant to be gifts; they foster a relationship between you and the person you are recommending something to that supersedes whatever specific thing you recommend. When a co-worker told me about the animated TV series on Adult Swim, Metalocalypse, I was certainly gratified to learn about the show, but more significantly, I realized that he understood something about me and viewed me a friend. The opinion he ventured established a bond.

But pseudo-word-of-mouth advertising obviously corrupts that process and invalidates the gift, turning it into a tactic. Few are soulless enough to spread bogus word of mouth intentionally, but Facebook's goal seems to be to commercialize sincere word of mouth recommendations by automating the opinion giving process. This deprives you of the chance of making a gift of your opinion; it makes it into a sales tool preemptively, poisoning the very ground of friendship. Instead of promoting the sharing of ideas and opinions among friends, social networking sites promote posturing and marketing, friendship as spectatorship, surveillance, and imitation. They remove the gift of friendship from friendship and leave only the marketing possibilities.

Perhaps the generation growing up with social networking will continue to integrate it with their personal lives, but it seems much more likely that, as Schlender suggests, the technology will become a dismal part of office culture:

When adopted by companies and social organizations and other controlled environments, Facebook and the applications that can be built upon it could be, of all things, a management tool. It could be a friendly means to reinforce corporate or institutional culture; a method to keep far-flung telecommuters in the fold and in the know; and a digital water cooler for trading the useful gossip that sometimes lubricates a work group. And when it comes to helping employees make the most of their benefits and perks, a Facebook system could provide the infrastructure for the mother of all HR systems.

A giant HR system? Sign me up! A Recent New York Times article cites recent research that found "that students who reported low satisfaction with life and low self-esteem, and who used Facebook intensively, accumulated a form of social capital linked to what sociologists call weak ties" -- the meat and potatoes of networking ("On Facebook, Scholars Link Up With Data", Stephanie Rosenbloom 17 December 2007). This is useful for those too shy to find such opportunities in the real world, but it also highlights how, in general, social networking has less to do with being social for its own sake and more to do with plugging oneself into the commercial world on favorable, self-defined terms.

MySpace, when it started, was primarily a place for nobody musicians to market their band; it was a means to mount a commercial website without the HTML know how. From there, it spread to individuals. Then, once we concocted pseudo-websites of our own, we could be drawn in further by the allure of metrics, the thrill of measuring our reach the way a marketer would -- how many hits we get, what kind of demographic we can attract, how successful we are at getting our own particular target audience to interact with the site. It becomes possible to experiment with what you need to say or how much skin you have to show to attract more attention. Attention, which in this realm becomes measurable in a precise way, becomes a kind of currency. Whereas in the dreary real world, it's impossible to put a number on how popular you are -- you can't really count how often someone looks at you or answers your questions or has a positive thought about the way you have designed yourself -- Facebook or MySpace does all the bookkeeping and lays it all out for you.

Real-world attention is a severely scarce commodity, but with the number of internet users -- and the ease with which they can simulate attention through automated aides -- it can seem limitless. By letting us harvest and quantify all that attention, social networking sites give us some solace in the existential loneliness that comes with staring into a screen. They even manage to invert attention scarcity: instead of there not being enough attention out there for us to receive to make us feel recognized, more than anonymous in a mass-culture world, suddenly the attention we have to give is treasured and scarce. Advertisers play on this, crafting pitches designed to flatter us as individuals, basing their marketing on a premise we happily go along with -- that the attention we can pay to a message is uniquely discriminating. When the pitch works, regardless of the product, what comes across is an ersatz reciprocity, a feeling that someone out there was thinking of us and hoping to catch our eye -- a pleasant feeling that it would be churlish to dispute, considering how sporadic authentic reciprocity can be.

In this way, social networking and advertising are perfect bedfellows. Social networking sites cater to our craving for instant attention, promising us the opportunity to find precisely the kind of audience we want at any time. If that audience proves elusive, it supplies another conduit for the personal attention of last resort: marketing. If one is lonely and looking for recognition, targeted ads are better than nothing, and for the advertisers, nothing could be better than hitting someone when they are down and vulnerable.

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