So I’ve been thinking a lot about Facebook lately (surprise, surprise), and it seems to me that there is an awful lot of faith being put into the effectiveness of the market research and targeted advertising occurring there… faith that is perhaps unfounded, but there nonetheless. I’m fairly sure that things such as cost-benefits analyses have been done by Facebook’s mega-clients and investors. And given the amount of financial investment in Facebook from data-mining firms, it is a fairly good assumption that data has told them that this is a very important database to have access to and interact with (and for those of you who are still unaware of the investment of which I speak… here’s a A Brief History of The Facebook that I threw together back in December from all kinds of online sources which have also, in part, done the same)
It appears that Facebook has the SNS data double market cornered. And even though Facebook does not win the quantitative prize for most users (only topping 60 million “active” users worldwide, compared to the 110 million “monthly” users on MySpace in January 2008); it may win the prize for most qualitative impact on its users (and you can check out my Bridging and Bonding paper for a more in-depth analysis on that). All that to say that Facebook is an important social factor in the real life versions of the 60 million active data doubles it is home to.
Okay, so I’m throwing this term “data double” around very loosely. There is a body of sociological work on the data double, though it’s mostly associated with complex concepts like “surveillant assemblages.” The ideas at the base of the concepts, though, are in fact sort of simple, and as you become more open to them, they actually becomes common sense as they are revealed to you in your immediate experiences on a daily basis.
I will try to keep an explanation of the data double simple, but not so simple to offend the more academic of my readers. In the realm of identity and Facebook, the data double emerges as the quantified self; the physical and conceptual self is translated into pure information… bits and bytes of code expressed as profile pictures, demographic info, your likes and dislikes, your cultural preferences, the people you associate with, etc., etc…
The data double is the self assigned alpha-numerical values and assigned more market value as a social object that is a bundle of information rather than a living-breathing-thinking-feeling human being. A grouping of data doubles is a lot easier to monitor and organize than a grouping of flesh and bones creatures for those who make it their business to maintain societal stability by subduing the dangerous animal drives of the masses and guiding public opinion. When those in these positions power and influence no longer have to intervene to collect the data (which immediately taints it), and the individual does all the translation (or coding of the data double) for them, it creates an almost omnipotent ruling class.
When the database is a nice little community for the data double to work and play and communicate in, interaction with the database becomes almost habitual… and the database is MASSIVE… the database is Facebook. Facebook, the tidy little community to organize and analyze and monitor the data doubles as they interact with one another. The ironic thing about it is that most of the habitual, almost addictive, properties of interaction with a Virtual Community, probably stems from an inherent discontent for, and desire to escape from the material world that has been constructed around us … the one of unfulfilled needs and desires… the one where there is a declining sense of physical community and connectedness… the one that begets the inclination of the individual feeling more valuable as a commodified social object, rather than a true independently-thinking self.
I’ve just finished watching a 2002 BBC Miniseries called The Century of the Self, so perhaps my thinking is slightly tweaked towards grandiose theories of the mass manipulation and subduing of the individual (another irony: the main way the individual is subdued, is by convincing them that they are liberated individuals). The 4 part documentary was a chronicle of Public Relations, Advertising, Propaganda, and Social Science (Psycho-Analysis and Sociology) just generally gone wrong, in the US and Britain over the course of the 19th century (if you are interested in watching, you can find all four parts on Google Videos, or Stage 6, or good ole YouTube).
As I watched this interpretation of our recent history all the way up to our current kind of cultural status (that of the individual free-market consumer) I began to wonder how history would record this era of widespread manipulation and social control. The use of the data double, as it has manifested through social technology, towards the purposes of Bernaysian manipulation, actually seems like the next logical twist in the story, given what we know about the characters and the setting. The kinds of databases that Facebook administers are the kinds that admen and the hidden persuaders have wet dreams about… the quantified self is one that can be opened up and picked apart and measured and poked and prodded and experimented with. Eddie Bernays would indeed be proud.
The current PR trends towards brand “identity”, appealing to the uniqueness of the individual, and immediate delivery of needs gratification, essentially becomes a strategy towards the co-option and commodification of the “indie” the “folk” and the “user-created” culture, through methods of psychological, sociological, economic and cultural manipulation. Though, the average consumer likes the fact that corporations can meet their individual needs and desires by providing a glut of product choice while satisfying their impetuous desire for instant gratification… and if it’s what the customer wants, should it not be what the customer gets?
But I digress…
So for me, personally, the running dialogue in my head about participating in Facebook goes something like… Do I really want to be one of the variables in their equations? Because I know that the vast amount of understanding that could be derived from the compilation of such a massive database of user demographics, consumer choices and social connectivity is potentially omnipotent, I am apprehensive. Because I believe that in consenting to participation in a place like Facebook I am actually facilitating the privatization of such understanding, I am in fact placing it in the hands of those who would use it to try to manipulate the choices I make as a consumer and as an individual.
And yet… I do love it so…
A little while ago, I disabled my first Facebook profile, mostly for privacy reasons. But I came back, because ultimately I decided that the potential networking capability of it was more beneficial than the cost of me allowing Facebook to pimp out my data double and take 100% of the profits for the services rendered. But, of that assessment, I’m still uncertain. Now I am presented with the possibility of killing off my Facebook data double as a form of protest, and I am thinking about it again.
I think that it would be the sweetest bit of irony if some form of mass exodus of Facebook could be orchestrated… on and by means of Facebook. And now that they’ve revealed the secret of how to delete your Facebook profile, it opens the door for an interesting kind of culture jam. But how many people would actually be willing to leave? Would they leave for good? Am I willing to leave? Would I actually leave for good this time? History would tell me no… but my conviction that it’s just all wrong may get the better of me… In any case, it is something that I’m going to continue to think about until August 4, 2008.
Of course, as my colleague Ted pointed out this morning as we talked a bit about this, pure liberation of data double would come at the expense of your real-world identity… and it is perhaps, not actually possible. Without your data double… your social insurance number, your bank accounts, your frequent flyer miles, your medical records, your employee or student IDs and your credit rating… you, as an individual in this society, don’t exist… which seems absolutely absurd to me. But this is the bizzaro world, and these are strange days indeed.
Ultimately, I am cynical enough now to believe that there is nothing that can be done to derail us from the current trajectory of our future history… one that resembles a unique balance of 1984 and Brave New World… that is, the en masse willfully consented upon, narcissistic surveillance society. However, I am also still idealistic enough to believe that that belief is still not a fact. Perhaps it is just my reactionary tendencies and my own personal investment in the technology which causes me to believe that information contained the Facebook database will have important (and shaping) implications for the next wave of advertising trends and manipulated consumption patterns. But given what I think I know, I suspect I know, and what my gut tells me about the way this machine has been oiled for the last few 1000’s of years… I think that it is a logical and rational conclusion for now…