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Is it time to quit Facebook?

Users must stop being cogs in its profit-generating wheel and start mucking up the machine

August 27, 2014 6:00AM ET

When researchers from Facebook and Cornell University published their findings on emotional contagion among Facebook users (PDF) last month, they did so in the matter-of-fact language of social scientists: “The experiment manipulated the extent to which people were exposed to emotional expressions in their News Feed.” The Internet was beside itself. Critics blasted the study as irresponsible, unethical and creepy. Users, after all, didn’t know their moods were being influenced by selected content. Moreover, how could the scientists appear so cavalier about their methodological ethics?

Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer, one of the authors of the study, responded, “The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product.” What they found was that happier posts lead to more engagement — sadder posts, less. The optimization argument is similar to another announcement Facebook made last month (to much less grumbling) that it would begin mining users’ browsing histories for the sake of “making ads better and giving people more control over the ads they see.” The two announcements, while triggering vastly different responses, speak to the same corporate logic that is concerned with how user engagement affects profit margins.

The problem with the emotional contagion study, in other words, wasn’t that Facebook was doing something different but rather that it made it impossible for us to forget what we tacitly acknowledge each time we log on: Our feelings, relationships and personal preferences make Facebook money.

Each time we use Facebook, we perform labor, which is to say that we create value. There is no material product, but what we do produces cultural knowledge, shapes opinion and ultimately directs the flow of capital. Facebook has taken our relationships with one another and monetized it, turning our interactions into advertising opportunities. It relies on us to provide content, in the form of videos we shoot, articles we like, screeds we write, places where we check in and comments we post. Without our labor, it has no value; nor would it make any money (hence why Facebook includes the number of new and active users in each quarterly report). Which leads to the great deception of Web 2.0: We aren’t Facebook’s clients; corporations are. 

From tears to dollars

The implicit social contract of Facebook (never mind its pesky terms of service) hinges on the fallacy that we are receiving a service for free. But Facebook’s revenue streams underscore that the real clients are the ones that can pay $100 million dollars to hawk their products. In 2013, Facebook brought in $7.87 billion in revenue — a 55 percent increase from 2012. In the latest quarter, it beat analysts’ projections, pulling in a cool $2.91 billion (PDF).

The vast majority of its revenue comes from advertisements — in the most recent quarter 92 percent, or $2.68 billion, of which mobile ads made up 62 percent. In terms of pricing, generally, the more seamlessly an ad is integrated — both in terms of placement (newsfeed versus sidebar) and target — the more expensive it is: An ad for Tough Mudder, a popular obstacle course for well-educated professionals looking to reclaim their masculinity, that lands in the newsfeed of a type A, outdoorsy 28-year-old, for instance, hits the jackpot.

But even then, the work of proliferating this ad is actually ours. An advertisement is successful because we click on it and share it. We also provide the information necessary for Facebook to sell advertisers on its micro-advertising strategy. At one of its publishing garage branding workshops, for instance, Facebook was trying to figure out how to make a decidedly unsexy product — MegaRed, a krill oil capsule — more appealing. It organized the campaign, aimed at women over 45 — such as “Agnes,” a 65-year-old grandmother who plays golf and does yoga and Zumba — around the tagline “What makes your heart beat?” One advertisement in particular — a picture of a grandfather pushing his grandson with a stylized EKG line — garnered more than 18,000 likes within weeks. 

Facebook is like the crack dealer who gave you the first rock for free. Now that you’re hooked, it’s time to pay up.

It was, in Facebook-speak, a thumbstopper. The campaign increased user engagement threefold over a previous attempt, and the likelihood of someone’s buying MegaRed went up 2 percentage points. MegaRed now plans to spend at least $100 million dollars with Facebook over the next few years. As Kevin Roose at New York magazine wrote of the campaign, “Coaxing tears out of people’s eyes, it turned out, was tantamount to coaxing dollars out of their wallets.”

In addition to this careful ad targeting, Facebook recently began to limit the organic reach of its pages function — the frequency that posts of pages you are a fan of will appear in your newsfeed — to a meager 1 to 2 percent. This doesn’t mean much for deep-pocketed brands such as Nike and Starbucks, but it has had profound implications for individuals and small organizations that need a more democratic platform. Writing for Valleywag under a pseudonym, B. Traven described the strangulating effect this algorithm shift has had on nonprofits that don’t have the advertising budgets to pay to reach their followers. Other writers, from cookbook author Stephanie Stiavetti to New York Times technology reporter Nick Bilton, found their readership dropped unless they were willing to pony up a requisite $7. Under this new world order, individuals and small organizations that required the horizontality of the Internet must pay to survive. Facebook is like the crack dealer who gave you the first rock for free. Now that you’re hooked, it’s time to pay up.  

The revolt

On July 17, Facebook unveiled another step on its quest for total control: a “buy” button that allows users to instantly purchase, say, that cool-looking rainbow chevron watch without leaving the comfort of their screens. Facebook claims that the test is currently limited to a few “small and medium-sized businesses in the U.S.,” but if it’s successful, expansion seems inevitable. When a reporter at TechCrunch asked whether businesses would be charged to add this feature in the future, Facebook said that “it was not disqualifying that option.”

The initial debate about Facebook and other social media tended to revolve around questions of legitimacy — that is, was this an authentic way of communicating with another person? But the conversation must now shift to the more pressing dynamics between capital and our social selves. What does it mean for our social media to monetize our preferences, relationships and feelings? Does the emotional contagion study mean that posts about depression, anxiety and self-doubt will be filtered out in favor of cheerier posts that will encourage user engagement? After all, a happy worker is a productive worker, right?

A number of writers defended the study on the grounds that this was precisely what it has been doing all along; it was a social-scientific spin on otherwise everyday business practices. Some peddled the argument that such studies will improve Facebook for the user. Others waded into how Facebook makes its bucks but ultimately dismissed concerns around that as superficial. The argument: It’s just capitalism, duh.

But how are we supposed to exist without Facebook? That being on or off Facebook raises such existential anxieties speaks to how ingrained the platform is in our social selves. Sure, it’s easy to say that this is just the grinding inertia of capitalism and lament those early, idealistic days when we, perhaps shortsightedly, thought of social networks as utopian playgrounds of free exchange and communication. Or maybe we can think of an alternative that doesn’t make our relationships with other people secondary to profit. It might be time to turn away from questions like “How do I protect my privacy?” and simply ask, “Is it time to quit Facebook?” 

E. Alex Jung writes for Vulture and has contributed to Dissent, ColorLines, The Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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