**update January 2022 – further discussion about the distracting meta rebrand incoming**
In an interview with Wired, Mark Zuckerberg, founder of the social media network Facebook, discussed how search engine Google was invading people’s privacy, reassuring that his site gives users control over their data (Fuchs, 2010). Highlighting Facebook’s intentional commodification of its user base will aid us in dismissing that claim. I will also examine their acquisition and changes made to Instagram which encourages users to commodify themselves. This creates a comfortable relationship between their lack of privacy online and accelerates the process of sharing personal data. I will then discuss socialist alternatives to social media platforms that flip a concept of privacy to create more transparency for larger corporations as well as minimizing the exploitation of its user base.
Facebook was created in 2004 by Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg to connect students of the institution using their .edu email (McFadden, 2020). The site hit one billion users in 2012 and currently hosts 2.7 billion active users as of 2020 (Clement, 2020). Signing up for a Facebook account requires agreement to the site’s data policy, giving the application access to your usage, device information, and any information you or your friends share (Facebook, 2020).
Despite being a free-to-use web app, Facebook was valued at $720 billion in August of 2020. This is because the site has made use of all three types of commodities outlined by sociologist Vincent Mosco: audience, labour, and content (2009, pp. 136-140). Facebook’s primary source of income is generated from selling advertising space, which relies on commodifying its audience. It’s a free platform designed to encourage users to interact, in turn maximizing the number of users, as well as the amount of content they create and data that they share. A higher number of users also demands a higher price for advertisements (Fuchs, 2012, p.144). Therefore, it is in Facebook’s best interest to have an active user base that willingly shares their demographic data so they can target individuals within that user base (Johnston, 2020).
When Alvin Toffler introduced the concept of the prosumer in the eighties—a post-industrial-age consumer who also produced goods and services—he believed that as civilization left the industrial age, there would be fewer people who were strictly consumers, and the lines would blur as people began to prefer creating their goods (Kotler, 1986). However, the online market was still in its early days, and the idea of the prosumer overlooked how it would become a method of outsourcing labour to consumers without compensation. Facebook, Instagram, and other social mediums follow a similar structure. They invest capital into technologies and the labour-power required to refine them into usable platforms offered for free, which allows them to be filled with content by users. Facebook takes advantage of the contemporary capitalist convergence of play and labour, dubbed ‘playbour’ by Kücklick (2005). This is the expectation that work should be fun and play time ought to be productive (Fuchs, 2012, p. 146). Play time, which is time spent socializing on the app, allows for users to communicate with others while also performing ‘work’, in that they are uploading content onto the app. Users invest their time and information into the medium which is then categorized and used to attract advertisers. This surplus value is created in part by social media employees, but mostly by the unpaid users who are exploited infinitely (Fuchs, 2012, p.143). In regards to Marxist theory, the users of these apps are both productive labourers and commodities themselves, as their attention and demographic profile are sold to advertisers.
Users of these platforms are often unaware of how much data is being collected about them. Facebook Pixel is code that is embedded in websites that allow for both the site and Facebook to track user activity (Singer, 2018). This information is included in a personal profile for that user, and agreed to in the data usage policy while creating a Facebook account: that long legal document that up to 97% of users may not have read (Cakebread, 2017). Regulators in Europe have argued that Facebook has not obtained both willing and informed consent due to the confusing and obscure language used in these documents (Singer, 2018). Lack of legislation in online privacy has allowed Facebook to use the data it gathers through Pixel to track non-users, assigning codes to them and aggregating their activity. This only came to light in 2015 when Belgium ordered Facebook to cease tracking “each internet user on Belgian soil” (Singer, 2018). This unregulated aggregation of data also allows for advertisers to group people based on specific criteria, leading to predatory targeted ads, such as Murka, a casino game that targeted ‘high-value players’ who ‘make in-app purchases’ (Singer, 2018). This level of precision in targeting is made possible through information collected about users’ habits within applications that no casual Facebook user would believe they were being tracked on.
In addition to being unclear about what information is collected about them, users are also often unaware of how that information is used. While Facebook does not directly sell user data, there are many ways in which that data is used and shared beyond advertising profiles. Facebook has arrangements that they refer to as ‘instant personalization’ (Madrigal, 2018). This allows for integration between apps, such as sending a song from Spotify to a Facebook friend. However, this allows for those integrated technologies such as Netflix, Spotify, and the Royal Bank of Canada to be able to read, write, and delete users’ private messages, as well as seeing all participants in chat threads. This method of data sharing allows for easier sharing between applications, however, what these data-sharing practices mean are not transparent to the users. (Lee, 2018).
In the lead up to the 2016 US election, voter profiles were created through info mined from users’ Facebook profiles once they took a personality quiz that required allowing the app access to their information. The psychological and demographic information of as many as 87 million users and their friends was harvested by Cambridge Analytica, a firm with ties to the Trump Campaign (Confessore, 2018). This event opened a discussion in American congress with regards to regulating privacy on social media, which so far has been beholden to very little oversight (Dance, 2018). Further inclusion by the US government in the Cambridge Analytica scandal led to an antitrust hearing as emails between Zuckerberg and his chief financial offer showed that the purchase of Instagram in 2012 was a method of removing competition (Newton, 2020).
I have shown that Facebook and Instagram make use of all three types of commodities outlined by Mosco; the audience: which is accumulated through the lure of a free platform on which to communicate with others; their labour: which is given freely; and their content: which comprises of personal data which is then used to target users with advertisements (Mosco, 2009, pp.136-140). I will now move to the effect that changes within Instagram specifically have led to an internalization of marketplace logic to its users.
Instagram is an image sharing app acquired by Facebook in 2012 as a method of diversifying their offerings, eliminating competition, and extending their reach into smartphone applications as they grew in popularity (Newton, 2020). This app has given rise to a new form of social media micro-celebrities that can monetize their digital presence. Dubbed ‘influencers’, these individuals make a career out of their social media presence with ‘advertorials’, a portmanteau of advertisement and editorials, where the influencer presents their opinion and experience of a product (Abidin, 2016, p. 3). The success of influencers relies on their ability to convey a desirable and ‘authentic’ persona. With influencers making upwards of $100,000 per year, this at first appears to be a method of resistance against the commodification of users on social media, to make the medium work for them (Lieber, 2018). However, authenticity or at least the appearance of it takes a lot of effort. Dr Crystal Abidin, an anthropologist and ethnographer of internet cultures outlines what she refers to as the ‘tacit labour’ of selfie-taking, from physical symbols such as makeup and dressing; to image enhancement and physical posturing required for a successful selfie. Instagram users may recognize the ‘doll head’ selfie pose which involves “eyebrows slightly raised and eyelids lifted to give the illusion of larger, rounder eyes; pursed lips and a tightening of the cheek muscles to accentuate one’s cheekbones; shoulders slightly raised so that one’s collarbones are given more prominence” (Abidin, 2016, p.10). Or mirror selfies which “require additional labor: tummies sucked in with a hand pinched to one side of the waist to highlight a slim but hour-glass figure; one foot shifted slightly to the front with heels off the floor and a slight tiptoe, so the body leads forward to lengthen one’s frame” (Abidin, 2016, p.11). Both poses Abidin notes that top influencers can step into at a moment’s notice, “swiftly and quietly within a matter of seconds and would have gone unnoticed by the untrained eye” (Abidin, 2016, p.11).
The self-training that makes this posturing appear unrehearsed is required of the top influencers, and recalls Foucault’s concept of ‘discipline’ enacted upon the ‘docile body’, where the body is bound up in its economic use, and trained to “carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs” (1984, p.173). In response to a “machinery of power,” such as the commodification of individuals on a social medium, the body is trained to “operate as one wishes, with the techniques, the speed, and the efficiency that one determines” (1984, p.182). While Foucault’s critique was aimed at the industrial age practice of disciplining bodies to function in a machine-like way in factories and as soldiers in warfare, the automatic bodily response to external stimuli has merely changed with time. To generate success within a social medium that infinitely exploits its users, the body can be trained to appear in a way that generates income from that medium. Dr Abidin notes elsewhere that the “labour requires such a degree of calculated performativity that it has evolved into a lifestyle” (Abidin, 2014, p.126).
Changes within Instagram have trained its users to use the application in ways that maximize their benefits from it. A google search for “Instagram algorithm” results in 67,200,000 results, the first page of which focuses on guides to maximize a user’s audience. Changes in the algorithm have altered the appearance when one logs in. Users are no longer presented with a chronological feed of photos from other users but instead, posts with higher ‘user interaction’ are placed at the top of the feed and search results. Being noticed on the application no longer requires constant posting, but strategic posting. As such, influencers will post on ‘prime time slots’ and use customized hashtags to reach their audience (Abidin, 2014, p.126). Another common tactic is asking a question in the post, to stimulate conversation and therefore user engagement.
The labour that is put into posting on Instagram has the purpose of utilizing the application for generating income, however, it also encourages the internalization of marketplace logic and the application of that logic to oneself. In that way, one begins to embody the commodity that social media already sells. In engaging more with the applications, more personal data is shared, and encouraging followers to engage with posts has the side effect of also having them share more data, all of which is commodified by the platform. While influencers may be generating a profit from their labour, that labour is constructed in a way that accelerates and deepens the exploitation of themselves and their audience by the social media platform.
With platforms that collect and commodify private data and user behaviour, one must consider what kind of privacy is wanted or required. Fuchs points out that privacy is a liberal conception that under capitalism works to protect companies and the wealthy, while privacy conceptualized from a socialist perspective views it as the “collective right of exploited groups that need protection from corporate domination that uses data gathering for accumulating capital” (2012, p.141). Instead of viewing privacy in a fetishistic fashion, where sharing information is an individual choice and can be protected by not sharing too much, it must be viewed within the conditioned social context (2012, p.142). The success of social mediums relies on the human need for communication as well as the collapse of space and time created by industrial innovation and the internet. Where it was once possible to interact with all the people you know in person, that is no longer a reality for much of the industrialized world, especially during a pandemic. Therefore, alternative measures must be found. In a participatory democracy, Held notes a key feature to be the “direct participation of citizens in the regulation of the key institutions of society, including the workplace and local community” (1996, p. 271). As a socialist concept, this participation involves a self-managed economy that does away with classes, handing management to the citizens. A socialist conception of social media, therefore, requires that it be run by the users themselves to avoid exploitation from a select few who own the means of production (Fuchs, 2012, p.149). An example of this is the platform Diaspora, an open-source alternative to Facebook that is run by donations (Fuchs, 2012, p.153). Data is stored in decentralized nodes which are controlled by the users, who are given the choice of what to share and with whom.
In response to concerns about privacy, Facebook created privacy checkups where users can opt-out of certain features or request to know why they are being targeted with a certain advertisement. While this gives the appearance of allowing for greater security, the changes only show what other apps are viewing personal information and user data, and does not provide any insight into what Facebook itself is seeing and doing. Opt-out and self-regulation cement the message that privacy is something that must be requested from a corporation, instead of an innate right. However, their counterpart, opt-in solutions, are based on the informed consent of consumers. Being able to seek out who they would like to share information with allows for the control of consumers to decide when and where they would like to enter the market, instead of the current reality that one is always within the market unless deciding otherwise. Governmental policies that would enforce opt-in mechanisms are desirable under a socialist conception of privacy, however will likely be contested due to the steep drop in advertising profits.
In the same interview that opened this paper, Zuckerberg claimed that “The world will be better if you share more” (Fuchs, 2010). While both Facebook and Instagram began as platforms with the intended use-value of connecting people and sharing photos, the information shared holds exchange value and therefore is commodified by the platforms. In this paper, I have shown how Facebook commodifies user data, while changes within Instagram have encouraged users to internalize marketplace logic and present themselves as commodities. This normalizes and accelerates the exploitative relationship that users have with social media. As Facebook continues to expand across the internet through the accumulation of platforms as well as embedded codes within unrelated websites, it’s time to consider if the lack of privacy is worth the services that Facebook can offer. It is not sharing that is the privacy issue to be taken with Facebook, but the data and power that the few who run the service have acquired. Certainly, the world may be better if we share more, but the relativity and beneficiaries of ‘better’ should worry us all.
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