Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words

Facebook's Vision: Our Identities as Brand Identities

Today Facebook has been vociferously celebrating the fact that it can now lay claim to one billion users on its network. Regardless of how many of those accounts are fake or duplicate, a billion is still a very large number.

Like many who've been watching the company's uninspiring stock flotation and the increasing clunkiness of Facebook's user interface, my bet would be that despite this new peak in users, the network is likely reaching a plateau. Public perceptions of the site are hampered by confusion over the connection between social media use and, for example, murder; as well as the popular belief that people who use Facebook a lot are just contemporary narcissists.

But news broke this week of a significant development in Facebook's many, many plans to reinvigorate user interaction and, simultaneously, revenue. It will now be possible to pay to promote personal events and status updates.

Users will now be able to pay cash to ensure that their wedding photo album or their birthday party invitations appear at the top of all of their friends' newsfeeds. Previously, phrases such as "the commodification of friendship" were deployed metaphorically. Not any more.

Online reaction to this move has, from certain quarters, been quite negative. But there has also been a tone of bemusement, as if the idea is a little crazy but perhaps, just perhaps, worth entertaining.

Some have said that it won't catch on because your friends will view sponsored posts as "inauthentic" by virtue of the fact they have been paid for. Facebook's explanation of sponsored posts suggests everyone will be able to tell that a post has been sponsored, but only if they read the small print. So there is still room for debate over how much of a conscious impact this will have on users' consumption of their news feeds.

Reception of sponsored posts is one thing, and it really matters, but I want to focus here on the sender rather than the receiver of that message. To have the option of paying to promote information about your life is to move closer to the notion that social networking is essentially just a place where personality becomes PR. Your identity is now quite openly a brand identity, with a marketing budget and, presumably, campaign objectives to boot.

"I hope at least ten people come to my party. Why don't I spend £5 on a sponsored post to make sure my friends don't miss the message?"

That's barely satire. That's actually the conversation Facebook wants us to be having with ourselves. I think it would be alarmist to suggest that once this feature is implemented we'll all be openly thinking about social capital as ROI and coming up with financial strategies to acquire more of it. Yet money as a casual adjunct to social mobility is essentially what is being proposed here.

It is common to view the mixing of personal relationships with money as a conflict of interests - a contamination of values

Culturally, although we all live in (pseudo-)capitalist societies, it is common to view the mixing of personal relationships with money or professional ambition as a conflict of interests - a contamination of values. The rhetorical question, "What's a pound between friends?" or similar remains in use as a social response to the uncompromising pursuit of profit which defines the, supposedly separate, business world. Equally, the infamous biblical story of Jesus's betrayal by Judas is often summed up simply by referencing the financial reward involved: thirty pieces of silver.

One could write an entertaining article on why common perceptions of friendship and family as incompatible with finance are something of a society-wide self-delusion. However, my purpose here is to point out that Facebook's pay-to-promote feature will undoubtedly be met with criticism for the very reasons I outline above, whether or not they are logical.

Quickly the idea will take hold that the proliferation of sponsored posts, or other kinds of paid-for social networking, are paving the way for a two-tiered or class-based online social space. Individuals' prominence on networks will be disproportionately affected by their personal wealth rather than, as we all like to believe is the case now, their value as determined by a given online community.

I think that's a simplistic version of what might happen, but it's important to consider the hierarchies which might evolve with the (potential) rise of pay-to-promote personal media. It suggests a world which drives society towards something we all thought (correctly or otherwise) was largely done away with by the Second World War. That is, aristocracy.

But a kind of free-market aristocracy, if you will. It doesn't really matter whether or not you like to think of yourself as a brand, or information about your life as a commodity. That's what you are within a network like Facebook. Something happens to your personality and your social life as soon as it enters the doors of Facebook which transforms those things into units on an endless product line.

One billion products. Connected by Facebook.

What I've tried to point out in writing this piece is that cultural understandings of terms like "friendship" have arbitrary value systems associated with them which don't really have rational explanations, especially given the context of capitalist democracies. But the point is that to do away with those value systems in order to better serve financial logic is to denude friendship as we know it.

I mean "denude" rather than a word like "debase" precisely because it is a slightly less loaded term. It means to strip away a covering or to make bare. And that is all that can be logically said about a network which removes friendship from the perceived authenticity of non-financial modes of interaction. This is the dissolution of a special, cultural preservation for friendship as something idealistically untouched by wealth and it's been building for a long time in Western culture. After many, many years, it took Facebook to finally make easy, obvious and real.

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