The seemingly innocuous task of spending an hour or two on Facebook, searching out the “pages” of a variety of organizations and companies in order to make the “page” you administer “like” those other ones has become routine for many of us who work as (semi-)professional communicators, recruited primarily for our ability to, well, use the internet. We are told by the pre-internet generation (usually our bosses) that businesses have to have Facebook. And, of course, we do it.
But this practice has thrown into sharp relief what I see as the egregious violations of Facebook (in its current manifestation) against its initial purpose and the ideology I believe was pivotal to its initial growth and success.
Here is some text from an email I sent earlier today when, as it does most days, the daily, forced use of Facebook pains me to no end:
The [insert name of charitable organization] page has to “Like” the pages of all its sponsoring businesses.
These aren’t even people; it’s become mandatory business protocol. Professional courtesy. SOP. And this on the same platform which we use to promote ourselves as drunkards.
This carries over to for-profit endeavors, of course: businesses decided they had to have Facebook pages, thus co-opting a platform characterized, and built, by college kids.
It has become a forum of professionalism, a space where professional courtesy is required: my business likes your business? Your business has to like my business. It provides a platform for rants, raves, comments, questions and hence an able platform for brand-building, -fixing, and, of course, profit-making.
I have lost my immunity from the relentless profit-seeking enterprise that is American business. A real-life friend wouldn’t be offended if I didn’t Facebook friend them. It’s only one version of life, a representation of the real world but a fleeting one on which most, if not all, interpersonal faux pas are forgiven. But haphazardly transpose the bizarre formality of the business world into this venue, and the rules of propriety — those professional courtesies which are entirely appropriate and necessary in the real world — are contrived to still apply on Facebook.
(I guess no one got the memo about that whole better-version-of-self, rules-need-not-apply thing.)
I hate that I am writing this because to me the phrase, the very idea, even, in which Facebook and business are co-existent is so absurd it is laughable. Facebook is a free time activity; I once almost got fired because an employer thought I was on Facebook at work. (I wasn’t; but now I get paid to use it.) Facebook is how you talk to friends, catch up with classmates, and, of course, share photos you don’t remember taking from last night. We need this outlet, and we need it to be clean and clear and uncluttered with intentionally invasive ad placements.
So I double- and triple- check on a regular basis that the Facebook duties I am tasked with at work (the “liking” of other pages, etc., which I do on behalf of pages I administer, i.e. clients) do not appear in my news feed, on my profile, or any other space visible to my Facebook friends and networks. This is only partly out of professional concern; it is mostly selfish, and done because I want Facebook to be the representation of myself that I have created, with no outside help or interference. Were one of my work activities to visibly intersect my personal use of Facebook, I would feel sullied. I would feel impure. Facebook is where I appear exactly as I want. It is doctored and false, and in that way, completely honest. Facebook is (or rather, was) how I want to be. It is not, however, an amassing of all the day-to-day job-related tasks I perform, and the possibility that it could become so is so ridiculously absurd it scares the pants off me.
Facebook has become a farce; it has lost its integrity as a platform for the honest presentation of the self or, poignantly, the self as you wish you appeared. That I am required, and that it is assumed I am willing, to use my personal profile for professional matters is demonstrative not just that the wrong people are using Facebook (those who think it’s okay to invade this space) but also that its initial purpose, which was connecting me-the-individual with my friends and others in my peer group, has disappeared, been over-shadowed by the all-powerful dollar.
“Facebook will never escape its heritage as a way to stalk people you met at parties but did not manage to hook up with.”
That is what Facebook is to me and to a generation of users. It was friends, acquaintances, and random hook-ups. Business associates it was not. We saw the beginning of this phenomenon when my generation — one of the first few graduating high school classes to join up after the launch of the site — started to apply for real world jobs, changing our names and adding privacy settings to our particularly incriminating photos, fearing backlash from potential employers trolling the site for dirt. This was our first sign that not all was right in the internet-utopia we had created for ourselves, a place to play and flirt and show off, safe from the prying eyes of parents, aunts, uncles, employers, co-workers, unwanted ex-friends, and create these custom and curated identities for ourselves.
Of course, the profit machine caught on to this. Twenty-somethings are not a patient group, and we don’t have to be. We fast-forward commercials — because we can Tivo. We skip the ads on Hulu — because we can bit torrent. We don’t buy print magazines or newspapers — because we read them online. We are every advertiser’s worst nightmare. But Facebook created an answer: a way to exploit our fast-paced personal space.
People and the media talk about this as if it is completely normal: companies want access to users in order to access their data in order to advertise more effectively. Wait, what? To make money off of us, when our guard is down, when we’re shooting the shit with our friends.
They’re flashing neon billboards in our bedrooms.
Mr. Zuckerberg’s visit to his rival’s turf may be an indicator that the social networking wars are reaching a new pitch. Plenty of major companies, including Google, Apple and Microsoft, are eager to gain access to the potentially lucrative trove of social data and other information that people share on these services. Facebook has long reaped the benefits of having access to such data, which helps it aim its advertisements more precisely.
It became clear with Facebook, not just with advertisements but more subversively and invasively with businesses having the ability to create pages and directly interject into the news feed flow of hazy morning-after memories, that the profit-seeking missions of large internet companies are taking precedence over the user experience and the company’s dedication to us. But we are, fundamentally, why Facebook and other companies even exist, let alone thrive: to serve us, the customer, the user.
But I’ve come to realize I’ve been living in an ideological bubble, and very possibly been living there alone: every one only cares about how much money they’ll make, how many new customers they’ll win, but not about the user’s experience.
The businesses themselves must realize that they are, or if not yet, will damage their own customer relations by continuing to invade our personal, private space. I don’t want these advertisements, subtle or otherwise, jumping into my sphere of awareness when I’m stalking potential room mates or an old crush or friends I lost touch with a decade ago. I do not exaggerate: these businesses risk losing (or never gaining) me as a customer.
I have explained this to various people on various occasions, who invariably respond with “so don’t like [that business]’s page!” That’s all well and good, and for the most part, I don’t. But what about those users who don’t see this invasiveness for what it is or who have a vested interest in this breach of personal versus business barriers (anyone who puts “social media” anywhere in their job title, job description, or on their resume)? These are the users who “share” or re-post things posted initially by businesses, not in the interest of benevolently sharing information but in the interest of increasing their own value or the business’s profit. This post then spreads and multiplies, like little viruses, eventually reaching and violating the sanctity of my carefully-curated, humans-only news feed.
Thus by businesses having the ability to transmute into “individuals” in order to join networking sites such as Facebook, and hopefully-never-but-possibly Google+, social networking is no longer social networking: it is now business networking and profiteering, taking advantage of a space which was once about people: it was personal and it was private.
I realize for the generations of people older than me, the idea of internet and privacy are disparate concepts; but there is a very important and valuable kind of privacy that exists in the very public sphere: the freedom of anonymity and invisibility. And now, it’s gone.