Mark Zuckerberg and his intimates control a staggering – and terrifying – 57 per cent of Facebook, a company that is exerting ever-greater control over our personal lives. Accordingly, the company is run as a dictatorship, and will continue to be after it goes public later today, promising further decades of tightly-controlled leadership and firestorms of criticism when the company oversteps its bounds. Does this remind you of anyone else? Because it should.
Facebook is on course to be the new News Corp: a global corporation that subverts and corrupts democratic process in furtherance of its own ideological and financial objectives. The difference is that while Rupert Murdoch’s empire has been circumscribed by the limits of production and broadcast, Zuckerberg’s is already in your home, on your laptop, at your workstation and even in your back pocket. Facebook has achieved in a few short years what it took Murdoch decades to accomplish – but the implications of Zuckerberg’s power are far more disturbing.
News Corp’s power is fragmented; its guiding mission fractured by dissemination down into its various organs. But Facebook moves as one: one site, one service, one giant silo of content and advertising. Don’t be misled by arguments that Facebook is “just a platform”: its product is furiously tested to make it as sticky and addictive as possible in order that users can be shown more ads. Except Facebook isn’t an editorial product that helps you make sense of the world, as a newspaper does: it’s a platform host for user-generated garbage.
While it is possible to criticise Rupert Murdoch for capitalising on the fears, vulnerabilities, insecurities and addictions of his audiences – certainly that criticism is levelled at FOX News and his British newspapers on a regular basis – the influence of social media is, its own way, just as manipulative, compelling and divisive as sensationalist headlines from Murdoch. Look at how polarised and antagonistic debate in the public square has become in the last few years, as discursive exploration on television and in newspaper columns has been replaced by the boo-hurrah dynamics of Likes, retweets and asinine commenting.
These spangly new social technology businesses are designed to do one thing: reel in users with glossy interfaces tested for maximum “stickiness”, then get them hooked on the service to flog them crap they don’t need. (Or, worse, stuff that doesn’t even exist.) Facebook doesn’t have to bother with the messy and expensive business of content creation – the users take care of that – but it makes money in just the same way as the old media groups do: identifying and exploiting psychological damage in a way that few European technology companies have been able to succeed at thanks to our continent’s dysfunctional socialist politics.
The irony of all this is that Facebook’s financial prospects are questionable at best: its model remains unproven. But its IPO will likely be considered a success today thanks to the power it wields over the lives of nearly a billion people. We all have a stake in its future trajectory. Facebook will likely win the coming online currency wars, at which point gripes about its advertising model and the aloof way it deals with advertising partners will become irrelevant. And it will succeed in its ideological mission because it is run by a dogmatist who has a deeply psychologically unhealthy relationship with privacy.
We can all admire what Zuck has created, and how lucrative it has been for him and his friends. Facebook’s story has been the great corporate soap opera of our lifetime. But at what cost do we forget that a business which has proved time and time again that it cannot be trusted to act responsibly is rapidly becoming a powerful and dangerous digital nation state, immune from or too agile to be pinned down by the clunky and ponderous legislative efforts of middle-aged men who can barely turn the telly on and frumpy half-wits who can barely tie their own shoelaces?
After all, while over-reported on, such is the paucity of intelligent commentary in the technology world that you could well argue Facebook is under-scrutinised, at least by people who truly understand its cultural implications. The creeping and insidious effects of Facebook on the fragile ecosystems of the internet are barely understood and very rarely written about by the mainstream press, which prefers, alternately, to scaremonger and be scoffed at by the Twittersphere or to drone on about privacy at only the most sophomoric levels.
While Zuckerberg talks about making the world open and connected, he is building a content silo that breaks the fundamental principles of the internet. While he talks about making the world social, his product and others like it are leaving their users more dislocated, miserable and alone than ever before. And while he speaks of democratisation and empowerment, what his platform really does is subvert and distort national democracies by rewriting the law around personal data.
Mark Zuckerberg is an ideologue. But is his objective to collect, expose and sell private data for profit, or is he on a social engineering mission to destroy the concept of privacy? Google turned bad in defiance of its own unofficial slogan really rather quickly. But, by God, the generation of social software companies that came up behind it wasted even less time. So you’ll forgive me if I don’t join the orgiastic revelry in the technology blogosphere today about Facebook’s IPO. I’m just not convinced this is a day to celebrate, unless your surname is Sandberg, Thiel, Parker, Saverin or, of course, Zuckerberg.
“Facebook exists to make the world more open and connected, and not just to build a company,” says Zuck. “Simply put: we don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services.” There is a part of me, troubled, that doesn’t believe him. But there is another part of me, absolutely terrified, that does. Because I think we all know where those “better services” are taking us.