I despise Facebook. This enormously successful American business describes itself as “a social utility that connects you with the people around you.” But hang on. Why on God’s Earth would I need a computer to connect with the people around me? Why should my relationships be mediated through the imagination of a bunch of super-geeks in California? What was wrong with the pub?
And does Facebook really connect people? Doesn’t it rather disconnect us, since instead of doing something enjoyable with such as talking and eating and dancing and drinking with my friends, I am merely sending them little ungrammatical notes and amusing photos in cyberspace while chained to my desk? A friend of mine recently told me that he had spent a Saturday night at home alone on Facebook, drinking at his desk. What a gloomy image. Far from connecting us, Facebook actually isolates us at our workstations.
Facebook appeals to a kind of vanity and self-importance in us, too. If I put up a flattering picture of myself with a list of my favorite things, I can construct an artificial representation of who I am in order to get sex or approval. (“I like Facebook,” said another friend. “I got laid out of it.”) It also encourages a disturbing competitiveness around friendship: It seems that with friends today, quality counts for nothing and quantity is king. The more friends you have, the better you are. You are “popular,” in the sense of being much loved in high school. Witness the cover line on Dennis Publishing’s new Facebook magazine: “How To Double Your Friends List.”
It seems, though, that I am very much alone in my hostility. At the time of writing Facebook claims 59 million active users, including 7 million in the UK, Facebook’s third-biggest customer after the US and Canada. That’s 59 million suckers, all of whom have volunteered their ID card information and consumer preferences to an American business they know nothing about. Right now, two million new people join each week. At the present rate of growth, Facebook will have more than 200 million active users by this time next year. And I would predict that, if anything, its rate of growth will accelerate over the coming months. As its spokesman, Chris Hughes, says, “It’s embedded itself to an extent where it’s hard to get rid of.”
All of the above would have been enough to make me reject Facebook forever. But there are more reasons to hate it. Many more.
The PayPal Mafia
Facebook is a well-funded project, and the people behind the funding, a group of Silicon Valley venture capitalists, have a clearly thought-out ideology that they are hoping to spread around the world. Facebook is one manifestation of this ideology. Like PayPal before it, it is a social experiment, an expression of a particular kind of neoconservative libertarianism. On Facebook, you can be free to be who you want to be, as long as you don’t mind being bombarded by ads for the world’s biggest brands. As with PayPal, national boundaries are a thing of the past.
Although the project was initially conceived by media cover star Mark Zuckerberg, the real face behind Facebook is the 40-year-old Silicon Valley venture capitalist and futurist philosopher Peter Thiel. There are only three board members on Facebook, and they are Thiel, Zuckerberg, and a third investor called Jim Breyer from a venture capital firm called Accel Partners (more on him later). Thiel invested $500,000 in Facebook when Harvard students Zuckerberg, Chris Hughes, and Dustin Moskowitz went to meet him in San Francisco in June 2004, soon after they had launched the site. Thiel now reportedly owns 7 percent of Facebook, which, at Facebook’s current valuation of $15 billion, would be worth more than $1 billion. There is much debate on who, exactly, the original co-founders of Facebook were, but, whoever they were, Zuckerberg is the only one left on the board, although Hughes and Moskowitz still work for the company.
Thiel is widely regarded in Silicon Valley and in the US venture capital scene as a libertarian genius. He is the co-founder and CEO of the virtual banking system PayPal, which he sold to Ebay for $1.5 billion, taking $55 million for himself. He also runs a $4.5 billion hedge fund called Clarium Capital Management and a venture capital fund called Founders Fund. Bloomberg Markets magazine recently called him “one of the most successful hedge fund managers in the country.” He has made money by betting on rising oil prices and by correctly predicting that the dollar would weaken. He and his absurdly wealthy Silicon Valley friends have recently been labeled “The PayPal Mafia” by Fortune magazine, whose reporter also observed that Thiel has a uniformed butler and a $500,000 McLaren supercar. Thiel is also a chess master and intensely competitive. He has been known to sweep the chessmen off the table in a fury when losing. And he does not apologize for this hyper-competitiveness, saying, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.”
But Thiel is more than just a clever and avaricious capitalist. He is a futurist philosopher and neocon activist. A philosophy graduate from Stanford, in 1998 he co-wrote a book called The Diversity Myth, which is a detailed attack on liberalism and the multiculturalist ideology that dominated Stanford. He claimed that the “multiculture” led to a lessening of individual freedoms. While a student at Stanford, Thiel founded a right-wing journal, still up and running, called The Stanford Review; its motto: Fiat Lux (“Let there be light”). Thiel is a member of TheVanguard.Org, an Internet-based neoconservative pressure group that was set up to attack MoveOn.org, a liberal pressure group that works on the web. Thiel calls himself “way libertarian.”
The Vanguard is run by one Rod D. Martin, a philosopher-capitalist whom Thiel greatly admires. On the site, Thiel says, “Rod is one of our nation’s leading minds in the creation of new and needed ideas for public policy. He possesses a more complete understanding of America than most executives have of their own businesses.”
This little taster from their website will give you an idea of their vision for the world: “The Vanguard.org is an online community of Americans who believe in conservative values, the free market and limited government as the best means to bring hope and ever-increasing opportunity to everyone, especially the poorest among us.” Their aim is to promote policies that will “reshape America and the globe.” The Vanguard describes its politics as “Reaganite/Thatcherite.” The chairman’s message says, “Today we’ll teach MoveOn, Hillary and the left-wing media some lessons they never imagined.”
So Thiel’s politics are not in doubt. What about his philosophy? I listened to a podcast of an address Thiel gave about his ideas for the future. His philosophy, briefly, is this: Since the 17th century, certain enlightened thinkers have been taking the world away from the old-fashioned nature-bound life, and here he quotes Thomas Hobbes’s famous characterization of life as “nasty, brutish, and short,” and toward a new, virtual world where we have conquered nature. Value now exists in imaginary things. Thiel says that PayPal was motivated by this belief: that you can find value not in real manufactured objects, but in the relations between human beings. PayPal was a way of moving money around the world with no restriction. Bloomberg Markets puts it like this: “For Thiel, PayPal was all about freedom: It would enable people to skirt currency controls and move money around the globe.”
Clearly, Facebook is another über-capitalist experiment: Can you make money out of friendship? Can you create communities free of national boundaries—and then sell Coca-Cola to them? Facebook is profoundly uncreative. It makes nothing at all. It simply mediates in relationships that were happening anyway.
The sheep look up
Thiel’s philosophical mentor is one René Girard of Stanford University, proponent of a theory of human behavior called mimetic desire. Girard reckons that people are essentially sheep-like and will copy one another without much reflection. The theory would also seem to be proved correct in the case of Thiel’s virtual worlds: The desired object is irrelevant; all you need to know is that human beings will tend to move in flocks. Hence, financial bubbles. Hence the enormous popularity of Facebook. Girard is a regular at Thiel’s intellectual soirees. What you don’t hear about in Thiel’s philosophy, by the way, are old-fashioned real-world concepts such as art, beauty, love, pleasure, and truth.
The Internet is immensely appealing to neocons such as Thiel because it promises a certain sort of freedom in human relations and in business, freedom from pesky national laws, national boundaries, and suchlike. The Internet opens up a world of free trade and laissez-faire expansion. Thiel also seems to approve of offshore tax havens, and claims that 40 percent of the world’s wealth resides in places such as Vanuatu, the Cayman Islands, Monaco, and Barbados. I think it’s fair to say that Thiel, like Rupert Murdoch, is against tax. He also likes the globalization of digital culture because it makes the banking overlords hard to attack: “You can’t have a workers’ revolution to take over a bank if the bank is in Vanuatu,” he says.
If life in the past was nasty, brutish, and short, then in the future Thiel wants to make it much longer, and to this end he has also invested in a firm that is exploring life-extension technologies. He has pledged over $5 million to a Cambridge, UK-based gerontologist called Aubrey de Grey, who is searching for the key to immortality. Thiel is also on the board of advisers of something called the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. From its fantastical website, the following: “The Singularity is the technological creation of smarter-than-human intelligence. There are several technologies heading in this direction: artificial intelligence, direct brain-computer interfaces, genetic engineering, different technologies which, if they reached a threshold level of sophistication, would enable the creation of smarter-than-human intelligence.”
So, by his own admission, Thiel is trying to destroy the real world, which he also calls “nature,” and install a virtual world in its place, and it is in this context that we must view the rise of Facebook. Facebook is a deliberate experiment in global manipulation, and Thiel is a bright young thing in the neoconservative pantheon, with a penchant for far-out techno-utopian fantasies. Not someone I want to help get any richer.
The third board member of Facebook is Jim Breyer. He is a partner in the venture capital firm Accel Partners, who put $12.7 million into Facebook in April 2005. On the board of such US giants as Wal-Mart and Marvel Entertainment, he is also a former chairman of the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA). Now, these are the people who are really making things happen in America, because they invest in the new young talent, the Zuckerbergs and the like. Facebook’s most recent round of funding was led by a company called Greylock Venture Capital, which put in the sum of $27.5 million.
The US defense department and the CIA love technology because it makes spying easier. “We need to find new ways to deter new adversaries,” then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in 2003. “We need to make the leap into the information age, which is the critical foundation of our transformation efforts.” In-Q-Tel’s first chairman was Gilman Louie, who served on the board of the NVCA with Breyer. Another key figure in the In-Q-Tel team is Anita K. Jones, former Director of Defense Research and Engineering for the Department of Defense, and—with Breyer—board member of BBN Technologies. When she left the Department of Defense, Senator Chuck Robb paid her the following tribute: “She brought the technology and operational military communities together to design detailed plans to sustain US dominance on the battlefield into the next century.”
Now, even if you don’t buy the idea that Facebook is some kind of extension of the American imperialist program crossed with a massive information-gathering tool, there is no way of denying that as a business, it is pure mega-genius. Some ’Net nerds have suggested that its $15 billion valuation is excessive, but I would argue that, if anything, that is too modest. Its scale really is dizzying, and the potential for growth is virtually limitless. “We want everyone to be able to use Facebook,” says the impersonal voice of Big Brother on the website. I’ll bet they do. It is Facebook’s enormous potential that led Microsoft to buy 1.6 percent for $240 million. A recent rumor says that Asian investor Lee Ka-Shing, said to be the ninth richest man in the world, has bought .4 percent of Facebook for $60 million.
The creators of the site need do very little, bar fiddling with the program. For the most part, they simply sit back and watch as millions of Facebook addicts voluntarily upload their ID details, photographs, and lists of their favorite consumer objects. Once in receipt of this vast database of human beings, Facebook then simply has to sell the information back to advertisers, or, as Zuckerberg puts it in a recent blog post, “to try to help people share information with their friends about things they do on the web.” And, indeed, this is precisely what’s happening. On November 6 of last year, Facebook announced that 12 global brands had climbed on board. They included Coca-Cola, Blockbuster, Verizon, Sony Pictures, and Conde Nast. All trained in marketing bullshit of the highest order, their representatives made excited comments along the following lines:
“With Facebook Ads, our brands can become a part of the way users communicate and interact on Facebook,” said Carol Kruse, vice president, global interactive marketing, the Coca-Cola Company.
“We view this as an innovative way to cultivate relationships with millions of Facebook users by enabling them to interact with Blockbuster in convenient, relevant, and entertaining ways,” said Jim Keyes, Blockbuster chairman and CEO. “This is beyond creating advertising impressions. This is about Blockbuster participating in the community of the consumer so that, in return, consumers feel motivated to share the benefits of our brand with their friends.”
“Share” is Facebook-speak for “advertise.” Sign up at Facebook and you become a free walking, talking advertisement for Blockbuster or Coke, extolling the virtues of these brands to your friends. We are seeing the commodification of human relationships, the extraction of capitalistic value from friendships.
Now, by comparison with Facebook, newspapers, for example, begin to look hopelessly outdated as a business model. A newspaper sells advertising space to businesses looking to sell stuff to their readers. But the system is far less sophisticated than Facebook for two reasons. One is that newspapers have to put up with the irksome expense of paying journalists to provide the content. Facebook gets its content for free. The other is that Facebook can target advertising with far greater precision than a newspaper. Admit on Facebook that your favorite film is This Is Spinal Tap, and when a Spinal Tap-esque movie comes out, you can be sure that the site will be sending ads your way.
It’s true that Facebook recently got into hot water with its Beacon advertising program. Users were notified that one of their friends had made a purchase at certain online shops; 46,000 users felt that this level of advertising was intrusive, and signed a petition titled “Facebook! Stop invading my privacy!” to say so. Zuckerberg apologized on his company blog. He has written that they have now changed the system from “opt-out” to “opt-in.” But I suspect that this little rebellion about being so ruthlessly commodified will soon be forgotten: After all, there was a national outcry by the civil liberties movement when the idea of a police force was mooted in the UK in the mid 19th century.
Now, you may, like Thiel and the other new masters of the cyberverse, find this social experiment tremendously exciting. Here at last is the Enlightenment state longed for since the Puritans of the 17th century sailed away to North America, a world where everyone is free to express themselves as they please, according to who is watching. National boundaries are a thing of the past and everyone cavorts together in freewheeling, virtual space. Nature has been conquered through man’s boundless ingenuity. Yes, and you may decide to send genius investor Thiel all your money, and certainly you’ll be waiting impatiently for the public flotation of the unstoppable Facebook.
Or you might reflect that you don’t really want to be part of this heavily funded program to create an arid, global, virtual republic, where your own self and your relationships with your friends are converted into commodities on sale to giant global brands. You may decide that you don’t want to be part of this takeover bid for the world.
For my own part, I am going to retreat from the whole thing, remain as unplugged as possible, and spend the time I save by not going on Facebook doing something useful, such as reading books. Why would I want to waste my time on Facebook when I still haven’t read Keats’s Endymion? And when there are seeds to be sown in my own back yard? I don’t want to retreat from nature, I want to reconnect with it. Damn air-conditioning! And if I want to connect with the people around me, I will revert to an old piece of technology. It’s free, it’s easy and it delivers a uniquely individual experience in sharing information: It’s called talking.
This article originally appeared in the Guardian on January 14, 2008.
Copyright Guardian UK 2008.