The much-discussed purchase of WhatsApp by Facebook this week should give us pause for thought regarding the real agendas behind such monopolistic acquisitions in the tech world.
It’s clear that, with Facebook users getting older and older, the teen market is something it must buy into in order to capture the next generation.
It’s also clear that, in the manner of Microsoft or Blackberry Messengers, this is an attempt by Facebook to monopolise our “free” internet chatter in a single app. This obviously runs counter to the cross-platform appeal of email or SMS. Though even if Facebook does hold off placing advertising on this messaging platform (for a year or two), it will still have access to all the meta-data of teen chatter, so valuable to them in targeting their advertising at us on Facebook itself.
But look a little deeper and there are disturbing traces of the activities of self-styled neoliberal elites, a class unto themselves continually trying to ensure that the world runs in their best interests. The meta-data about our relationships in social networks so valuable to Zuckerberg and his advertisers is, as we have recently seen all too clearly, also extremely valuable to the national security agencies in the US and UK. It gives us the incredibly detailed depiction only Big Data can offer of the shape, trends, shifts and movements of societies: those amorphous entities neoliberals once upon a time dismissed as irrelevant to market needs. Oh, and, of course, the possibility of snooping on nasty terrorists, as they keep reminding us.
We can gain even more insight into this latest acquisition by taking a look at Peter Thiel, the string-puller behind Zuckerberg. Paypal founder turned venture capitalist, Thiel was Facebook’s first big investor back in 2004 and he still sits on the company board.
As an undergraduate Thiel was taught by the French philosopher Rene Girard (and he now funds the Imitatio organisation promoting Girard’s work). Girard is famous for his assertion that all human behaviour is based on imitation – his mimetic theory – and that all conflict, as well as attempts to ameliorate it, derives from this imitation. Girard accords objective scientific status to his mimetic theory, while at the same time basing it all in Biblical references and interpretations of the New Testament.
As you can tell from Thiel’s video about Girard’s influence on his life, the Facebook capitalist believes human beings act as a “herd”, and that his success has come from second-guessing the herd mentality, innovating in spaces counter to the movements of the herd, staying one step ahead.
On the face of it, social networks like Facebook, and its recent acquisitions Instagram and WhatsApp, are places where we chat with family and friends and share pictures of kittens and our dinners. But they turn out in fact to be rather sinister harvesting machines, where shadowy government agencies and billionaire elites hoover up the data about our “herd” behaviour in their attempts to maintain social control and competitive advantage.
Many marketing professionals I know who deal in this sort of thing don’t have Facebook profiles; they know what is done with their data and want their lives to be more private than this. Perhaps we should all take their advice – or just keep moving with the herd?
David Kreps receives funding from the European Social Fund, the European Commission Framework 7 Programme, the UK Technology Strategy Board, and the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council.