Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Facebook Revolutions

Marvel at the snatch-and-grab that is, and will no doubt continue to be, corporate investment in Facebook. The BBC announced today that Microsoft won a bidding war with Google to invest $240 million in the three-and-a-half year old company, in exchange for a not insignificant 1.6% share. Based on these numbers (1.6% = $240 million), the story rather speculatively calculates Facebook's worth at an astonishing $15 billion.

The BBC goes on to state 15 useful, sometimes obvious reasons why a mega-corporation like Microsoft would want to invest in the world's premier social networking website. Here are my favorites:

2. The average user spends 3.5 hours a month on Facebook - more than the average user on rival MySpace - which is increasingly attractive to advertisers.
I personally know people who spend this much time on Facebook every day. I shall not name names here, but let's just say I now know why the United Nations has a reputation for not getting anything done.

3. Facebook is the current Web 2.0 darling - popular with ordinary users and "tech heads" alike.
I don't know the lingo: 2.0, tech head, whatever. I do know I'm a half-Luddite when it comes to technology: happy with the tools, functions, and gadgets I possess and know well but averse to "new" and "innovative" commodities that I'm told I simply "must have" in order to be "cool" or "with it" or "in touch." I still resent those moments when friends had the audacity to criticize me for not having a cell phone -- as though they had to put up with some sort of unfortunate handicap on my part. I'm happy with my mobile now, but it's not like I was dying without it.

At any rate, this is an interesting point: Facebook appeals to techies and non-techies alike. For me, it's not just that Facebook's applications are efficient and easy to use; it's also that the website's text and interface are "easy on the eyes," designed with the student or working professional in mind. MySpace, by contrast, has turned into a gauche, untidy, bloated mess of advertising, videos, and "personalized" text; every page is a new adventure, and usually a new set of buttons and images and objects to navigate or avoid. MySpace has no common "language" to speak of -- it's become so "user-friendly" that any semblance of communicable text is lost between a set of five or more "friends."

4. US research reveals that Facebook users come from wealthier homes and are more likely to attend college than MySpace users - increasing that attraction for advertisers.
But of course my rant above probably boils down to this revealing fact: though by no means from a "wealthy" family, I do have the education, leisure time, and cultural capital to appreciate certain aspects of Facebook -- design, clarity, efficiency -- over and against those of MySpace. Rather than feel "guilty" about this fact, I'd like to think through the implications of Facebook's class differential and, more broadly, theorize how and to what effect capital identifies virtual spaces of consumption. These spaces are variable and differentiated; they may be porous, or they may not. However one pursues these questions, it's important that we remember Facebook's isolationist "origins": it began as a virtual complement to Harvard's freshman facebook, print copies of which had been a new student's guide to everyone's hometown, campus location, and hookup potentiality (the last based on a choice high school photo -- gah!). They had actual facebooks when I arrived at Dartmouth in the fall of 2001 -- are they still around at "elite" colleges and universities, or has Facebook replaced them too?

9. According to a report, 233 million hours of work are lost each month in the UK due to staff looking at social networks. Advertisers can now target people when at their desks.
See comment about UN workers above.

14. Facebook is the acceptable face of blogging - you can reflect your life and personality online without being seen as a "blogger", which often carries a geeky stigma.
Well, this can go both ways -- too little information on Facebook leaves you in the doldrums (see those who still have the question mark as their profile picture), but too much can make it seem as though you only knew how to communicate in spaces of virtual sociality. I've been told that my practice of posting numerous reviews of books and movies on Facebook (and Amazon.com) is odd. What makes me want to offer criticism in these virtual spaces? What do I get done here that I may or may not be able to get done in "real life"? Do I expose myself to be averse to face-to-face interaction by channeling a portion of my intellectual energy into Facebook -- or this blog even?

All good questions, the answers to which aren't forthcoming any time soon (if ever). I suppose the only thing I can say right now is that I'm aware of the existential tension between my virtual self and my Being as such. I realize that, even though virtuality is definitely a part of my Being, it doesn't exhaust or define who I am in a strict sense. I mean, have you seen my Facebook profile picture? When have I ever looked so cool in real life?

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