Two years ago, Tom Hodgkinson wrote a long essay about the faces behind Facebook for the Guardian that still is one of the most exciting pieces on some motivations behind social media there is.
It reads like a mixture of conspiracy theory and a thriller but yet gives most accurate details about a sphere everyone uses but obviously no one knows.
I guess you all use Facebook and post your statuses, likes and pics of your last night out. So do I, even though I don’t like Facebook, yet I use it.
Facebook is a great tool to give your business network a personal spin, but I’d never feed it with private data. Erm, wrong, I did quite some time ago, but no more. I tell you why, and give you a summary of Hodgkinsons article.
At the time of writing Facebook claims 500 million active users, all of whom have volunteered their ID card information and consumer preferences to a company they know nothing about. As fb spokesman Chris Hughes once said: “It’s embedded itself to an extent where it’s hard to get rid of.” But there are more reasons to hate it. Many more.
Facebook has no business model yet but already is one of the most valued companies there is. But even after it started with some ad placement, it’s a machine burning money, and the people behind it’s funding sure have an idea why they spend this money. Facebook is a social experiment, an expression of a particular kind of neoconservative libertarianism. You didn’t know that? Well here we go:
Friend-Ad the NeoCons:
Mark Zuckerberg became the role model of the geek that changed our world with a single idea, but the man 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 370k EUR in Facebook when Harvard students Zuckerberg, Chris Hughes and Dustin Moskowitz went to meet him in 2004, soon after they had launched the still campus based site. Thiel now reportedly owns 7% of Facebook, which, at Facebook’s current valuation would be worth a number I don’t even want to think of, maybe a gazilliontrillion EUR. There is much debate on who exactly were the original co-founders of Facebook, 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. He also runs a 4,8bn EUR hedge fund called Clarium Capital Management and a venture capital fund called Founders Fund. But Thiel is more than just a clever 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. He claimed that “multiculture” led to a lessening of individual freedoms. While a student at Stanford, Thiel founded a rightwing journal, still up and running, called The Stanford Review. Thiel also is a member of TheVanguard.Org, an internet-based neoconservative pressure group. This snippet from their website will give you an idea of their vision for the world: “TheVanguard.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”. TheVanguard describes its politics as “Reaganite/Thatcherite”.
So far for Thiel’s politics. What about 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’ famous characterisation of life as “nasty, brutish and short”, and towards a new virtual world where we have conquered nature. Value now exists in imaginary things, which is sad but kind of true today. Thiel says that he’s motivated by his belief to find value not in real manufactured objects any more but in the relations between human beings – which in his perspective are mostly business relations. PayPal was a way of moving money around the world with no restriction.
Clearly, Facebook is another uber-capitalist experiment: can you make money out of friendship? Can you create communities free of national boundaries – and then sell iPhones to them? Facebook is profoundly uncreative. It makes nothing at all. It simply mediates in relationships that were happening anyway. 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. 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.
Friend-Ad the CIA
“By using Facebook, you are consenting to have your personal data transferred to and processed in the United States … We may be required to disclose user information pursuant to lawful requests, such as subpoenas or court orders, or in compliance with applicable laws. We do not reveal information until we have a good faith belief that an information request by law enforcement or private litigants meets applicable legal standards. Additionally, we may share account or other information when we believe it is necessary to comply with law, to protect our interests or property, to prevent fraud or other illegal activity perpetrated through the Facebook service or using the Facebook name, or to prevent imminent bodily harm. This may include sharing information with other companies, lawyers, agents or government agencies.”
In a nutshell this says the CIA may look at your information and all stored data, even after you opted out.
The third board member of Facebook is Jim Breyer. He is a partner in the venture capital firm Accel Partners, who put $12.7m 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).
Facebook’s 2008 round of funding was led by a company called Greylock Venture Capital, who put in the sum of $27.5m. One of Greylock’s senior partners is called Howard Cox, another former chairman of the NVCA, who is also on the board of In-Q-Tel. What’s In-Q-Tel? Well, believe it or not (and check out their website), this is the venture-capital wing of the CIA. The US intelligence community became so excited by the possibilities of new technology and the innovations being made in the private sector, that in 1999 they set up their own venture capital fund, In-Q-Tel, which “identifies and partners with companies developing cutting-edge technologies to help deliver these solutions to the Central Intelligence Agency and the broader US Intelligence Community (IC) to further their missions”.
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 defence research and engineering for the US department of defence, and – with Breyer – board member of BBN Technologies. When she left the US department of defence, 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 programme crossed with a massive information-gathering tool, there is no way of denying that as a business, it is pure mega-genius. It’s scale really is dizzying, and the potential for growth is virtually limitless.
The creators of the site need do very little bar fiddle with the programme. In the main, they simply sit back and watch as millions of Facebook addicts voluntarily upload their ID details, photographs and lists of their favourite 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 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. “Share” is Facebookspeak for “advertise”. Sign up to Facebook and you become a free walking, talking advert 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.
For my own part, I am not going to retreat from the whole thing like Hodgkinson did, but I’ll definitely use it according to what it is – an open book for everyone and a data swallowing black box run by others that prefer to remain unseen.