Tuesday, March 27, 2012 / 5:00 am

Facebook: In the Mind of Madness

What happens when a company's business plan depends on making you more vain?

by Tony Chavira

Tags: Facebook | narcissism | technology

Seeking Attention with Facebook
The way we use Facebook

When Mitt Romney's future policies were questioned by The Weekly Standard this week, his response revealed his scary and ominous sensibility that many people (aka organizations, since they are people too, my friend) share: that the laws of our country do not apply to him…

[…] “I think it’s important for me to point out that I anticipate that there will be departments and agencies that will either be eliminated or combined with other agencies. So for instance, I anticipate that housing vouchers will be turned over to the states rather than be administered at the federal level, and so at this point I think of the programs to be eliminated or to be returned to the states, and we’ll see what consolidation opportunities exist as a result of those program eliminations. So will there be some that get eliminated or combined? The answer is yes, but I’m not going to give you a list right now.”

In other words, “I might do it, but why tell you the blood-curdling details if you're just going to hate them and not elect me?”

When someone with a sense of immunity from society's rules thinks that revealing his real intentions to the public will likely cause a negative reaction, its usually because his real intentions are to do bad things to you. Or he doesn't think you can handle the harsh truth, which is ultimately just the attitude of a condescending jerk.

Similarly, Facebook isn't going to just announce on their website that it's trying to trademark the word “book” (or “face” or “wall” or “poke”) in it's updated user agreement. Only jerks do things like that. Or that Facebook's starting to take part in talks that will determine whether or not it's illegal for employers to demand your Facebook passwords so they can rifle through your account's unmentionables only now, after two U.S. senators have asked the Justice Department to get on it.

Or, on a less legal and more personal note, Facebook has no interest in announcing that its system has a troubling effect on those with low self-esteem (that Facebook only further ostracizes you and will aggressively fuel your downward turn). Or that Facebook is an incubator for “socially disruptive” narcissists, rewarding self-interest and shallow relationships. Or that we are only capable of managing 100 -or-so relationships at a time and that we're only lying to ourselves if we think we can manage more than that.

The issue with each of these problems it that Facebook, as a system, cannot functionally answer any of them without completely changing what it is and how it makes money. And (not sure if you knew this but) it's a very, very profitable system… which only means that it'll become less and less capable of changing its business model as times goes on. Simply, Facebook can only thrive by promoting the illusion that everyone's a narcissist, by aggressively decreasing or increasing your self-esteem, and by convincing you that you can maintain more relationships than are physically/psychologically possible.

But most importantly, Facebook has a huge profit stake in turning each new generation of internet users into narcissists as well.

(If Facebook lasts long enough for the next generation of internet users, I mean.)

Facebook has a lot of weapons at its disposal too; most dangerously, sociological data. Recently, two Facebook data engineers decided to track the seasonality of relationship formation (i.e. when people start or end relationships). Here's what they found:

The days around Valentine's Day and Christmas are good chances to try your luck or breathe a bit easier. The data showed far more people paired up around these times than joined the ranks of the newly single.[…]

We also found patterns over the course of the week.  In general, we saw a net gain in relationships after the weekend – Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday were the biggest days for new romance.Relatively more break-ups happened leading up to the weekend, peaking on Friday and Saturday among people in the older age groups. Among younger people (those under 25), this weekly pattern was similar but temporally shifted just a bit, with the low point in net relationship growth coming on Thursday and Friday, followed by a slightly earlier weekend bump starting on Saturday.[…]

That Facebook can so easily find trends for–in offline life–very private and personal data is frightening. For all practical purposes, by conducting this analysis Facebook is openly mocking its users' and flaunting their very personal and very emotional exploits for the sake of reinforcing its own bottom line. But strange, that no one sees it that way.

Or that we have developed such a shallow relationship with our own private information, since it seems like everyone's just find letting Facebook use it for their own little experiements.

Appropriately, users commented on Facebook's (above-linked) analysis with statements that reinforced their own self-images, wit and cleverness, like, “And how many people were out falling in love while the Facebook Data Team were writing this :-)”, and “Hey, breaking up seems to be the same data profile as getting fired from a job. The job of romance so to speak. It is hard work after all. Like the old Natl. Lampoon parody 'The Job of Sex.'”

But what really jumped out at me was this response: “Would it be possible to make the data public when you put together charts like this? I'm assuming that you have lots of data, but it would be really interesting to see the statistical significance between the means on these different categories. I also think that opening up the data could lead to some very interesting crowd-sourced analysis.”

That's right: a random commenter wants your private data available for everyone to care-free analyze, and (in the psychotic context of Facebook) his comment somehow seems perfectly reasonable. Even profitable, from a business standpoint. “Privacy? What's that?” And he was just one of many who wanted to run their only little analyses with your information!

What are the odds that these “crowd-sourced analyses” will also support the idea that private information needs to be available to the public? Likely very high. The idea's simple, and one that Facebook needs its users to casually dismiss: everyone is comfortable broadcasting private information on Facebook, and all of your data should be analyzed. From a business standpoint, Facebook needs to increase its users' ability to broadcast more about themselves in order to have more data to collect… “crowd-sourced analyses” are as good an excuse as any. In fact, these analyses perfectly align with Facebook's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg's belief that internet users should demand less privacy. We're doing it for data… and the more data, the better!

But how much longer can this go on for Facebook? People who use Facebook may have some traits of narcissism, but don't necessarily have traits for narcissistic personality disorder; like ridiculously high self-esteem, lack of humility, manipulative tendencies, and a complete lack of empathy. In fact, many people have none of these traits. Most people are just good, honest, open people.

Facebook's business model needs to keep you vain, and maybe even turn you into the kind of narcissist you, simply, aren't in order to secure future profits. But that business plan can only be successful to a point, I think: the point at which you begin to feel that using Facebook becomes too self-indulgent—when you begin to recognize that you're becoming a person you don't like when you use it.

This is who Facebook the “person” is: someone who doesn't acknowledge their limitations, doesn't care how they treat people and openly taunt you with no sense of responsibility to you. A narcissist, who takes your private information and analyzes it publicly, who monitors your behavior to try to make a profit on it, and who only rewards you when you exhibit similar narcissism.

Now, with a sense of relative immunity, Facebook has revealed its real intentions to the public: to take your private life and display it publicly for all. And they hope we've become too vain to care.

Alack and alas, we have no revolted. Instead, we've only demanded more vanity, privacy be damned, and taken one step closer to becoming the commodity Facebook needs us to be in order to remain immensely profitable: a person who goes to their site to stare in the mirror.

Tony Chavira is the President of FourStory, a nonprofit organization that promotes fairness and social justice through strong writing and storytelling. He is also the Program Developer at RACAIA Architecture, writes and posts comics at Minefield Wonderland, and teaches Business Report Writing at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

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