A lot has been made of the befuddled way in which senators tried to confront Mark Zuckerberg last week. Orrin Hatch seemed surprised that you can run a profitable tech business without charging customers for the service. (Zuckerberg’s deadpan reply: “Senator, we run ads.”) Brian Schatz proved he didn’t have even a basic understanding of WhatsApp. Lindsey Graham gamely pursued questions about monopoly practices, but he got lost trying to figure out exactly who and what Facebook is monopolizing.
Everybody from Silicon Valley snobs to frustrated watchdogs rolled their emoji eyes at the spectacle. Those who had hoped to see a perp walk instead watched Zuckerberg stroll to the bank: Facebook’s share price climbed 4.5 percent the next day. The strongest regulatory threat to emerge was the happy CEO’s offer to write some new rules himself.
The House did far better in its questioning the next day. But, to be fair to the senators, the most urgent questions about Facebook’s business model are complicated. Most of us don’t understand them, and the company has spent gobs of money to make sure both users and their elected officials remain foggy on the details. Zuckerberg actually pointed to the core question himself, even as he avoided meaningful answers: Is the company to be understood as a neutral platform—as it would prefer—or something more akin to a media conglomerate, or an Internet service provider, or some kind of forum for electioneering, or… well, any of the many functions Facebook serves, most of which we already agree need some form of public oversight?
I wonder, though, if even that question still skirts around the matter. I fear that, while we rightly worry about privacy and political misinformation and unaccountable power, we are rushing past a still more fundamental concern. The first horror of Facebook is that it reveals just how deeply we’ve let capitalism sink its teeth into our lives; it’s the vampire we’ve invited across the threshold of our homes. Once inside, we’re powerless against the greedy monster: Even our most intimate thoughts and relationships have become commodities.
To be clear, the peripheral questions still matter: Facebook needs to be regulated. The first proof of that fact is the sanitizing jargon we use to describe the company’s primary business. We talk about “targeted advertising,” “user segmentation,” “data collection.” What is it we’re trying not to say? The correct word is surveillance. And even if we’ve passively agreed to be surveilled, by logging on and taking advantage of the unquestionably powerful tool we get in return, it’s a stretch to call it truly informed consent for most of us—even for much of the US Senate, as it turns out.
Moreover, whatever the company’s intent may have been in creating its platform, it now has 2.2 billion global users—an accomplishment of its relentlessly growth-focused strategy—and as a result, it enjoys unique power to silence or amplify everything from political speech to commerce. How it exercises that power remains a secret. The need for close regulation is plain.
All of this notwithstanding, the fundamental threat Facebook poses is not that it controls so much of our discourse, both intimate and political; it’s that we’ve so casually accepted the commodification of this discourse in the first place.
Speech has long been commodified, of course. I am publishing these ideas through a for-profit (if deliberately not profitable) media company. But Facebook’s innovation is in trading on all of the activity that surrounds our speech—the relationships that blossom from our speech and through which our speech travels. In this, Facebook, and Silicon Valley in general, inserted itself into what was perhaps the last remaining pre-capitalist space; they are literally monetizing our hearts and minds. The horror is that they’ve convinced billions of people to consider this statement a banality.
The history of capitalism is, in many ways, a story of seizing realms of life we hadn’t previously commodified and forcing them into transactions—our time, our homes, our common goods like roads and schools. By the time Facebook came along, there wasn’t much left to seize, except our relationships themselves.
I posted my final image to Instagram a couple years ago. It was an adorable photo of my boyfriend, zonked out on a couch, in the home of one of my oldest, closest friends, still wearing a party hat. It was New Year’s Eve, but he’s a champion sleeper even on the rowdiest of nights. I looked at the image the next day, and immediately felt gross, not because I’d made public something so private, but because I’d made it commercial.
Some time after, I logged onto Facebook and was greeted by one the “memories” the algorithm sticks at the top of our so-called news feeds. It was a photo of one of my earliest dates with my boyfriend, many years ago. My heart first tugged, then revolted. The photo was a uniquely clear reminder of the deal I’d made with Facebook. Here was my most intimate relationship, being marketed to me, in hopes that I would further mediate it through this platform, so that the company could more closely surveille it and, thereby, more effectively monetize it.
I now log onto the platform primarily out of professional obligation. I make my living in media, and we long ago conceded defeat to Facebook. Nobody’s forcing me to play, thankfully, but anybody who makes content is clear how much audience they sacrifice by opting out. If I say something in the woods and no one shares it on Facebook, did it really happen? Prolly not.
But I’m done with that. I don’t use Uber. I bank at a co-op. I avoid shopping Amazon. These little acts of personal rebellion are hardly political revolutions—the excesses of capitalism are systemic, and they require systems-wide solutions. Yet at some point, we must withhold consent from things we find abhorrent. That means giving up conveniences that Silicon Valley has taught me to need. But there was a way to buy toilet paper before getting it from Amazon with one click. And I was able to keep up with my friends and hear about their vacations and learn about the latest party or rally or shared outrage before Facebook figured out how to make money off of those conversations.
So I’m deleting Facebook. It’s not because of Cambridge Analytica or fake news or Donald Trump, though all those things are worrying. I’m going away because my love is not part of capitalism’s marketplace. I choose to keep my relationships, be they casual or intimate, squarely in the commons.