Posts Tagged ‘facebook


The History of Western Civilization Through Social Media

The history of western civilization, as far as I can tell, is the substitution of institutional, coercive, control over people’s lives with diffused, softer, and “social” controls. First, the church, your lord, your husband, and the difficulty of human life ruled over you. Very few people had power to direct their lives each day as they saw fit, and the power that they had to direct others was stern and violent. Remember, legal courts are a comparatively new thing. If someone didn’t like what you did, it was likely that they would just kill you themselves or find someone with power that looked out for them and have them kill you.

Then the church lost its power and slowly but surely, over the course of roughly two hundred years, individuals won the right to practice the religion that they saw fit. But the freedom from excommunication and being burned at the stake by the church was replaced by legal requirements instituted by various governments, and then even those slowly died away as society finally realized the ability to. In a way, religion might be our collective sneak peek at what happens to ALL institutions and systems of value. First, they rule everything, then they are up to the state, then up to the economy, then up to the individual, and then they cease to matter altogether (as I believe will largely happen to religion, or will it have staying power? That would be interesting to see). One might say that a system of values starts its death the moment that those who believe in it cannot summarily kill those who do not.

The same thing happened with the economy. First, people owed their labor to their lord. In fact, there was slavery at the beginning of most societies, but the intermediate step was serfdom or vassalage. A huge class of people created food so that others might live. Then property became somewhat more democratized in that more people could own it, but land was still largely restricted to certain people and labor was still largely immobilized by the difficulty of travel and the power of nobles of all stripes. Also, taxes were set up to almost make sure that certain people could never participate in the economy. In France, the nobles were the ones who DIDN’T have to pay taxes for a long time, because they just didn’t want to and the king did not want to tangle with them. Today, everyone can have property to roughly the same degree. If you have the money and the skills, you can get land, cash, machines, information. Anything you want. If you have the cash. (Addendum: this trend is further backed up by a short look at the history of lending. The dispersion of capital into the economy has massively democratized access to $$)

Same thing happened with the state. At first, the state was nothing more than a group of people who had weapons or commanded the power of other people with weapons. Offending the laws of a place was a good way to die. Since that brutal starting point, the legal controls on the average person have loosened in a host of ways (though they still exist). For one thing, people can now elect their rulers. They play a role in who will rule them, to some degree. That is the legacy of the advance of democracy. Also, the state cannot do certain things. That’s never really true in practice, but there are much more barriers to outright discrimination, pogroms, and the like then in the past. That is the legacy of liberalism. Finally, breaking the law is almost never a ticket to death. There are courts, appeals courts, and finally prisons. There are many, many MORE laws because society has become so much more complex, but they do not carry the absolute and unbending character that they used to.


In this post though, I want to focus on the economy at large. Here again, we are witnessing a substitution of one type of obvious power with a more subtle more dispersed power. The example I’m thinking of is social media and the internet. As the economy had evolved up until the 20th century, people were entitled to property of various kind by paying for it. The problem was that if one didn’t have money, one became poor. If you were poor before public transportation, you had to find a ride another way. If you were poor before food stamps and the like, you were hungry (soup kitchens being the exception).

But these days, a lot of things are eliminating that barrier by providing things for free. For example, news is now free, because sites provide them along with advertisements. Facebook is free, because they want you to give them all your personal information. Thousands of other services are provided not for a monetary cost (the old way of restricting people to goods), but by transacting over someone’s personal data.

This fits with western civilization thus far. Goods and services are made available to more and more people. Yay! Anyone can go to and read pretty high quality writing about a range of interesting topics. Anyone can connect with friends and family via google voice, facebook, email, and on and on. The tradeoff though is made in terms of less understood and “softer” forms of restriction. Cynicism is the name for this and I predict it will grow as an extremely unhealthy force in our society.

In the old economy, if I wanted to buy steel, and you wanted to sell it to me, I knew why you wanted to sell it to me. You wanted my money. This was a type of honesty. As many have pointed out, it was also callous, since I didn’t care about you, but only your money. I maintain though that because everyone knew that money was the trade off, it created an activity and a respect similar to sports. If I played you in basketball, I know you wanted to win, but we both knew the purpose of our interaction. Same with negotiations and creating business. People know what they are getting into when they enter the marketplace. They expect to engage in economic competition (as I’ve argued elsewhere, the value of this competition is exactly the reason we need public education and wealth redistribution, so that this competition is meaningful). But now, when you go to get something, there is an element of fakery that breeds cynicism. Rather than posting a price that Facebook expects you to pay, it plays an ongoing game that most people do not KNOW ABOUT or PAY ATTENTION TO regarding what they will and will not do with your information. They want badly to do whatever they want, but they are bound to care about the community because they need the “community” to continue to extract the information that it needs. Thus there is a very amorphous dance that goes on about the service and what it entails rather than a price transaction which focuses the consumer on what they are buying. This type of transaction makes it very clear to the consumer what they are giving up.

The same things goes for news sites that make money through eyeballs. Rather than asking you to pay for what you read if you like it, there are now gadgets an procedures at every turn to keep your eyeballs on the site. Such things can be distractions, redirects, and prettier and prettier advertisements. But the point is simply to deluge you with advertisements. This is much less callous than simply asking a price, but it’s much more insulting. The purchase of things is becoming indirect. Rather than trying to get your money, facebook wants you to be willing to make it easier for someone ELSE to get your money.


It’s striking how little $ Facebook makes

Everyone thinks Facebook will grow, and I’m not a skeptic. How could I be — I don’t know anything about investing.

However, Facebook doesn’t make that much in profit compared to a whole host of other corporations. Home Depot makes 3x more than it. Also in pg. 12 of the IPO, facebook warns about the source of its revenue, and how unstable it might be. It’s just kind of funny to hear Facebook say this itself and acknowledges it.

We generate a substantial majority of our revenue from advertising. The loss of advertisers, or reduction in spending by advertisers with Facebook, could seriously harm our business.

The substantial majority of our revenue is currently generated from third parties advertising on Facebook. In 2009, 2010, and 2011, advertising accounted for 98%, 95%, and 85%, respectively, of our revenue. As is common in the industry, our advertisers typically do not have long-term advertising commitments with us. Many of our advertisers spend only a relatively small portion of their overall advertising budget with us. In addition, advertisers may view some of our products, such as sponsored stories and ads with social context, as experimental and unproven. Advertisers will not continue to do business with us, or they will reduce the prices they are willing to pay to advertise with us, if we do not deliver ads and other commercial content in an effective manner, or if they do not believe that their investment in advertising with us will generate a competitive return relative to other alternatives. Our advertising revenue could be adversely affected by a number of other factors, including: 


decreases in user engagement, including time spent on Facebook;


increased user access to and engagement with Facebook through our mobile products, where we do not currently directly generate meaningful revenue, particularly to the extent that mobile engagement is substituted for engagement with Facebook on personal computers where we monetize usage by displaying ads and other commercial content; 


product changes or inventory management decisions we may make that reduce the size, frequency, or relative prominence of ads and other commercial content displayed on Facebook;


our inability to improve our analytics and measurement solutions that demonstrate the value of our ads and other commercial content;


decisions by advertisers to use our free products, such as Facebook Pages, instead of advertising on Facebook;


loss of advertising market share to our competitors; 


adverse legal developments relating to advertising, including legislative and regulatory developments and developments in litigation;


adverse media reports or other negative publicity involving us, our Platform developers, or other companies in our industry;


our inability to create new products that sustain or increase the value of our ads and other commercial content 


the degree to which users opt out of social ads or otherwise limit the potential audience of commercial content;


changes in the way online advertising is priced;


decreases in user engagement, including time spent on Facebook;


increased user access to and engagement with Facebook through our mobile products, where we do not currently directly generate meaningful revenue, particularly to the extent that mobile engagement is substituted for engagement with Facebook on personal computers where we monetize usage by displaying ads and other commercial content;


product changes or inventory management decisions we may make that reduce the size, frequency, or relative prominence of ads and other commercial content displayed on Facebook;


our inability to improve our analytics and measurement solutions that demonstrate the value of our ads and other commercial content;


decisions by advertisers to use our free products, such as Facebook Pages, instead of advertising on Facebook;


loss of advertising market share to our competitors;


adverse legal developments relating to advertising, including legislative and regulatory developments and developments in litigation;


adverse media reports or other negative publicity involving us, our Platform developers, or other companies in our industry;


our inability to create new products that sustain or increase the value of our ads and other commercial content; 


the degree to which users opt out of social ads or otherwise limit the potential audience of commercial content;


changes in the way online advertising is priced;


Psychopaths, Mind-reading, and game theory

So I figured I might as well just get all my self-congratulations out of the way (and perhaps give you something interesting to think about as well).

I’m reading a book called The Second Person Standpoint by Stephen Darwall, and there’s a lot of really interesting philosophy stuff in there.  He’s trying to defend Kantianism via the “second person perspective” which I’m not sure has nearly the significance he takes it to have. I’m also not sure if he doesn’t just dogmatically assume its robust importance for most of the book.

By far the most interesting philosophical claim that I have found is his belief that desires are “state of the world regarding” meaning that a desire takes some state of the world as its SATISFACTION conditions. Like my desire to climb mt. everest is a desire that a certain state of the world be realized — that I am atop mountain everest after climbing up it. He then claims though that practical norms or practical reasons have a different structure, because they do not have the world as their satisfaction conditions or object, but actions —  pure and simple. He then uses this point to do a bunch of things. I have a feeling this is wrong, but it’s probably going to take me a while for me to put my finger on why.

Anyway, there are more interesting things afoot to the non-philosopher, one of which are some SHOCKING findings about the ability for humans to read each other. The findings are old, but I’m just now getting to them (as with everything else).

I have said time and time again in this blog, that humans are really good at seeing through each other’s motives and beliefs, and that it’s really pretty hard to lie to people to their face and get away with it. Psychopaths can deceive lie detector tests because in their warped minds, they actually BELIEVE what they are saying. So for normal people, the best way to get someone to believe what you are saying it to believe it yourself. That’s why when you talk to girls (guys who are reading this) you can’t really get away with much faking. The funny thing though is that you meet people who have deceived themselves so thoroughly and so completely about who they are, that they actually become confident by repeatedly telling themselves they are. These people “fake it till they make it.” They are so willing to do things they are not confident doing that they have “de facto” confidence.

Here are some of the results though. In Frank (1988) two people are put in a room and are told to have a conversation about whether they will cooperate in an upcoming prisoner’s dilemma. The result, people could, to a startling degree, predict who would defect or cooperate with them JUST based on a conversation about whether they would or not.

There’s more. Other studies show that JUST CONVERSING about whether to cooperate, raises the rate of cooperation in prisoner’s dilemma situations.

Darwall thinks the first result, about predictions based on conversations, comes from the idea that someone who is going to cheat has no incentive to learn about the motivations of the other person. A defector will of course get his opponent to try and cheat, but he’s not interested in trying to decide what the other person will do, since his strategy is completely dependent on the parameters of the game and not the move of his opponent. Darwall’s big picture point then is that we know when someone is trying to learn about our motives and where we’re coming from. When we don’t detect that the other person cares about “where we’re coming from”, then we rightly get suspicious that they are a selfish bastard.

There is truth to this, because even at a party or in casual conversation, we pick up on it when a conversational person doesn’t  ask us anything about our own lives. Such a person is, in Darwall’s terms, not interested in what we are going to think and so consequently do, because their intention is to screw us no matter what.

I don’t think this really explains the results that well though, because very few people reason explicitly in game theoretical situations. In other words, I think most people are defecting because they believed the other person is a sucker and is going to cooperate. They believe not that defecting is best regardless of their opponent’s move, but that they have convinced their opponent to cooperate and so feel confident in defecting for the bigger prize.

If this is right, then people are not noticing the disinterest of others as much as their malice or their rampant self-interest. the downside of my explanation is that it makes people out to be very cold-hearted, and more so than Darwall, because on my view, people cheat even when they think they could cooperate to still get a substantial payoff. I think this is a cost of what I’m saying, especially since I’m not that cynical about “human nature” writ large. Still though, in this case, I think it’s appropriate because it just seems more natural to think that people don’t commit to a strategy at the outset of a prisoner’s dilemma situation and then follow through (most people don’t understand prisoner dilemma’s situations), but rather make a decision AFTER having the conversation, or perhaps after conversing for a while and then making the realization that they should defect no matter what. If that’s the case, then Darwall’s explanation would not apply, but mine still would.

Second, these studies say to me that conversation, one of my favorite things to do (besides joking around which you’ll notice is another theme on this blog) and something I suspect is tied deeply to some of the things in human life (I know that’s dogmatic, but just listen), is related to BEHAVING MORE COOPERATIVELY . I would have to look at the study, but it sounds like conversing with someone makes you more sensitive to them in a way beyond just KNOWING more about them. It seems to have the effect of tuning you more closely to their frequency and to make you more sensitive to their situation and I guess ultimately, their problems.

As I’ve said many-a-time, conversation is a skill, and like a dancing together or building something with another person, it moves you imperceptibly closer to the person you’re speaking to you and intertwines you into their world. You might say it unifies you both to some degree. Will be able to continue tapping the power of conversation in a computerized and facebookized world? Is our willingness to put electronic barriers between us and the people we communicate with exposing our society to a return of brutality and callousness. We’ll find out I guess.




This is probably some of the most interesting newspaper reading you’ll do all year. Basically wikileaks got a hold of a bunch of diplomatic cables and they are all inflammatory. There’s stuff making fun of various leaders and alluded-to plans for future realpolitik, and the NYT collected the “best of” for its readers.

Usually, stuff like this comes out years after its relevant, but some of these cables are from the current administration. Uh oh. The real interesting thing about this though is that I think it’s kind of short sighted. What value do these leaks have? Wikileaks wants to promote citizen understanding or something like that. Please, spare me. Average citizens don’t read DIPLOMATIC CABLES. But you know who does, other world leaders and governments. The president is supposed to have some executive privilege to consult with his advisors without having all the conversations subpoenaed and brought out into the open. Why is that? Because the government is secretly plotting against us? No, because the president needs to be able to hear honest assessments from people about dangerous and important situations without the fear that their candid assessments will be all over the NYT the next day.

Am I against “open government.” Hardly, but we need to think more carefully about what counts as an open government and a closed or secretive government. Diplomatic cables seem to be something that is straightforwardly not that important to disclose. Are Americans being abused in secret or are public officials taking kickbacks? No, diplomats all over the world, some living in hostile countries are trying to provide information to the executive who makes almost all the foreign policy decisions for this country anyway. In fact, the founders made things this way because they saw that a country will soon fall into ruin if it tries, as wikileaks is doing, to turn foreign policy into a democratic enterprise.

Changing international situations require quick and decisive action. One simple example, its very hard to bargain credibly with other powers (N. Korea anyone?) if the other powers think that everything you do and say can be grounds for a second-guessing media storm when it comes out on wikileaks six months later.

Will a more respectful approach to state secrets results in an a loss of democratic accountability? Not really because the president gets to see and hear all these decisions and if he responds to them poorly, then he and his branch will be accountable. Citizens are in control of foreign policy INDIRECTLY, just as they are for normal pieces of legislation. I didn’t vote on healthcare reform but my REPRESENTATIVE did. Same with Obama, we don’t get to vote on every foreign policy decision, but we do get to vote the president in and out after seeing the results of his handiwork. Trying to maintain democratic control WHILE he’s trying to do his job would just be a sloppy way to run government. Better to wait when international affairs are not so sensitive and then rearrange the executive branch with commissions, laws, reporting requirements, or whatever. Just blasting leaks though doesn’t help anything.

Not only do I find the whole thing pretty irresponsible, but I find it completely EMBLEMATIC of our facebook culture. Wikileaks is just an adult, high stakes version of sharing a link or updating a status. The metaphor seems so appropriate to me. Just as we feel the need to share our every move with other people, as society we feel the need to share our government’s every move with the citizens. The metaphor goes further though. Just as we share the most trivial and insipid details of our own lives, we now want to share the most trite and scandalous snippets from the workings of government. We are quite literally turning our own government into a celebrity from PEOPLE magazine.

Sociologists and psychologists have often remarked on how solitude is important for personal growth. People must be alone with their own thoughts to digest and reflect on the social world they go out into each day. In the same way, the government must have alone time too. No one thinks that citizens should know the codes to nuclear weapons or the locations of our CIA agents all over the world, but we are eroding the barrier between government business to a dangerously thin level, just as we are eroding the barrier between self and society through the daily promulgation of our lives.


social media again; a confirmation

I write a lot about social media, particularly facebook (see this post for a good summary of my writing on this), and my general view of it is pretty dim. On the one hand, the utilitarian benefits of social media are pretty enormous. Time is saved doing all sorts of small social maneuvers, but of course I’m concerned about how these technologies are slowly distorting the frame of social interactions.

I found this post today, and it provides further reinforcement of some points I’ve made before. In the above post, a person changed their birthday date to see who would wish him a happy birthday. A ton of people, even close friends, wished him a happy birthday, even though his real birthday was in April sometime, so not even a half-year before. His point was that people just instinctively sent him a happy birthday message without stopping to think when his birthday actually is.

Ok, so point made. Facebook encourages a kind of fakery and creates social bonds that are very shallow and tenuous. I don’t want to exaggerate the significance of this though. I mean, I don’t keep track of people’s birthdays, either with facebook or without. I just have no clue when my best friends’ birthdays are. This is one of my most obviously misanthropic and anti-social traits, but I just can’t get into it. I really can’t.

So people are a little superficial on facebook. Big deal. People were being superficial with one another well before they could have an electronic trophy next to their profile commemorating their faux-interactions. If the inventor of facebook had called our linked-to profiles “acquaintances” rather than friends, maybe all this finger pointing could have been prevented. Maybe as long as people don’t think they are dealing in friendship when they traffic in “friends” on FB, then there’s no harm done.

I think it’s also becoming a little self-defeating to so righteously and continuously poke fun at facebook. It’s like someone criticizing the state of our media culture by mocking tabloids. Duh facebook is silly; millions of people use it for all their most fleeting urges. The question is, and the question I wanted to shed some light on is: can we deepen our understanding of sociality, and through that, deepen our criticism of the new media culture?

This is a meta-point about philosophy and thinking, which is that examples are crucial. A good theory takes on an enormous number of examples that bizarre or challenging and puts them together in a coherent manner. Many theories can accommodate simple examples, but the good theories deal with the hardest stuff, and that’s why I’m also searching for examples, both banal and freaky. Take a theory of language, in which we express thoughts with words. Every unique string of words expresses a thought. Ok fine, but this won’t work because what about the sentence “Jim is here.” This set of words expresses a different thought depending on the circumstances. If I’m in Dallas when I say this, the thought is “Jim is in Dallas,” but not when I say this is in Boston. The WORLD itself becomes part of our language and we express ourself by involving not just symbols and sounds but the external world we inhabit. This is revolutionary, and it all comes about by a simple example. Take demonstratives. When I point and say “that is a plant,” I have not fully expressed a thought. Just hearing this sentence doesn’t tell you what I’m saying and you cannot evaluate my sentence for truth and falsity. But come to my situation, see what I’m pointing out, experience the world, and my utterance makes sense (and if I’m pointing at a chair, then my utterance is false).

So we need examples, and facebook provides some good ones that spur the mind to reflect, even if birthdays are not that important in themselves. And so I collect these examples to spur my own thinking. Here, the lesson, both from the woman who could no longer demonstrate care by calling on people’s birthdays when there was no facebook (the first post I referenced) and the man who fooled even close friends into mechanistically wishing him a happy birthday (the second post I linked to) is that the social world is potentially fragile and that technology can invade it in all sorts of subtle ways. The point is not to abandon technology, but to not be so uncritical in how it impacts us.


A simple example about socialization

I write a lot on this blog about facebook and the effect of new media on old patterns of socialization are (see here, here, here). Sometimes though reasoning is just a bother and abstractions don’t really speak to us. So, I think I can provide an example that gets at many of my concerns all at once.

I recently met a woman who used to keep a detailed notebook of when people’s birthdays were. She would make sure to call or send a letter to the person when the time rolled around, and she used this as a way to distinguish herself from others who didn’t remember these birthdays. More importantly, she used here memory and attention to detail in a way that allowed her to demonstrate how she valued other people, and her message, as far as I can tell, was quite potent. She was willing to take the time to wish someone well on their birthday.

This was before facebook, and it doesn’t matter that she doesn’t use facebook, because her gesture is lost. Everyone knows birthdays, and respond appropriately (or not). And so one of her skills, her WAY of expressing value to those around her, was denied to her.

This is the sort of thing that troubles me about new media. It seems to destroy our language of value, and EVEN IF, on net, it creates more avenues for social expression than it destroys (which I don’t think it does), it still yanks the rug out from under some people who have, during the course of their path to maturity, created ways of communing with those around them. What should we say to these people?


Josh Harris and We Live in Public

I just watched a documentary called “we live in public,” about a 90s dotcom entrepreneur named Josh Harris and felt absolutely compelled to write a post about this as it relates to my interest in social networking.

The background here is fascinating. Apparently this guy Josh Harris founded some internet companies in the 90s and became a multimillionaire with a company called, which as far as I can tell, was the forerunner to youtube, but suffered due to lack of bandwith.

But more important than Harris’ business acumen and completely anti-social and crazy behavior was that he conceived a project that he called a social experiment in which roughly a hundred people lived in an orgiastic commune created beneath new york city in which every aspect of daily life is taped. This community, called “Quiet,” (like “Rapture” from Bioshock, except the opposite of Randian and rather more communist or something else I can’t even describe) is something I find endlessly fascinating on a variety of levels. First, the community was supposedly an art project but also part experiment. In this society, everything is free including constant and gluttonous supplies of food, drugs, and alcohol, as well as an underground GUN RANGE stocked with hundreds of guns ranging from pistols to some of the most dangerous and bizarre looking automatic weapons I’ve ever seen. People would just go down there and fire off tons of ammunition so that the floor would have to be swept to be cleaned of the bullet casings.

But the big point was that participants in this society were interrogated and quasi-tortured by ex CIA intelligence agents (hired for this purpose) and then given jump suits and a pod to live in with TVs that recorded them constantly as well as allowing them to tune in to other TVs in the underground world. The ideal, according to Harris was to experiment with a surveillance society as well as to make people into TV objects so that everyone was on TV all the time, watched by others, and capable of watching everyone else. Kind of like a chat roulette commune.

Unsurprisingly, the people who signed up for this experiment are probably, let’s say, not ordinary, and became more so as the experiment wore on. People spoke of having their souls stripped from them as Harris continued to manipulate things behind scenes with his CIA hirees (there’s a scene where an interrogator and his assistant regaled in quasi-nazi attire ask a woman abusively and mockingly about the details of her suicide attempt. She starts crying as a result). There was also an extremely cultish looking temple that was built at one point as well.

Symbolically, all hell breaks lose on the night of Y2K and you get the impression that this commune was on the verge of total anarchy as you see Harris watching as a man seemingly forcibly(?) has sex with a woman in a public shower in front of hundreds of other people. The police come soon after (the first morning of the new millenium) and shut the whole thing down as complete chaos erupts. You can only imagine the  faces of the NYC police when they found hundreds of guns organized in an armory along with the “church” of this “art project.” Words cannot convey how shocking and interesting this documentary is.

What are the lessons? Well, it’s hard to tell exactly. At some points this commune seems to be an indictment of a certain kind of obsessively artistic mindset, which as some people interviewed remarked, was a kind of aesthetic fascism. Other times, one gets the impression that this was simply a large group of mentally ill people being manipulated by one extremely smart but also mentally ill person. Other times one thinks that this was a fantasy world of a man that confesses to being raised completely by TV. One imagines that this was his ideal television world. Lastly, one thinks that “quiet” was kind of a dystopian warning trying to convince us to rethink our relationship to technology. Presciently, Harris’s predictions have largely come true with the advent of social media – we are approaching the limit case of sociality on the internet in which everyone desperately attempts to share every aspect of their lives and becomes a slave to the eyeballs that check in on them during every second of everyday.

My own take, given my somewhat conservative mindset, is that “quiet” is just what it purports to be: a kind of hipster aesthetic obsession taken to it’s extreme in which slavery and chaos rather than liberation is the end result. I think aesthetics plays a valuable role in our lives, and I think that I’m progressive enough to understand the importance of breaking taboos and pushing the envelope for the goal of new experiences and new molds of human conduct. This project however seems to be the end point of a kind of totalitarian and melodramatic preoccupation with making everything into art. The result is just bullying and the collapse of human self-worth. Art, if it is to be special, cannot be everything. There must be the everyday and the quotidian for their to be the sublime.

In any case, this is must watch documentary, since I cannot do it justice with this brief description.