We’re A Commodity…and We Love It

Dr. David Beer‘s response to Nicole Ellison and dannah boyd‘s article, “Social Network Sites: Definitions, History, and Scholarship” is a critique on the authors’ definition of Social Network Sites, their underlying theory, and their proposed future action (Beer 517).  Beer finds the author’s definition of SNS to be too broad, and believes that finding classifications of the vast nuances of social media better represents how and by whom the sites are being used (Beer 518).  He also doesn’t like their distinction of online and offline reality, claiming instead that our lives overlap, with neither being “more real” than the other (Beer 520).  He similarly doesn’t care for their distinction between mediated and unmediated communication because it promotes the false notion that unmediated communication exists (Beer 521).  Furthermore, he feels that the authors are proposing the wrong questions, asking why people use social media instead what their usage says about their society.  He feels like this concern over personal usage can actually steer research in an unnecessary direction, focusing instead on individual users instead of whole social groups and pervasive political structures (Beer 522).  He believes we should spend more time wondering about who made the site, how they profit from our usage, and what their original intent for their product was.  Failing to notice these aspects of social media sites lacks a critique on capitalism and runs the risk of naturalizing this “analytic given” of pervasive, yet scarily silent, capitalist intent in our domesticated media (Beer 524).

I have to say, that while I appreciated the information in both articles, I strongly agreed with Dr. Beer’s response.  I didn’t mind boyd and Ellison’s broad definition of SNS but I do think greater distinctions need to be made to reflect the many uses of SNS (Facebook might be a Social Network Site, but what delineates those users who only run a Fan page with unilateral connections of users “liking their page” from someone who only has a login to play Facebook games? And then what delineates those users from someone on LinkedIn who barely knows any of the connections in their network?).  Similarly, I agreed with his commentary on a single reality verses “real” and “online” living.  I’ve included this handy chart about my life to give boyd and Ellison some perspective on just how many people in my real life echo into my digital one:

Essentially what you’re looking at is a graph of how many people I interact with as a whole (with roughly 1060 Facebook friends and the additional 25 people I know who don’t have Facebook), and then an in-depth look at the “quality” of those Facebook friends.  Of my 1,060 Facebook friends, I counted that about 94 of those people were connections I felt to be less “real” than the rest.  People whose names I couldn’t recognize, those whom I just dislike, or those whom I felt like I’d never met or even seen in my physical life (including someone named Bobby Kennedy) made the list.  Now, to clarify, it’s not that I actually have 966 friends in real life.  Rather, what I’m trying to show is that these connections aren’t false, that I would indeed recognize these people if they were to pass me on the street, validating their “realness” as acquaintances in my life.  Even if what I share on Facebook isn’t my “complete” self it is still a very real version of me, and more often than not most of my friends from social network sites are getting a censored “incomplete” version of myself in the physical reality as well.  The distinction between the two only increases the divide, but why focus on what makes either reality different instead of noticing all the ways in which they are the same?

In terms of unmediated communication, I remember in Intro to Communication learning that our own beliefs, ideologies, nostalgias, prejudices, memory, and more mediate even the speech that exudes from our mouths.  I was taught to believe that there is no such this as unmediated communication and have to whole-heartedly agree with Dr. Beer on this one.  Also, in response to his critique on asking the right questions about social media, I can’t help but feel like boyd and Ellison’s look into why we use social media is painfully obvious. Although it would be an arduous task, the answer to who exactly uses social media and what they are using it for is certainly logged.  Our words, photos, and emotions remain logged on these sites for (seemingly) forever, giving Zuckerberg a good laugh (or cry) and offering up the answers to boyd and Ellison’s ponderings.  However, who runs these sites and with what motive is much more interesting to me.  First of all, many people are actually ignorant to the fact that Facebook and other social network sites make money off of their users by selling their information to corporations.  What’s more important to me here is that we seem to like that someone values our thoughts and interests enough to buy and sell them like a commodity.  We do not disable our social network accounts because we suspect foul play, but rather join forces and brand ourselves to better commodify our personas.   We censor our own comments, screen the comments of others, scrutinize pictures, and present the finished product of “Me” to the world.  Expressing our interests in such a clear-cut way only makes it easier for corporations to suggest things to me based on their “knowledge” of who I am.  Take a look:


Why, yes!  I go to NYU, used to be pre-law, and I DO love puppies!  Simple to garner if you’ve known me or stalked my Facebook with any regularity.  But now think of the FREE advertising we offer corporations when we post pictures like this:

So my question to you all is: WHY DO WE DO THIS?!  If we ignore the capitalist undertones in social media we will surely be taken advantage of, and I am uncomfortable with the idea of naturalizing ourselves to that!

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  1. I agree with you that there are so many people ignorant of the fact that social networking sites like Facebook can (and do) store our information to cater ads we see to us based on our interests and Internet activity. Yeah, it’s a little slimy, but as Beer points out, these SNSs are inherently concerned with profit and economic gain. Does that really bother us as consumers of social media, or of the commodities to which this targeted advertising expose us? I personally like it. If I’m going to be bombarded with advertising, I’d at least like it to be of products or services I actually have some interest in. I’ve gotten great deals on Groupon and Threadless that popped up on my Facebook sidebar that I probably would have otherwise missed out on. Hulu is probably my favorite example of this targeted advertising based on stored information. I’m sure there’s some algorithm used to choose the ads to which different viewers are exposed, but I always feel this small sense of power when there’s the option for me to indicate whether or not the ad played is “relevant to me.” Honestly, though, I’d do almost anything to be able to forever ban Geico commercials from being streamed onto my computer. Just because I’m from Texas (as my online profiles and browsing history clearly reflect), it doesn’t mean I have any interest in watching a talking gecko in a ten gallon hat. Sure the whole information storage can be a little annoying (and scary when you think about it!), but in my experience thus far, it’s been more positive than negative.

  2. That Cadillac tattoo is disgusting – and extreme. But introducing it brings up another valid point: that we (as SNS users) are heavy hitters in this capitalist economy.

    I’m definitely on the same page as you in the sense that yes, I’m freely surrendering my A/S/L to third parties and asking myself, “WHERE does it all go?” But at the same time, it seems that emily6266 and I agree that we’re okay with where it’s gone so far. If I’m going to be spammed it might as well be for 50% off American Apparel (hay!). While social media is unarguably capitalist driven, I feel that it is more likely for us to affect the companies around us than be taken advantage of, given the nature of today’s tech-savvy users.

    I find it interesting to take a step back and look at our role within this system. We often complain about our deepest, darkest secrets being commoditized and distributed to third parties. Said data collectors are increasingly emphasizing the relationship between people, power, and sharing. What’s crazy to think about is that means that our thoughts, our opinions, our voices, are all extremely valuable. (However, I’d like to think I’m worth more than $125, Mark Zuckerberg. Just sayin’.) More than ever the consumer’s voice is what matters. By simply liking a status or sharing a link, we are personally endorsing content that transcends the online boundary. It’s simply human nature to bestow trust in our peers – hence the urge to consult Yelp or Urbanspoon prior to dining out. On that note, it is critical to recognize that businesses are dependent on our user-generated reviews. So as long as the technology will allow for it and our social framework demands for it, SNS will continue to shape our capitalist culture. I think at this point we can ask ourselves: who is really being taken advantage of?

    Provided that I’m a social media student, I’m pretty aware of the privacy risks associated with these platforms. No one’s forcing me to provide my contact information, mupload photos, or share other forms of content. Rather, I provide all of this information out of my own free will. I mean shouldn’t we be the ones getting paid for this? Admittedly, I’m a commodity. And I must love it – because I continue to actively contribute to this capitalist system.

  3. I find this topic pretty fascinating. The same goes for this discussion now. I realize we all have these sweeping generalizations about capitalism and whatnot, but does it mean I have no soul if I kind of like where things are headed?

    For example, providing certain information like my age, sex or location, doesn’t really bother me at all. Or my height, eye color, favorite bands, favorite movies etc. These are all things I feel like someone would soon know after meeting me anyway…and it’s not like that information is going to come back and haunt me, right? I mean, I DO have blue eyes and DO love The Beatles so I don’t see much harm in that information being given out. And to be honest, I would be fine with someone posting my home address for all the world to see. Post my phone number, post my email address, post it all! As long as we arent dropping credit card numbers or social security digits I’m ok with that meta-data being in the open. What do people think will REALLY happen?

    “Oh, hmm grumble grumble, Kyle Moffatt? This kid’s home address is posted out here for all of us to see! Who is this kid? Well, I don’t know, but I have his address now, better go kill him!” – WORST-case-scenario-guy gets a hold of your address

    Is that the true concern here? Do people really think they will be hunted down if too much personal information gets out about them? I just feel bad for everyone living in fear! How miserable! It seems ironic that in a country of expression and free speech, we have created a sort of self-policed threshold of privacy for our online selves. Maybe it’s to put distance between our “real” lives and the ones we lead online? Or maybe it truly spawns from a place of fear and solitude that convinces us to shield anything that could trace back to us. I’m not sure, but I think with the dawning of the internet comes the end of any genuine privacy.

    And to the capitalism points: I will admit that the overflow of advertisements to the internet has been a very disheartening process to watch unfold. We are part of a window of generations who essentially “grew up” alongside the internet and paralleled the changes reflected in it (or vice versa). The internet was cool, but once people figured out how to make money off of it it was REALLY cool. And it’s kinda been downhill since then. BUT, I pose to you: why not go downhill with it? No one ever address what is exactly down that hill in that metaphor. Why don’t we go downhill and find out?

    What I mean is, the internet IS the future, and advertising, online shopping, and other seeds of capitalism were planted within it long ago, choosing now to show their faces. I predict that within ten years the TV and the computer will be the same thing. All television networks will also stream online, live, 24/7, and we will be bombarded with more and more intricate advertising campaigns and ways to blow money online..
    **cough cough Farmville cough cough**

    I realize that this may sound like I’m a snooty old republican guy with a wooden pipe and bearskin rug (exactly like that, right?) but dont misunderstand me: I am all for the internet as the forefront of expression, art, and community, but why can’t is also be a place for commerce?

  4. It seems to me that y’all are social media enthusiasts! While reading your post I couldn’t help but think about how all of your comments are along the cultural studies thread. Thinking about how audiences have voice and agency and that we’re not just consuming for the sake of consuming, but that we are aware of what it means to post/share our personal information. Great discussion, y’all.


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