Wade Roush has been covering the rise of social networking for Technology Review for a couple of years now. But, as he explains in the latest issue, his enthusiasm for the phenomenon is turning to disdain, thanks to what he says is the devolution of MySpace “from a friends’ network into a marketing madhouse.” Roush writes:
I had higher hopes for the technology. To me, the popularity of MySpace and other social-networking sites signals a demand for new, more democratic ways to communicate – a demand that’s likely to remake business, politics, and the arts as today’s young Web users enter the adult world and bring their new communications preferences with them. The problem is that MySpace’s choice of business strategy threatens to divert this populist energy and trap its users in the old, familiar world of big-media commercialism.
Roush worries that MySpace “is undermining the ‘social’ in social networking” by encouraging companies to establish their products as MySpace “members” which can become “friends” with other (human) members: “The company interprets the idea of a ‘profile’ so broadly that real people end up on the same footing as products, movies, promotional campaigns, and fictional characters – not exactly the conditions for a new flowering of authentic personal expression.” In earlier social networks, like Friendster, sham profiles, including those set up for commercial purposes, were scorned as “fakesters.” But MySpace, says Roush, “has been hospitable to fakesters from the beginning – so much so that it’s now perfectly kosher for a company (or one of its fans) to create a profile for a fast-food chain, a brand of soda, or an electronics product.”
Far from being liberating, MySpace “tends to herd its users into niches created for them by the mass market,” writes Roush.
In fact, MySpace can be viewed as one huge platform for “personal product placement” – one different from big-media-style product placement only in that MySpace members aren’t paid for their services. There’s nothing new, of course, about word-of-mouth marketing. What’s sad about MySpace, though, is that the large supply of fake ‘friends,’ together with the cornucopia of ready-made songs, videos, and other marketing materials that can be directly embedded in profiles, encourages members to define themselves and their relationships almost solely in terms of media and consumption.
I’ve been reading From Counterculture of Cyberculture, Fred Turner’s masterly history of how the communalist ideology of the hippies morphed into digital utopianism. As the Internet emerged into the public consciousness in the early 1990s, a loose confederation of countercultural and New Age thinkers associated with Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, including John Perry Barlow, Kevin Kelly, Esther Dyson, and Howard Rheingold, came to see the network as a great emancipator. For them, the networked computer, writes Turner, “offered men and women the chance to enter a world of authentic identity and communal collaboration … a world in which hierarchy and bureaucracy had been replaced by the collective pursuit of enlightened self-interest.”
One of the assumptions underlying this belief was that the Net would flatten society’s existing power structure, putting individuals on the same footing as big companies. Turner describes, for instance, how Esther Dyson, in her 1997 book Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age,
argued that the Internet would soon dissolve the bureaucracies of the marketplace by stripping away the material bodies of individuals and corporations. Within the electronic confines of the digital marketplace, she claimed, both person and firm would be reduced to packages of information. At the same time, digital technologies would render information about products and markets ubiquitous. Together these features would allow individuals and corporations to negotiate with one another from positions of equality.
Dyson was right, in many ways. We do see evidence of this flattening effect all around us today. And yet what MySpace shows us is that the ultimate consequence may be very different from that imagined by the digital utopianists. Putting individuals and corporations on “an equal footing” cuts both ways, as Roush shows. The big story may not be that the Net gives individuals the power of corporations, but that it gives corporations the power of individuals. What is the marketer’s dream but to have a product speak to each of us intimately, as a friend? In being “reduced to packages of information,” are we simply making ourselves easier to parse and to control? Are we the ones who are being flattened?