This article examines Facebook.com as a cultural text. It casts a critical eye on the stories told by the Facebook monopoly interphase, focusing on how these intergrate commerce with communications. It struggles with the text’s key abstractions arguing that Facebook industrialises personalised data production by demanding the constant production on customised communcation objects.
Will the real monopoly please stand up?
Will the real text please stand up?
Free trade and free speech: the Internet ideal
Genealogies of Facebook text
The basic plot
Processing the personal
Will the real user please stand up?
My timeline, our Facebook
Monetising the personal and the collective
This paper examines blockbuster software discourses specifically those about Facebook. The position upheld is clear: owing to its strategic dominance, Facebook necessarily constitutes a locus of academic inquiry on new media power, and such power should be understood in the light of stories described by its interface.
Through our analysis of Facebook text and its abstractions we illuminate multiple discursive illusions of personal freedom belied by ownership structures that produce a Web experience by means of software interfaces. In short, we offer a polemic on Facebook–as–a–cultural–text in a political economy fashion.
We are infatuated with Facebook’s key discourses: on the one hand with the incorporation of the Web, the strategy to literally colonise virtual space; on the other hand the demand for fragmenting, personalising and commodifying social interaction online, processes which are industrialising the production of personal data. We argue that Facebook is a transformative space for “processing” user experience vis–à–vis customisation, a collective archive in which each user weaves their own standardized personal content, to be transformed into an endless sea of “data”. The demand for producing more content is in fact a demand to produce more personal data.
Researching Facebook is like researching any other monopoly media. It would, for example, be difficult to document the rise social media without narrowing inquiries down to Facebook while, at the same time, social media phenomenon could not be explained solely by Facebook. Accordingly, as with other media, narrowing down Facebook power to its commercial dominance is too reductionist. After all, media are commercial by design in capitalist societies, a design that has locked them in a paradox of serving the public good while at the same time aspiring to profit. New media not only are no exception to this, but were developed, as pointed out by ample political economy criticism, as missionaries of capitalism whose sole purpose was the integration of commerce with communication (McChesney 2004; 2000; Schiller 2000).
The marginalization of political economy in Internet research indicates a tacit acknowledgment by critical scholars that capitalism shapes contemporary media industries. In other words, that the internet is in fact commercialized and for many users has been reduced to its social media interface is too much of a cliché for critical enquiry. There is something too obvious, too bare, about commercial power online, as manifested by the Facebook monopoly. The position implied is that one needn’t theorise or research Facebook power any further. Indeed, references to the Web’s commercial character are often merely a passing commentary of something taken for granted by researchers. Indicative is the current liberal cast on privacy and Facebook, where Facebook’s monopoly power is criticised mostly because it invades individual privacy.
This paper is situated within appeals for renewing a political economy tradition (Mansel, 2004; Fuchs, 2004). We follow the path carved by political economy scholars toward understanding Facebook power in a somewhat unorthodox fashion as we are not interested in market structures or in outlining social media industry consolidation but rather in the relationship between monopoly power and the Facebook interface.
Theorizing about the Facebook interface calls for a radical departure from research orthodoxy in new media studies. Such orthodoxy places “affect” at the centre of new media inquiry and approaches interfaces as two–dimensional graphic environments. Within such research paradigms, interest in software abstractions and the power to determine their structures is literally marginalised since the orthodoxy fetishises user–power. This, coupled with pre–existing celebrations of active reading, has rendered the ‘text’ an analytical category absolute.
Thrift (2005) has argued that software now basically mediates just about everything and at the same time “begun to sink into its taken-for-granted background.” Once one subverts the current new media research orthodoxy and starts from the exact opposite assumptions, one can shed light on this background and reinstall software in the forefront of structural power configurations online. In other words, this paper attempts to ‘read’ Facebook and, in the process, recast the conceptual tools needed to do so. To achieve this, instead of approaching interfaces and software as seamless tools with open structures, we assert a different research agenda: one that is critically attentive to the representational structures of Web interfaces as well as their less visually anchored stories (Bottler, 2009). In short, we are interested in the myths told by software, myths that fuel user stories. This focus on software is an element that we adopt from so–called ‘software studies’, which among other things consider software to be central to understanding the ‘language’ of new media . Our interest, however, is not in any kind of software nor in all of its workings. We are interested in commercially used software that enables monopoly services on the Web. This software constitutes both a social text as well as a consumed product. We propose that monopoly software, and more importantly the interface it produces, should be analysed as a cultural text, that is, as a systematic organized set of discourses, and not as a transparent tool. The interface constitutes the locus for understanding the structures of production of online, mass–consumed texts as well as the way in which online culture is bound by such structures. In other words, the power to determine the representational structures of consumer software, as obvious as it may be, demands critical scholarly attention. ‘Blockbuster software’, and the scripts in which it involves its users, represent a central void of governance, given that software is distributed globally on an oligopoly basis. The conceptualisation of ‘interface’ that we propose requires a recasting of the political economy of media and its synthesis with cultural studies with the aim of conceptualizing such monopoly software.
Facebook text didn’t just arrive on our screens; rather, it echoes key discourses embedded in abstractions offered by other monopoly new media dominating our desktops. It developed, built upon and extended a set of pre–existing structures hardcoded in online globally consumed interfaces, referred to here as “the Web’s commercial interface” (Patelis, 2010). The Web’s commercial interface, of which Facebook is now an integral part, lies at centre stage of the online of experience of a majority of users in the West. Its properties cannot be exhausted within the confines of this paper.
Instead we wish to focus on a key component crucial to Facebook: the integration of commerce and communication. The Internet mediates the integration of commerce and communication, unifying and demanding the synchronous development and integration of very dissimilar services and by extension objects. In other words, at the heart of text offered by monopoly new media software, lies the liberal ideal according to which commerce and communication can and should be integrated online, the idea that free speech and free trade are two sides of the same coin and that, by extension, online commerce and online communication are complementary ideals in the democratic capitalist ideal. In representational terms, such integration is so naturalised that a kilo of potatoes for sale and an opinion on paedophilia are literally represented as similar objects across outlets. To quote Bill Gates from 1996:
“Capitalism, demonstrably the greatest of the constructed economic systems, has in the past decade clearly proved its advantages over the alternative systems, As the Internet evolves into its broadband, global interactive network, those advantages will be magnified. Product and service providers will see what buyers want a lot more efficiently than ever before and consumers will buy more efficiently. I think Adam Smith would be pleased.” 
We argue that Facebook has been central to the further restructuring and commodification of the media industry around this ideal by establishing further integration of commerce and communication in two ways. Firstly, through the demonization of anonymity and secondly, through the industrialisation of the production of personal data. Coupled with Facebook’s endeavour to colonise the Web, this restructuring has taken centre stage in the development of the media industry recently. Facebook text is key to understanding the broader standardization process of communication on the Web, mainly because it demands user participation in the production process and naturalizes the commodification and industrialisation of personal data. Personalization is a large part of communication in Facebook to the point that personalization — and hence standardization — constitute the product. Thus, individualized information is less important than the fact that information will be archived and ‘pprocessed’, with more personal data produced as a result. This processing allows Facebook to industrialise the production of data.
The genealogy of Facebook text is straightforward. It builds and recasts abstractions embedded in earlier monopoly software texts, mostly the original Windows 95 OS interface . Universality, design neutrality, and customisation are key abstractions diffused from Windows to other monopoly interfaces. In the name of universal usability, the Windows graphic user interface produced a strikingly simplistic customisable screen: it flattened different kinds of processes, actions and texts and represented just about everything as a ‘natural object’. Customisation and control were central, represented repeatedly by the use of the possessive pronoun ‘my’ and the idea of a single user ‘commander’.
From the late 1990s onwards, these very basic abstractions of oversimplifying, collecting and manipulating objects in graphic user environments were further developed to enable commerce. Hardwired in products and services offered for mass consumption on the Web are combinations of object–oriented graphic interfaces with user control, in which a single user weaves a script by controlling information objects in amorphous cyberspace. Extending user control into pure commerce was naturalised as an extension of narrative freedom. So freedom represented by the user’s ability to move around a virtual space, control objects and then process them is supposedly extended by her ability to buy objects as well. As with the Windows OS interface, ‘clarity’ (visual and other) comes to complement these abstractions, carving universality into text offered online. Visually, within the margins of our screen, mobile or not, everything appears designed to be aligned with everything else, a stable frame containing our local Web experience. The symbiosis of commerce and communication was totally naturalised.
Web 2.0 endlessly extended freedom to access, integrate and flatten more information or actions by offering endless ways of manipulating information. thus, one could argue that Web 2.0 further naturalises a notion that reading and buying do not really differ. What previously was mere desktop control, was in this way transformed into an ever expanding sea of content produced by other users, offering a universal machine which can ‘flatten’ just about every service or process.
Facebook text has drawn from and further developed all of the above. This text builds and establishes Web 2.0 discourses around an accelerated demand for producing, archiving, and manipulating personal content, as well as a demand for contributing to collective cognition. The logic of archiving and unifying content in order to then separate, segment, index, and categorize it informs every part of Facebook. Oversimplification reigns again and the idea of the user participating in every process is latent, represented by myriad hidden tabs. Facebook develops and sharpens a demand for user–generated content in two different yet complementary directions, consolidating cognitive capitalism: the personal and the collective. On Facebook, the demand for producing content and therefore personal data leans towards the personal and the collective, forming a two–fold narrative.
Personalisation lies at the heart of friction–free capitalist myths. Customisation has been key to the development of online monopoly interfaces as the Internet industry standardises its commodities through personalisation. Standardisation is represented as personalisation, which creates a unique sense of user control. It is thus represented in most aspects of online communication in order to mask the actual process of commodification in operation. To customise means to standardise and vice versa, to give users an illusion of control, to involve the user in the standardisation process. Facebook fuels online user control through the production of endless tabs, representing the promise of increased customisation, successfully equating user control with customisation. Throughout the Facebook interface, standardisation is represented as customization, since the interface standardises communications by this supposed personal touch. It is actually impossible to use the interface without personalising it. Customisation is such a core feature of Facebook that the actual process of customisation has become a product in itself, as if what we are about to customise is of less importance. Customisation thus becomes a form of ‘processing’ information. The idea of ‘processing’ user–generated content through the Facebook machine is the core discourse of Facebook text.
Scripted in the narrative in Facebook is a single hero of a plot, in which customising information in any possible way, producing more of it, segmenting and categorising it is key. The ‘hero’, any single user, develops his own sequel/episode of a series of experiences and is given the opportunity to do so by relating it to an imaginary collective experience. Producing more sequels to this plot is a basic feature of the original script, infinitely accelerating a demand for more information. Space and time are remediated, essentially expanded by the ability to extend the narrative to control more information, ideally from real life experiences. The idea is that owing to the complexity of standardisation mechanisms offered, the customised commodity differs from any other commodity and appears resistant to standardisation. New forms of standardising, that is, of producing metadata , commenting, tagging, indexing, processing the personal, are constantly introduced in Facebook, demanding that the user qualify his online presence so that more processed objects be produced. All these customisation processes, essentially forms of standardisation, sustain a notion that a given product is user generated and not commodified.
The superfluity of control is a further key discursive element. Through the constant over–production of complicated tabbed choices, Facebook represents a process of ‘controlling’ objects as a process of ‘doing’ something to or with content, whether searching for it, uploading it, sharing it, looking for it. This focus on control and customisation rips the flesh out of the content, transforming content into information — abstract, measurable and quantifiable. By demanding that we ‘do’ things with our content, that we ‘process it’ slowly but steadily, the form, the information object, becomes more important. Customising gives way to the idea of ‘processing’ an object. Placing information on the Facebook interface provides this type of ‘processing’. The details of what software does to content in question, the details of the ‘processing’ of user–generated content by the Facebook interface (vis–à–vis the ‘like’ or activity tab) is less relevant. In other words, Facebook text is a driver, making the commodities produced appear unique by constantly offering new ways of ‘processing them’. Facebook is a transformative space for ‘processing’ user experiences vis–à–vis its customisation, a collective archive in which each user weaves her own standardized personal content. The story anchoring our Facebook experience is the story of a user processing the personal and the social. The interface merely provides ways of ‘processing’. The standard features that make up the customised product are slowly inseparable from the way the user is represented. The text merely demands that the personal undergoes ‘processing’, so that it fits in with the imaginary collective that Facebook has created by processing other user experiences.
In other words, it is not only that Facebook standardises its representation of the ‘self’, by demanding that identity and experience fit into neat boxes available to a user when creating a Timeline page. Most importantly, Facebook establishes a paradigm that demands the constant revelation of even more aspects of the user’s identity, as if stripping, peeling and indexing the self, producing more information about it and archiving this information defines virtual sociability.
Facebook situates its demand for processing and archiving social life in an understanding of social and virtual life as inherently bounded. This basic abstraction is visible throughout the interface as Facebook tactically fetishises the idea of a real corporal identity as key to the social media experience. The demonization of anonymity and a discourse around some constructed ‘real corporal identity’ is a key driver of the demand for more user–generated content to be proccessed. It renders the user truly unique and it creates an endless terrain for object production and manipulation. The Facebook registration screen is indicative: unlike other sign–in screens, the menu, which include a request for date of birth, is visible to one billion subscribers every time they log on. It remains there, even for users that have been on Facebook for years, as a reminder that Facebook offers access to real unique individuals and their real off–line identity.
On Facebook, the user is sovereign, the individual is the ‘real thing’. Consider the introduction of the Timeline. The Timeline essentially standardises all user–generated content produced by one single user, it represents what were previously loosely linked user–generated objects into a linear script of ‘real life’. The Timeline provides structures for all user–generated scripts to appear similar yet amazingly different. It neatly introduced the idea of temporal linearity to naturalise what is in fact a standardised abstraction, that personal identities should be understood as corporal, and life stories should be represented as a linear collection of user–generated content. Indicative of this is the temporal structure of the Timeline and the word ‘born’, visible in all user Timelines and is in no way customisable.
Throughout, Facebook text also offers ample ways (tabs and more) for users to control anybody not ‘real’, stigmatising users not somehow connected to this constructed reality. These warnings support the idea that Facebook and the real life world are interconnected; furthermore, that, unlike real life, Facebook virtual life is protected by the corporal. It is not a virtual life where an anonymous individual has control. In fact it differs from any understanding of virtuality on the Internet. The mere concept of virtuality has been rendered obsolete by the Facebook interface. Facebook is a ‘social,’ not ‘virtual.’ It is a life where the user has a concrete identity; via this identity, user control is exercised and true customisation becomes a reality. This allows for a demand for content to intensify and for content to become increasingly more customisable and segmentable, extending to more aspects of social life and interaction.
That virtual life does not exist but social does is also represented by the idea of a Facebook volksonomy, the so–called Facebook community, an entity referred to widely in Facebook’ policy documents. The ‘processing’ of information by Facebook symbolically represents our participation in this imaginary collective. The processing of the personal co–exists with the seemingly collective. It includes contributing to the collective production of knowledge and its addition to an imaginary archive. Not only can one manipulate, segment, separate and categorise objects and experiences that were previously kept separate, but one can actually join others doing so in a collective process.
Real experience and reality are transformed into an imaginary archive of life, a Facebook–mediated virtual reality uniting a symbolic co–authored text, constituted by the objects offered by each user and their relationships (e.g., tagging someone). Once processed and archived, these objects, even if not disclosed but to a handful of users, are no longer just personal memories, they are a shared imagined co–authored experience, a co–production of a unique script.
Consider terminating a Facebook account. Closing an account does not erode contributions to the collective nor erase those aspects of a ‘real life’ contributed to the larger whole. ‘Everyday life,’ once archived, continues to exist in the interface, as part of the ‘collective,’ as information objects.
Facebook’s monetisation strategy is textually significant as well. In qualitative and quantitative terms, it extends customisation, and offers a type of control not previously offered by other digital interfaces. It extends a narrative of control and customisation into commodified distribution, and the production of other individual data sets. A fully developed set of screens — complete with abstractions for ‘monitoring’ and ‘understanding’ how posts have been ‘processed‘ — creates a kind of reality available for marketing and other economic efforts. This entire process is made possible by individuals and their ‘friends,’ collectively providing the necessary raw material — personal information.
About the author
Korinna Patelis is Assistant Professor at the Department of Communication and Internet Studies at the Cyprus University of Technology. Her research interests currently focus around the Web’s commercial taxonomy, the representational structures of Web sites and the power of social media. Attempting to refashion a radical political economy perspective in new media research, the politics of the Internet as well as its regulation lie at the heart of Korinna’s research interests in and outside the academy.
E–mail: korinna [dot] patelis [at] cut [dot] ac [dot] cy
1. See, for example, Lev Manovich, The language of new media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001; Lev Manovich, Software takes command. New York: Continuum, 2013; Matthew Fuller, Media ecologies: Materialist energies in art and technoculture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005; and, Matthew Fuller (editor), Software studies: A lexicon. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008.
2. Gates, 1996, p. 183.
3. However, the genealogy of Windows OS has been a matter of debate.
4. See, for example, the tabs accessible via the accounts settings option on Timeline, and in particular the choice given to a user to actually experience their timeline in different ways.
Matthew Fuller (editor), 2008. Software studies: A lexicon. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Matthew Fuller, 2005. Media ecologies: Materialist energies in art and technoculture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Bill Gates, 1996. The road ahead. London: Penguin.
Lev Manovich, 2013. Software takes command. New York: Continuum..
Lev Manovich, 2001. The language of new media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Received 20 February 2013; accepted 20 February 2013.
Copyright © 2013, First Monday.
Copyright © 2013, Korinna Patelis.
Facebook.com text: Industrialising personal data production
by Korinna Patelis
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 3 - 4 March 2013
A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.
© First Monday, 1995-2016.