Tuesday, November 9, 2010

"… we are our capacity to buy …"

Is Facebook really the foundation for individual identity in the Internet age, as the social software evangelists would have us believe?  I have been reading Zadie Smith’s review of The Social Network in the latest issue of The New York Review, and I have been pleased at the way she addresses issues of Facebook itself in parallel with her assessment of the film.  The paragraph that has made the deepest impression on me thus far has been the following:

With Facebook, Zuckerberg seems to be trying to create something like a Noosphere, an Internet with one mind, a uniform environment in which it genuinely doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you make “choices” (which means, finally, purchases). If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out. One nation under a format. To ourselves, we are special people, documented in wonderful photos, and it also happens that we sometimes buy things. This latter fact is an incidental matter, to us. However, the advertising money that will rain down on Facebook—if and when Zuckerberg succeeds in encouraging 500 million people to take their Facebook identities onto the Internet at large—this money thinks of us the other way around. To the advertisers, we are our capacity to buy, attached to a few personal, irrelevant photos.

By calling out the failings of Facebook to address the nature of identity in the social world, Smith gives the lie to all of that enthusiastic evangelism.  She then cuts to the more realistic core truth in that last sentence.  All that matters is “our capacity to buy;”  and, in the “Internet economy,” that comes down to whether Facebook or Google exercises more control over that capacity.

This is the lens through which we should examine the latest ComScore data, reported this morning by Lance Whitney on his Digital Media blog for the CNET Blog Network.  Whitney wastes no time hauling out the hard numbers:

Facebook served up the greatest number of online display ads among all online publishers tracked by ComScore over the third quarter.

With a total of 297 billion online display ads, the popular social network accounted for 23 percent of all ad impressions (the number of times an ad is displayed), ComScore announced yesterday. Facebook's market share for ad impressions jumped 13.9 percentage points from 9.2 percent in last year's third quarter.

For those who do not want to do the math on percentage figures, this means that the total number of those online display ads is 1,284,315,000,000, in other words, about one and a quarter trillion

Make no mistake about it:  Social software is the platform through which those ads are served up with a combination of efficiency and effectiveness that would make any engineer envious.  Note, also, Smith’s keen choice of words.  We are not what we own, nor are we what we buy.  We are our capacity to buy.  In other words we are our susceptibility to marketing.  Having become a nation dominated by marketing, it is no surprise that economic statistics have reduced our presence in manufacturing and agriculture to barely significant numbers.

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