A Decade Under the Influence: Facebook & Corporate Personhood

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On August 11, 2011, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney talked budget concerns with a small crowd at the Iowa State Fair. It was probably a more lively exchange than he’d anticipated, with some in attendance shouting in disapproval as he stated his unwillingness to raise taxes on corporations. In response to one of those dissenting voices, Romney remarked, “Corporations are people, my friend.” It’d be another 8 months until the RNC declared Romney the presumptive nominee and over a year until the general election, but the comment would help frame the public perception of his entire campaign.

Democrats, understandably, saw an opportunity and took advantage of it. Their responses portrayed Romney as an out-of-touch millionaire interested in helping only a particular class of wealthy Americans, and it was a worthwhile strategy. Romney’s comment was such an effective target that 13 months later, at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Elizabeth Warren (then in the middle of a campaign for a Massachusetts Senate seat) mentioned it specifically in a major speech. “No, Governor Romney, corporations are not people,” Warren said. “People have hearts, they have kids, they get jobs, they get sick, they cry, they dance, they love, and they die. And that matters.” The convention audience erupted into cheers and applause as she spoke.

Public discourse concerning corporate personhood tends to be contentious in this manner. Its detractors recognize its inevitable contributions toward injustice and inequality, while supporters argue that it’s a necessity for a functioning capitalist economy. In practical terms, whether or not that claim is at all convincing for people who are unsympathetic to the expansionist goals of a capitalist economy is almost irrelevant, as the argument has generally worked in the US.

At the risk of oversimplification, corporate personhood refers to the concept that a corporation has an identity distinct from the people that comprise it. This means that a corporation’s interests, in a legal sense, can be distinguished from those of its shareholders and employees. This is a designation with profound ramifications that transcend the tax rate discussion Romney was trying (and sort of failing) to have in Iowa. Corporate personhood greases the wheels of the global market economy and helps put billions of political dollars into motion every election season in the US, among other things. We might hate this state of affairs, but it’s crucial to acknowledge that this is the reality we live in. Warren’s response reflects the ideals of a more equal society, but it isn’t quite true. In significant and impactful ways, corporations, right now, are people.

More unsettling is that our allowances for corporate personhood have only expanded since Romney made his comments. As social media platforms like Facebook have grown in both size and amount of services offered over the past decade, we’ve been encouraged to foster relationships with corporations that increasingly resemble the ones we share with our peers. At the same time, corporations have benefited from unprecedented access to our personal information and our private lives. While many of us resist the notion of corporate personhood in politics and law, we’ve helped inaugurate a cultural reimagining of the corporation-as-person that goes beyond its previous boundaries.

Facebook debuted in 2004 as a social networking service for Harvard students, and over the next two years it widened its availability to include other colleges and, eventually, high schools. By 2006, Facebook had opened its doors to anyone over the age of 13 with a current email address. Over the next decade, as its userbase swelled to over a billion, it would gradually introduce new features to encourage people to use the platform more frequently and divulge more of their personal information in the process.

Many of the features that we now associate with the fundamentals of Facebook didn’t exist on the platform originally. The newsfeed, for example, didn’t arrive until two-and-a-half years after the site’s launch. The share feature showed up a few months after that. Facebook Chat arrived in 2008 and the ubiquitous Like button appeared in early 2009, followed later that same year by the ability to tag people in comments and status updates. These and similar developments have converged to create a platform that rewards its users for posting and sharing all kinds of information about their lives, their interests, and their relationships. The ability to link these posts to other people, places, and things – all of which have their own unique presence on the platform which can then respond in kind – creates a sort of living facsimile of the real world. This is valuable information.

The development of Facebook’s personal features tends toward convenience and inevitability. As the service has rolled out new features, it’s made it increasingly easy to share from sources outside Facebook, to post photos and tag friends and locations, to create events and groups, to comment on all kinds of activity. Facebook has also made it easier to give the platform a detailed personal biography, which includes an option to create an entire timeline of major and minor events in your life, stretching back to your birth. At a certain point, this level of convenience merges with the sheer number of people on the platform to create a kind of soft intimidation: because everyone is on Facebook and sharing their life updates, you might as well continue to do the same by adding your latest work information, your schools, your place of residence, and whatever else seems relevant. Meanwhile, in your daily routines, you’re reacting to posts from peers and brands in real-time, creating a dimensioned portrait of yourself that you may not have previously considered in its totality. Facebook has intentionally developed a platform that places a premium on this kind of behavior, and its near-omnipresence reminds users that there is little point in resisting once you’ve joined.

To some extent, this makes Facebook a boring platform, which hasn’t gone unnoticed by the company, its users, or cultural critics, who have repeatedly analyzed Facebook’s uncoolness. But boring can also be comfortable, which is where Facebook benefits in exaggerated ways. Its status as an unexciting social service – the type you log onto everyday out of habit rather than enthusiasm – makes it a prime target for advertising dollars. Its unthrilling constancy is one of its most valuable assets. Facebook seems content with producing a bland but generally pleasant space for socializing, which brands can then enter on apparently similar terms.

Features for corporations, brands, and marketers have expanded in parallel to these developments for standard users over the past ten years. Basic advertisements that were relegated to sidebar status in Facebook’s early history have evolved into a robust marketing suite that mimics user capabilities superficially but includes serious data analytics behind the scenes. Facebook’s solution for branded entities, called Pages, now functions almost identically to user profiles, allowing for easy, casual interactions between people-people and corporate-people. There are a few crucial differences that create a bit of a power imbalance here, though, like the ability for one of these parties to access substantial demographic and personal data on those that access its page. (If you’re unsure of which party I’m referring to here, check your personal Facebook and see if you’ve got a tab labeled “Insights” that reads like a census document of everyone visiting your page.)

The result of this process is that the behaviors available to corporations have been expanded to allow for more personality and relatability, while the behaviors available to real people have been gradually placed within certain quantifiable and replicable parameters. This levels the social playing field. From a certain distance, the two different types of users – corporate and human – are indistinguishable. The actions available to both are largely the same, and they exist within a limited, defined set of options.

A notable example of this is Facebook’s recent addition of “reactions,” which add a handful of new emoji-like responses to the standard Like button; users can now choose from options like “haha” (a laughing face), “love” (a heart), and “sad” (a crying face) as a quick response to an item on their feed. At first pass, this seems to expand the actions available to a regular Facebook user, removing the more limited connotations of the Like button. Really, though, reactions subtly guide users toward a much more limited palette by making it easier to click from a generic response list than to comment with something more specific. Potential engagement with branded content increases.

More to the point: the ambiguity of the Like button is eliminated for brands desiring more data on the efficacy of their marketing campaigns. Reactions give users the impression that their emotional language has expanded, but really, Facebook is just granting users a set of allowable options that can be reproduced, researched, and sold. Facebook’s regular users feel like they have just a bit more expressivity on the platform, but it’s a sleight of hand that inches the power dynamic that much more in favor of branded entities looking to capitalize on the wealth of customer information available to them. To the typical person browsing through their feed, though, it just feels like they’re taking part in a conversation.

Using Facebook, even casually or infrequently, involves placing some amount of trust in it. This trust might be placed begrudgingly, but it’s implicitly invoked whenever a user visits the site or opens the app. Histories of the actions available to the user accumulate over time, creating a log of information that Facebook stores indefinitely. Some of this information is, of course, deemed more sensitive than the rest, but even seemingly benign data – habits of speech, the people we typically correspond with, hours of typical use, whatever – is inherently personal.

Much in the same way that Facebook encourages the idea of its own omnipresence to entice users to supply it with more information, the critical mass of activity happening on the platform invites people to socialize on it further. This becomes a sort of vicious cycle. Even if Facebook never becomes wholly trustworthy to someone, the company benefits from a baseline level of acceptance. Their bank of valuable data and the amount of ad-placing opportunities both increase.

Facebook is undeserving of whatever level of trust we grant it, though, because it is not genuinely interested in facilitating personal relationships or improving social spaces online. Any progress made in these areas is ancillary. Facebook is, instead, interested in facilitating relationships between clients and customers and in selling advertisements. Creating an online space that users place their confidence in and feel comfortable using is a priority for the company only because these characteristics make it among the most valuable destinations for advertisements on the planet.

Though their press materials speak to their dedication to community and self-expression and whatever else, Facebook’s own product demonstrates otherwise. The newsfeed is controlled by algorithms beyond the user’s influence, so even attempting to opt in to receive updates from certain pages, groups, or people guarantees very little. Instead, most users find their feed filled with some combination of friends’ posts and other activity, as the algorithm pulls in things that are attracting attention outside the user’s immediate circle. This could be some controversial status a friend-of-a-friend posted that generated a lot of heat, but it’s just as likely to be a post by a brand that’s gathered tens of thousands of interactions, one of which happens to originate from a friend. Sponsored posts and activity that has been boosted by advertising dollars mix with the rest of the feed, and the visual and behavioral similarities between all of these items make them tough to disentangle from each other.

This arrangement guides conversations and actions around products. It’s a linking of the personal and commercial that’s more intimate than is possible in conventional physical, television, and radio advertising. The trick is in making it all appear routine or natural.

Gradually, we’ve come to accept this kind of intrusion as insignificant, or a necessary evil, which is unfortunate. This is really a routine and constant exposure of our social and personal lives to corporate interests in a novel and unsettling way. It’s a commingling of marketing and personal relationships that encourages a porous border between the two, so that we ultimately might become less attuned to the fact that moneyed interests are involved at all. The same mechanism aims to help us ignore the fact that our newsfeeds are being curated for us, that the information we’re seeing every day is partly determined by expensive marketing campaigns and Facebook’s own preferences. The company’s continued expansion of its Instant Articles service similarly demonstrates this desire for control over commerce, publishing, and conversation. By disguising all of this as a social platform that we’re expected to trust, the separation between personal life and commerce on the internet evaporates further.

This cycle perpetuates itself, in part, because Facebook encourages it through likes, shares, and similar metrics. The instant gratification offered by these metrics creates an environment that is remarkably friendly to things that are already popular. Sharing a trailer for a high-profile movie or album release will generally lead to a greater and more consistent response rate than sharing an independent alternative. Facebook rewards users on a personal level for sharing and engaging with things that are at peak commercial potential. Once this process is in motion, it is impressively efficient.

This is not to suggest that meaningful relationships can’t be fostered on Facebook, or that political organizing is futile on the platform, or that artists can’t or shouldn’t try to use it to expand their reach, or anything like that. Substantial evidence to the contrary exists for all of those claims. It’s just to suggest that all of these things are tangential to Facebook’s actual goals, and that we ought to be suspicious when the company announces new features and initiatives. Its leaders will occasionally remove any need for analysis of subtext or hidden reasoning, however.

Through the combination of expanded features for branded entities and an environment designed to cater to their business needs, Facebook helps broaden our conception of corporate personhood, increasing corporate influence on our day-to-day life. Thanks to those expanded features, corporations are now better able than ever to imitate the behavior of the people they target. Brands can tag things and use hashtags, respond directly to users’ comments, share memes, and shitpost as much as they deem necessary in order to convince potential customers of their relatability. Many of the behaviors Senator Warren listed as being indicative of the human experience are now part of the corporate playbook in digital form. And while corporations don’t die, they can certainly mourn publicly, an opportunity they take frequent advantage of.

On Facebook, then, corporations intend to fill the same niche as people do in our online routines. Through persistent on-brand messaging, we come to associate certain personality traits with different companies. The culmination of Facebook’s ambitions here is evident in their expansion of the Messenger app, which began as a messaging service between friends but saw significant expansion this year. The service now allows brands to message customers and have conversations directly, and the app will also display advertisements within the conversation itself (ads within ads, a thrilling frontier). At their F8 conference, Facebook also announced the ability for brands to use bots to message people about products and services on offer. If there are any spaces left that corporations are unable to enter, Facebook hopes to help eliminate them.

Of course, there are benefits to allowing for a rhetorical distinction between a corporation and its individual employees, particularly those not occupying a C-suite; the entirety of this essay depends on being able to make that distinction. There are situations in which we should differentiate between a corporate entity and its non-executive employees who have little control over general conditions, for example. Similarly, we can distinguish between a collective and an individual.

So this distinction is important. But it is a distinction that can be made without granting corporations even greater purchase over our lives than they already enjoy. This is not the method optioned by Facebook and other social media platforms.

I should also say here that I’m not trying to claim that people are ignorant or oblivious to the existence of corporations on platforms like Facebook, or that they cannot discern the difference between interacting with a person and a corporation online. What I’m hoping to highlight is that platforms like Facebook encourage us to situate our social and private lives in a space that is unreservedly amenable to corporate influence and exploitation, with discourse that is guided and controlled by Facebook and its partners.

By removing the remaining differences between people-users and corporate-users, corporate influence can spread further and in subtler fashion, in ways more direct than previously possible. So this isn’t about trying to scam people into believing there are no businesses at work on the social network, it’s about creating a level of comfort that allows those businesses to acquire and exploit people’s personal information without the risk of those people challenging the whole system.

This process will continue as Facebook and other social media platforms expand their features in pursuit of bigger userbases and greater profits. This becomes easier when corporations can obscure their profiteering intentions behind casual social media personas. The goal for the rest of us, then, is to recognize the uncomfortable reality of the broadening of corporate personhood without conceding that corporate entities are our peers.

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