Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Facebook, Branding, and Social Identity

Normally, I'd just provide a pointer to a posting I made for my EE Times blog, but I consider this issue important enough and scary enough to replicate the entire post here. Heaven help us:

My cheap little snipe against Mark Zuckerberg in Monday's blog might lead you to think I'm not a Facebook fan. And you'd be right. Facebook needs to adopt Google's version of the Hippocratic Oath, and quickly. The company's efforts to provide real-time tracking of all kinds of member activities a few months ago sounded like a privatized version of National Security Agency monitoring. And now, the new Facebook advertising and branding campaign reaches new lows, not just in turning members into marketeers, but in turning citizens into the branding zombies that social critics from Adbusters magazine to Society of the Spectacle have warned about for years.

According to Techcrunch, the new Facebook Ads campaign has three elements: Social Ads, Beacon, and Insight. The first element is the familiar idea of targeted ads based on demographics collected by Facebook. Hey, this is to be expected, and is the price one pays for subscribing to all these free social-network services. Nothing is free, everything is ad-supported, and the consumer must figure out how much crap to put up with. Similarly, Insight is an effort by Facebook to help ad partners conduct a form of "data mining" - a method of aggregating and using data which got a bad name during the NSA warrantless surveillance hearings, but is something many private companies have been doing for years under one-to-one marketing campaigns.

What really disturbs me here is Beacon, the effort to turn brands into widgets and allow Facebook users to identify brands as "friends." What's disturbing is the number of readers in the Techcrunch story responding to think that this is a good idea. No privacy issues here, mind you, but some pretty ugly philosophical issues about commoditizing friendships. As the excellent Canadian film The Corporation pointed out, the U.S. Supreme Court sent corporate apologists on the wrong path late in the 19th century, by identifying a corporation as a legal person. We tend to think of the corporation as an entity deserving its own rights. Now, as social critics have pointed out time and again, objectification of brand awareness and undercover viral marketing have led to an era where kids define themselves by brands of shoes, clothing, soft drink, whatever. If Doritos is my friend, I can serve as a marketing manager whenever I expand my social network - and my friends receive ads as a consequence of expanding my social network. Perhaps this isn't that much of a difference than music bands on MySpace, but we stand on the edge of a dangerous precipice whenever brands become friends. During debates about the war, critics often say that slavish devotion to national policy creates cannon fodder. But slavish devotion to brand awareness and promotion creates a nation of robotic marketeers. Maybe we've raised a generation of brand-promoters that love to get Pepsi logos tattoed on their butts, but count me out of that kind of social network!

You are about to add Doritos as a friend. We will then notify Doritos, who will have to confirm that you are friends.

Also, if you add Doritos as a friend, he will be able to see your profile until he confirms or ignores your request. Edit Privacy


John G said...

I'm definitely a Pringles man.

Ruth said...

I hope you'll chime back in on my Bono post. Maybe related?