by Tom Hodgkinson
from TheGuardian Website
I despise Facebook. This enormously successful American business describes itself as "a social utility that connects you with the people around you".
But hang on. Why on God's earth would I need a
computer to connect with the people around me? Why should my relationships
be mediated through the imagination of a bunch of supergeeks in California?
What was wrong with the pub?
Doesn't it rather disconnect us, since instead of doing something enjoyable such as talking and eating and dancing and drinking with my friends, I am merely sending them little ungrammatical notes and amusing photos in cyberspace, while chained to my desk? A friend of mine recently told me that he had spent a Saturday night at home alone on Facebook, drinking at his desk.
What a gloomy image. Far from connecting us,
Facebook actually isolates us at our workstations.
It also encourages a disturbing competitiveness around friendship: it seems that with friends today, quality counts for nothing and quantity is king. The more friends you have, the better you are. You are "popular", in the sense much loved in American high schools.
Witness the cover line on Dennis Publishing's new Facebook magazine:
It seems, though, that I am very much alone in my hostility.
At the time of writing Facebook claims 59 million active users, including 7 million in the UK, Facebook's third-biggest customer after the US and Canada. That's 59 million suckers, all of whom have volunteered their ID card information and consumer preferences to an American business they know nothing about.
Right now, 2 million new people join each week. At the present rate of growth, Facebook will have more than 200 million active users by this time next year. And I would predict that, if anything, its rate of growth will accelerate over the coming months.
As its spokesman Chris Hughes says:
All of the above would have been enough to make me reject Facebook for ever. But there are more reasons to hate it. Many more.
Facebook is a well-funded project, and the people behind the funding, a group of Silicon Valley venture capitalists, have a clearly thought out ideology that they are hoping to spread around the world.
Facebook is one manifestation of this
ideology. Like PayPal before it, it is a social experiment, an
expression of a particular kind of neoconservative libertarianism. On
Facebook, you can be free to be who you want to be, as long as you don't
mind being bombarded by adverts for the world's biggest brands. As with
PayPal, national boundaries are a thing of the past.
There are only three board members on Facebook, and they are Thiel, Zuckerberg and a third investor called Jim Breyer from a venture capital firm called Accel Partners (more on him later). Thiel invested $500,000 in Facebook when Harvard students Zuckerberg, Chris Hughes and Dustin Moskowitz went to meet him in San Francisco in June 2004, soon after they had launched the site.
Thiel now reportedly owns 7% of Facebook, which,
at Facebook's current valuation of $15bn, would be worth more than $1bn.
There is much debate on who exactly were the original co-founders of
Facebook, but whoever they were, Zuckerberg is the only one left on the
board, although Hughes and Moskowitz still work for the company.
Bloomberg Markets magazine recently called him "one of the most successful hedge fund managers in the country".
He has made money by betting on rising oil prices and by correctly predicting that the dollar would weaken. He and his absurdly wealthy Silicon Valley mates have recently been labelled "The PayPal Mafia" by Fortune magazine, whose reporter also observed that Thiel has a uniformed butler and a $500,000 McLaren supercar. Thiel is also a chess master and intensely competitive. He has been known to sweep the chessmen off the table in a fury when losing.
And he does not apologize for this hyper-competitveness, saying:
But Thiel is more than just a clever and avaricious capitalist. He is a futurist philosopher and neocon activist.
A philosophy graduate from Stanford, in 1998 he co-wrote a book called The Diversity Myth, which is a detailed attack on liberalism and the multiculturalist ideology that dominated Stanford. He claimed that the "multiculture" led to a lessening of individual freedoms. While a student at Stanford, Thiel founded a rightwing journal, still up and running, called The Stanford Review - motto: Fiat Lux ("Let there be light").
Thiel is a member of
internet-based neoconservative pressure group that was set up to attack
MoveOn.org, a liberal pressure group that works on the web. Thiel calls
himself "way libertarian".
On the site, Thiel says:
This little taster from their website will give you an idea of their vision for the world:
Their aim is to promote policies that will "reshape America and the globe". TheVanguard describes its politics as "Reaganite/Thatcherite".
The chairman's message says:
So, Thiel's politics are not in doubt. What about his philosophy?
I listened to a podcast of an address Thiel gave about his ideas for the future. His philosophy, briefly, is this: since the 17th century, certain enlightened thinkers have been taking the world away from the old-fashioned nature-bound life, and here he quotes Thomas Hobbes' famous characterization of life as "nasty, brutish and short", and towards a new virtual world where we have conquered nature.
Value now exists in imaginary things.
Thiel says that PayPal was motivated by this belief: that you can find value not in real manufactured objects, but in the relations between human beings. PayPal was a way of moving money around the world with no restriction.
Bloomberg Markets puts it like this:
Clearly, Facebook is another uber-capitalist experiment: can you make money out of friendship? Can you create communities free of national boundaries - and then sell Coca-Cola to them?
Facebook is profoundly uncreative. It makes nothing at all.
It simply mediates in relationships that were happening anyway.
Coca-Cola Photo: Tim
Thiel's philosophical mentor is one René Girard of Stanford University, proponent of a theory of human behavior called mimetic desire.
Girard reckons that people are essentially sheep-like and will copy one another without much reflection. The theory would also seem to be proved correct in the case of Thiel's virtual worlds: the desired object is irrelevant; all you need to know is that human beings will tend to move in flocks. Hence financial bubbles. Hence the enormous popularity of Facebook.
Girard is a regular at Thiel's intellectual soirees. What you don't hear
about in Thiel's philosophy, by the way, are old-fashioned real-world
concepts such as art, beauty, love, pleasure and truth.
I think it's fair to say that Thiel, like Rupert Murdoch, is against tax.
He also likes the globalization of digital culture because it makes the banking overlords hard to attack:
If life in the past was nasty, brutish and short, then in the future Thiel wants to make it much longer, and to this end he has also invested in a firm that is exploring life-extension technologies.
He has pledged £3.5m to a Cambridge-based gerontologist called Aubrey de Grey, who is searching for the key to immortality. Thiel is also on the board of advisers of something called the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence.
From its fantastical website, the following:
So by his own admission, Thiel is trying to destroy the real world, which he also calls "nature", and install a virtual world in its place, and it is in this context that we must view the rise of Facebook.
Facebook is a deliberate experiment in global manipulation, and Thiel is a bright young thing in the neoconservative pantheon, with a
penchant for far-out techno-utopian fantasies. Not someone I want to help get any richer.
He is a partner in the venture capital firm Accel Partners, who put $12.7m into Facebook in April 2005. On the board of such US giants as Wal-Mart and Marvel Entertainment, he is also a former chairman of the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA). Now these are the people who are really making things happen in America, because they invest in the new young talent, the Zuckerbergs and the like.
Facebook's most recent round of funding was led by a company called Greylock Venture Capital, who put in the sum of $27.5m.
One of Greylock's senior partners is called Howard Cox, another former chairman of the NVCA, who is also on the board of In-Q-Tel. What's In-Q-Tel? Well, believe it or not (and check out their website), this is the venture-capital wing of the CIA.
After 9/11, the US intelligence community became so excited by the possibilities of new technology and the innovations being made in the private sector, that in 1999 they set up their own venture capital fund, In-Q-Tel, which,
The US defense department and the CIA love technology because it makes spying easier.
In-Q-Tel's first chairman was Gilman Louie, who served on the board of the NVCA with Breyer. Another key figure in the In-Q-Tel team is Anita K Jones, former director of defense research and engineering for the US department of defense, and - with Breyer - board member of BBN Technologies.
When she left the US department of defense, Senator Chuck Robb paid her the following tribute:
Now even if you don't buy the idea that Facebook is some kind of extension of the American imperialist program crossed with a massive information-gathering tool, there is no way of denying that as a business, it is pure mega-genius.
Some net nerds have suggested that its $15bn valuation is excessive, but I would argue that if anything that is too modest.
Its scale really is dizzying, and the potential for growth is virtually limitless.
I'll bet they do.
It is Facebook's enormous
potential that led Microsoft to buy 1.6% for $240m. A recent rumor says that
Asian investor Lee Ka-Shing, said to be the ninth richest man in the world,
has bought 0.4% of Facebook for $60m.
Once in receipt of this vast database of human beings, Facebook then simply has to sell the information back to advertisers, or, as Zuckerberg puts it in a recent blog post,
And indeed, this is precisely what's happening.
On November 6 last year, Facebook announced that 12 global brands had climbed on board. They included Coca-Cola, Blockbuster, Verizon, Sony Pictures and Condé Nast.
All trained in marketing bullshit of the highest order, their representatives made excited comments along the following lines:
"Share" is Facebook-speak for "advertise".
Sign up to Facebook and you become a free
walking, talking advert for Blockbuster or Coke, extolling the virtues of
these brands to your friends. We are seeing the commodification of
human relationships, the extraction of capitalistic value from friendships.
The other is that Facebook can target advertising with far greater precision than a newspaper.
Admit on Facebook that your favorite film is This Is Spinal Tap, and when a Spinal Tap-esque movie comes out, you can be sure that they'll be sending ads your way.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg
(Photo: Paul Sakuma/AP)
It's true that Facebook recently got into hot water with its Beacon advertising program.
Users were notified that one of their friends had made a purchase at certain online shops; 46,000 users felt that this level of advertising was intrusive, and signed a petition called "Facebook! Stop invading my privacy!" to say so.
Zuckerberg apologized on his company blog. He has written that they have now changed the system from "opt-out" to "opt-in".
But I suspect that this little rebellion about
being so ruthlessly commodified will soon be forgotten: after all,
there was a national outcry by the civil liberties movement when the idea of
a police force was mooted in the UK in the mid 19th century.
Facebook pretends to be about
freedom, but isn't it really more like an ideologically motivated virtual
totalitarian regime with a population that will very soon exceed the UK's?
Thiel and the rest have created their own country, a country of consumers.
National boundaries are a thing of the past and
everyone cavorts together in freewheeling virtual space. Nature has been
conquered through man's boundless ingenuity. Yes, and you may decide to send
genius investor Thiel all your money, and certainly you'll be waiting
impatiently for the public flotation of the unstoppable Facebook.
It's free, it's easy and it delivers a uniquely individual experience in sharing information: it's called talking.