Is Facebook a Tragedy of the (Modern) Commons?

I remember sitting through the Social Network thinking, firstly, “Man, Trent Reznor did an awesome job with this score…” but otherwise enjoying the quasi-fictional story of a sociopath creating what would become the most pervasive online social networking site on the planet – which is to say, Facebook.

My Facebook account was opened after an Americorps *NCCC term in 2005, primarily as means to end, to keep in touch with my fellow corps members. Later, as I moved away from home, I used it as means to an end in keeping touch with friends and family from my hometown. Then as a means to an end for showing long-distance folks daily pictures of my newborn girl, much as I still do now for a rather silly three-year-old girl for folks in Florida and elsewhere. My experience is probably similar to many others – utilizing an online resource as a social means to achieve a social end.

Yet there are other implications to the pervasiveness and ubiquity of Facebook (as a privatized entity) that go beyond social enhancement and connectivity. One of the most oft-recited issues involve privacy, but recently a Facebook friend – we’ll use his blog moniker KC – brought up a different question:

I noted in a comment that we (being Facebook users) could be thought of as the worlds largest unpaid workforce – at least, unpaid in the traditional form of wages (a point that I’ll touch on later). More importantly, though, I found the question of Facebook’s role as facilitating a type of modern “commons” to be an underdeveloped concept. I asked him to blog about this subject, as well as it’s implicit saliency about democracy, and he obliged.

KC has a nice summary of just how “major” Facebook has become, but then gets down to the business of democracy and “the commons:”

Democracy (from the Greek demokratia) requires public conversation. If citizens can’t talk and argue and negotiate and forge cynical alliances and voting blocs, then democracy doesn’t work. If the people (demos) can’t coordinate among themselves, then they can’t rule (kratia). In ancient Athens and in colonial America, the place for public conversation and debate was the public square (agora).

As he notes, of course, the advent of 20th century technologies has changed the way we organize and coordinate socially. Today, the internet (especially for the under-40 crowd) is the dominate medium for extra-personal socialization and a key driver of information dissemination. He organize his points thusly:

1-Democracy functions in the agora.
2-Today, the agora is online.

And, 3-FB is one enormous part of the agora. Enormous, and sort of inescapable, because it’s a closed system: either you’re on FB, or you’re not.

There is a semi-relevant question about the “closed system” aspect of Facebook, but for the purposes of this post I’ll leave that for another day. The meat of the subject about democracy, the agora and Facebook is here (my emphasis in bold):

Enormous and monopolistic and privately owned. This is one of the weird things about FB that it seems vital for users to discuss but which users, perversely, remain silent about: how is it healthy for our democracy for our agora to be owned, tracked, sold, regulated, and (potentially or subtly) censored by private owners?

There’s a process of sorts I want to go through before attempting an answer to this question. It starts with…


Earlier I had written about the idea that people who use Facebook could be thought of as the worlds largest unpaid workforce. This isn’t an original idea – see this piece on info-metrics in the WSJ – but it does require a certain perspective:

1. Our usage of Facebook generates marketable information, something that KC notes, for which the valued worth of the data generated was released in the S1 filing (my emphasis):

The results show that you are worth about $81 to Facebook. Your friendships are worth $0.62 each, and your profile page could be valued at $1,800. The value of a business page is worth approximately $3.1 million. Put another way, Facebook’s nearly one billion users have become the largest unpaid workforce in history.

2. Ergo our collection of friends, likes, interests, locations, as well as other generic demographic information has marginal value. To Facebook our participation in the otherwise normal social process of interacting with other human beings creates a product (information) that can be sold at a profit to others (advertisers).

There are practical limitations to this perspective – other tech companies use similar conceptual transactions (search engines) – but even then Facebook is unique as a business model. As Farhad Manjoo notes:

If this doesn’t strike you as a crazy platform on which to build a billion-dollar business, it’s only because you’ve used Facebook long enough to be seduced by its inevitability. But consider how novel the social network is, as a concept. Even though Facebook is named after a real-world object, the site has no analogue in the offline world—before social networks, the idea of a worldwide map of people and their relationships didn’t exist. Indeed, you don’t have to think back too far—probably to 2005 or so—to get to a point where it would have been insane to suggest that people of all ages in every country would voluntarily disclose everything about their lives to a single website. And, on top of that, that the company behind the site would make a grand profit by using this information as a way to serve up ads. And, finally, that we’d all have fun doing it.

Which is a long way of saying that Facebook is a weird business. The products they offer are people, simultaneously “sold” to other people (who, in this eleventh dimensional thought exercise, can also be thought of as potential “hires”) that value alternative modes of communication and those that value information that can be used to craft advertisements. The dichotomy between Facebook users as labor and product brings me to my next point…

In-kind Workforce

The point of this exercise in conceptualization is to structure the framework for understanding the relationship between Facebook, its users, and the inherent implications for agora. As original a business model that Facebook is, the medium of exchange that fuels social networking is as old a civilization itself. To this notion one needs to understand that markets (for goods and services or labor) are not natural. They require several preconditions for existence, one of which is a vehicle for parties to exchange goods and services or labor (such as coin, paper, or credit).

In this specific instance the market for both the labor and consumer aspect of Facebook operations use a medium that is older than coin; in-kind exchanges. Traditionally, in-kind exchanges are described as bartering – I have six sacks of grain that you want, you have ten satchels of beans that I want, let’s exchange our goods! Now of course this is rather inefficient by today’s standards (even though it’s still utilized), but the reasoning for it’s inefficiency explains how online social networks work. In-kind exchanges operate on rather narrow terms because they require the “double coincidence of wants,” which is to say in order for a transaction to occur you have to want grain and I have to want beans – otherwise the deal doesn’t happen. This is how Facebook works; users are willing to give the information that online social interactions produce in exchange for the facilitation of an online social network that compliments their real world relationships. Presto, we have our “double coincidence of wants,” laborers that are consumers in an privatized agora.

Is it Bad?

So here’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question, no? Is it unhealty for a large portion of our modern day agora to be privately owned? First let me say, in reference to the title of this post, that I understand that the “tragedy of the commons” as originally used doesn’t apply this situation. My usage of the term is entirely grounded in the context of the importance of agora to the functioning of democracy. If this offends passionate observers of term origins then I apologize. The meaning of this term (like so many others) can change, which underscores my answer to KC – that the cultural meaning of agora has changed to include this aspect of private ownership.

A privately owned agora violates the spirit of it’s original intent, which is meant to be a place (at least in Western definitions) owned by everyone, for everyone, to facilitate the types of interactions that KC defined. The proliferation of private property that mimics the commons has unfortunate consequences because those who “talk and argue and negotiate and forge cynical alliances and voting blocs” should do so in an environment free of nonpublic influence. These are the implications I alluded to earlier – that an ad-filled agora necessarily includes private influence (and ownership of speech) in the one area it shouldn’t be included and shouldn’t have ownership.

Another notable agora that is privately owned is Zuccotti Park. It serves as an imperfect facsimile of the commons, and that had consequences for the type of activity that facilitates democracy. A similar example would be that of enclosed shopping malls, which are spaces meant to copy environments that are conducive to congregating and yet limits free speech (and again, the ever-insistent advertisements). This is the worry that I believe implicit in KC’s question. What are the consequences?

The Question of Failure

One question that has hung on my shoulder during this whole process; Is Facebook’s facilitation of an agora-like environment a collective epistemic failure on our part? The Occupy movement in Zuccotti Park raised many questions about privately owned public spaces. Facebook has raised no such questions (excluding KC, or course).

Perhaps it is because, conversely, the benefits of agora still (to some degree) accrue in “the private commons.” The Occupiers in Zuccotti Park still made a difference. Social movements still effectively use Facebook to organize, forge alliances, and affect democratic outcomes. These online social networks, maybe perversely, rely on such activity for their existence in a way that shopping malls and parks do not. In this way they are notably different and may affect the meanings we attach to our participation. This is the part where it gets cloudy for me, and this is also where I often shrug my shoulders.

Perhaps this would be my question to KC…who’s to blame?


One response to “Is Facebook a Tragedy of the (Modern) Commons?

  1. Pingback: The commoditization of “Likes” | Punditocracy·

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