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The politics of 'Facebook'

With friends like these ...
Facebook has 59 million users - and 2 million new ones join each week. But
you won't catch Tom Hodgkinson volunteering his personal information - not now that he knows the politics of the people behind the social networking

Tom Hodgkinson
The Guardian,
Monday January 14 2008

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

And does Facebook really connect people? 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.

Facebook appeals to a kind of vanity and self-importance in us, too. If I
put up a flattering picture of myself with a list of my favourite things, I
can construct an artificial representation of who I am in order to get sex
or approval. ("I like Facebook," said another friend. "I got a shag out of
it.") It also encourages a disturbing competitivness 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: "How To Double Your Friends

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: "It's
embedded itself to an extent where it's hard to get rid of."

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.

Although the project was initially conceived by media cover star Mark
Zuckerberg, the real face behind Facebook is the 40-year-old Silicon Valley
venture capitalist and futurist philosopher Peter Thiel. 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.

Thiel is widely regarded in Silicon Valley and in the US venture capital
scene as a libertarian genius. He is the co-founder and CEO of the virtual
banking system PayPal, which he sold to Ebay for $1.5bn, taking $55m for
himself. He also runs a £3bn hedge fund called Clarium Capital Management
and a venture capital fund called Founders Fund. 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 apologise for this hyper-competitveness,
saying: "Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser."

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 TheVanguard.Org, an
internet-based neoconservative pressure group that was set up to attack, a liberal pressure group that works on the web. Thiel calls
himself "way libertarian".

TheVanguard is run by one Rod D Martin, a philosopher-capitalist whom Thiel
greatly admires. On the site, Thiel says: "Rod is one of our nation's
leading minds in the creation of new and needed ideas for public policy. He
possesses a more complete understanding of America than most executives have
of their own businesses."

This little taster from their website will give you an idea of their vision
for the world: "TheVanguard.Org is an online community of Americans who
believe in conservative values, the free market and limited government as
the best means to bring hope and ever-increasing opportunity to everyone,
especially the poorest among us." 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: "Today we'll teach
MoveOn [the liberal website], Hillary and the leftwing media some lessons
they never imagined."

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 characterisation 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: "For Thiel, PayPal was all about freedom: it
would enable people to skirt currency controls and move money around the

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

Photo: Tim Boyle/Getty

Thiel's philosophical mentor is one René Girard of Stanford University,
proponent of a theory of human behaviour 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.

The internet is immensely appealing to neocons such as Thiel because it
promises a certain sort of freedom in human relations and in business,
freedom from pesky national laws, national boundaries and suchlike. The
internet opens up a world of free trade and laissez-faire expansion. Thiel
also seems to approve of offshore tax havens, and claims that 40% of the
world's wealth resides in places such as Vanuatu, the Cayman Islands, Monaco
and Barbados. I think it's fair to say that Thiel, like Rupert Murdoch, is
against tax. He also likes the globalisation of digital culture because it
makes the banking overlords hard to attack: "You can't have a workers'
revolution to take over a bank if the bank is in Vanuatu," he says.

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: "The Singularity is the technological
creation of smarter-than-human intelligence. There are several technologies
... heading in this direction ... Artificial Intelligence ... direct
brain-computer interfaces ... genetic engineering ... different technologies
which, if they reached a threshold level of sophistication, would enable the
creation of smarter-than-human intelligence."

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.

The third board member of Facebook is Jim Breyer. 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 "identifies and partners with companies developing
cutting-edge technologies to help deliver these solutions to the Central
Intelligence Agency and the broader US Intelligence Community (IC) to
further their missions".

The US defence department and the CIA love technology because it makes
spying easier. "We need to find new ways to deter new adversaries," defence
secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in 2003. "We need to make the leap into the
information age, which is the critical foundation of our transformation
efforts." 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 defence research and engineering for the
US department of defence, and - with Breyer - board member of BBN
Technologies. When she left the US department of defence, Senator Chuck Robb
paid her the following tribute: "She brought the technology and operational
military communities together to design detailed plans to sustain US
dominance on the battlefield into the next century."

Now even if you don't buy the idea that Facebook is some kind of extension
of the American imperialist programme 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 suggsted 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. "We want everyone to be able to use Facebook," says the
impersonal voice of Big Brother on the website. I'll bet they do. It is
Facebook's enormous potential that led Microsoft to buy 1.6% for $240m. A
recent rumour 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.

The creators of the site need do very little bar fiddle with the programme.
In the main, they simply sit back and watch as millions of Facebook addicts
voluntarily upload their ID details, photographs and lists of their
favourite consumer objects. 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, "to try to
help people share information with their friends about things they do on the
web". 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:

"With Facebook Ads, our brands can become a part of the way users
communicate and interact on Facebook," said Carol Kruse, vice president,
global interactive marketing, the Coca-Cola Company.

"We view this as an innovative way to cultivate relationships with millions
of Facebook users by enabling them to interact with Blockbuster in
convenient, relevant and entertaining ways," said Jim Keyes, Blockbuster
chairman and CEO. "This is beyond creating advertising impressions. This is
about Blockbuster participating in the community of the consumer so that, in
return, consumers feel motivated to share the benefits of our brand with
their friends."

"Share" is Facebookspeak 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

Now, by comparision with Facebook, newspapers, for example, begin to look
hopelessly outdated as a business model. A newspaper sells advertising space
to businesses looking to sell stuff to their readers. But the system is far
less sophisticated than Facebook for two reasons. One is that newspapers
have to put up with the irksome expense of paying journalists to provide the
content. Facebook gets its content for free. The other is that Facebook can
target advertising with far greater precision than a newspaper. Admit on
Facebook that your favourite 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

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerman (Photo: Paul Sakuma/AP)

It's true that Facebook recently got into hot water with its Beacon
advertising programme. 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 apologised 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.

Futhermore, have you Facebook users ever actually read the privacy policy?
It tells you that you don't have much privacy. 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.

Now, you may, like Thiel and the other new masters of the cyberverse, find
this social experiment tremendously exciting. Here at last is the
Enlightenment state longed for since the Puritans of the 17th century sailed
away to North America, a world where everyone is free to express themselves
as they please, according to who is watching. 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

Or you might reflect that you don't really want to be part of this
heavily-funded programme to create an arid global virtual republic, where
your own self and your relationships with your friends are converted into
commodites on sale to giant global brands. You may decide that you don't
want to be part of this takeover bid for the world.

For my own part, I am going to retreat from the whole thing, remain as
unplugged as possible, and spend the time I save by not going on Facebook
doing something useful, such as reading books. Why would I want to waste my
time on Facebook when I still haven't read Keats' Endymion? And when there
are seeds to be sown in my own back yard? I don't want to retreat from
nature, I want to reconnect with it. Damn air-conditioning! And if I want to
connect with the people around me, I will revert to an old piece of
technology. It's free, it's easy and it delivers a uniquely individual
experience in sharing information: it's called talking.

Facebook's privacy policy

Just for fun, try substituting the words 'Big Brother' whenever you read the
word 'Facebook'

1 We will advertise at you

"When you use Facebook, you may set up your personal profile, form
relationships, send messages, perform searches and queries, form groups, set
up events, add applications, and transmit information through various
channels. We collect this information so that we can provide you the service
and offer personalised features."

2 You can't delete anything

"When you update information, we usually keep a backup copy of the prior
version for a reasonable period of time to enable reversion to the prior
version of that information."

3 Anyone can glance at your intimate confessions

"... we cannot and do not guarantee that user content you post on the site
will not be viewed by unauthorised persons. We are not responsible for
circumvention of any privacy settings or security measures contained on the
site. You understand and acknowledge that, even after removal, copies of
user content may remain viewable in cached and archived pages or if other
users have copied or stored your user content."

4 Our marketing profile of you will be unbeatable

"Facebook may also collect information about you from other sources, such as
newspapers, blogs, instant messaging services, and other users of the
Facebook service through the operation of the service (eg, photo tags) in
order to provide you with more useful information and a more personalised

5 Opting out doesn't mean opting out

"Facebook reserves the right to send you notices about your account even if
you opt out of all voluntary email notifications."

6 The CIA may look at the stuff when they feel like it

"By using Facebook, you are consenting to have your personal data
transferred to and processed in the United States ... We may be required to
disclose user information pursuant to lawful requests, such as subpoenas or
court orders, or in compliance with applicable laws. We do not reveal
information until we have a good faith belief that an information request by
law enforcement or private litigants meets applicable legal standards.
Additionally, we may share account or other information when we believe it
is necessary to comply with law, to protect our interests or property, to
prevent fraud or other illegal activity perpetrated through the Facebook
service or using the Facebook name, or to prevent imminent bodily harm. This
may include sharing information with other companies, lawyers, agents or
government agencies."

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