It’s always great to feel part of something. That’s what community’s all about. So what becomes of our connection to one another when our interests are digitized and divvied up for dollars in the commercialized provinces of cyberspace?
Facebook boasts in excess of a billion individual and organizational subscribers. The company’s stock price and future prospects rise or fall on how deftly Facebook packages and channels its website users as product and service consumers to advertisers. A billion individual decisions to open the door of their electronic devices to Facebook’s profitmaking ambitions reveal a remarkable human willingness to place one’s self in service to a commercial marketplace.
Of course, few folks in signing up regard themselves as one exploitable fraction of a gigantic Facebook-using whole. Our normal tendency with easily accessible online technologies is to look only at the surface value – in Facebook’s case, connecting “for free” to a community of friends. We either passively accept or ignore altogether that our fractional presence on the site represents a tiny but significant crumb of real monetary value to Facebook’s stockholders.
This is nothing new. Broadcast television operated for close to a half century on essentially the same economic bargain. Comedies, dramas and other amusing titillations came reliably – and without any charge – to my living room. Corporate advertisers offering consumable products and services funded the creation of those engaging shows as a way to lure my eyes in the hope my money would follow. They spent billions to understand what would keep me coming back for more.
Both the television and the Facebook calculus are the same. Users of a broadcast channel or website would exchange their individual commercial potential for what the screen delivered. Eyes and interest focused, millions of exploitable fractions added up to an aggregated, attentive market deemed by their corporate owners as ready and willing to buy. The tempting new titillation is that I can now interact with and through the medium, breaking through the screen in the hope of connecting with something that passes for – and has been marketed to mean – “community.”
Thousands of tech entrepreneurs have hitched their fortunes to the promise of stimulated optic nerves channeling digital impressions from illuminated screens into receptive human brains, one at a time. One click and we deliver ourselves into the hands of some very clever business people who, for their own enrichment, would have us believe it’s a fair exchange of our autonomy to engage in their online visual world. In such a transaction, at the foundational level of neurological synapses, we become the intellectual property of others permitted to package and sell what we’ve voluntarily given them, exactly as they wish.
Beyond the partying elation of a relatively small circle of those profiting from the sale of attentive eyes and receptive minds, there’s no genuine community when the many diminish their own worth by blithely accepting enlistment in the ranks of the exploitable fraction. The promise of joining legions of others enticed into cold commerce through the warm communal window of a computer screen feels strangely intimate. But perhaps we would be wise to hesitate a bit before we click. You may want to ruminate on what the social scholar John McKnight meant in titling his famous series of essays “The Careless Society: Community and its Counterfeits,” (Basic Books 1995). Take a careful read and you’ll see what I mean.