Professor Bev Skeggs gave a public lecture at Stockholm University’s Department of Media Studies on March 9, 2016. Organized and sponsored by the Leading Research Environment “Global Media Studies and the Politics of Mediated Communication” (Director: Miyase Christensen), the event addressed the issue of how values are converted into value in modern digital relations.
The lecture, introduced by Professor Alexa Robertson, was entitled “Tracking the trackers: Facebook’s experiments with different forms of personhood and property relations”. Bev Skeggs started by asking the audience if there is anything beyond the logic of capital and explained that her research project Values & Value seeks to answer this question by analyzing how Facebook monetizes friendship and investigating how, in the process, it may be reconfiguring the values of friendship. She argued that in order to unpack the problem we need to grasp the ways in which the understanding of the relationship between personhood and property has changed over time. In classic liberalism, individuals were understood to achieve proper personhood by adding value to themselves through the conversion of their culture and experience into property. At present, instead of attaching property to the person, Facebook encourages users to divulge accurate information about themselves in order to extract property from personhood, in line with neo-liberalism’s imperative to display and accrue one’s own value as a person in public. But what is the relationship between what Facebook encourages users to do online and how it uses that data in order to earn revenue?
Skeggs showed that the company makes money in a number of ways. First, through financialisation: it generates profit by selling itself in the stock market. While it is not yet in the list of the top ten global companies by market capitalisation, where Apple, Google and Microsoft can be found, it is coming close. Financialisation depends on intangible property being given an estimated value based on the ability to accrue future profit –or to put it simply, on the selling of potential. Facebook’s potential capital is the possession of a huge amount of personal information that can be sold, acquired through the strategic implementation of intellectual property laws that give it monopoly control over its users’ data. Secondly, Facebook’s costs are very low: it is not capital intensive, and since it launched in 2004 it expanded at a rapid rate of six times its base in five years. Third, Facebook generates revenue by selling advertising, which accounts for approximately 85% of its profits, drawn from attracting 901 million people to its platform every month. That advertising is the major source of revenue for Facebook means that the company depends on consuming value generated elsewhere in the economy. Importantly, the company’s sophisticated tax avoidance strategies enable it to keep a substantial share of its earnings. Moreover, Facebook uses the market to experiment with valuing and selling bits of data to the highest bidder, and neither accountants nor lawyers can keep up with the pace of the company’s experimentation.
Emphasizing that very few academic researchers are able to study Facebook through its own tools because of the software’s inaccessibility, Skeggs then moved on to explain how Values & Value found that a large amount of web activity that takes place outside Facebook’s platform is linked to the company nonetheless: even those without Facebook accounts, users who are logged out, and those who have explicitly opted out from tracking are all still being tracked. These findings are confirmed by a larger scale study commissioned by the Belgian Privacy Commission released in 2015. Examining how Facebook infrastructures relationships in order to earn revenue implied overcoming the methodological challenge of ‘getting inside’ its interface, and required an unconventional multi-method approach. Skeggs and her colleague Simon Yuill combined the design of custom software tools, an online survey, data visualizations and interviews with participants in order to discuss their understandings of the researchers’ analysis. The study showed that Facebook most effectively monetises those who enterprise themselves and engage in tight and influential online networks, inasmuch as the information they provide in the process makes it possible to match them more accurately to advertisers. To end her lecture and open the lively discussion that followed, Skeggs briefly introduced some of the currently existing alternatives to Facebook, which include protests, open source such as Cragbrass, Minds and diaspora*, and blockers such as Track me not, which helps protect web searchers from surveillance and data-profiling by search engines by creating obfuscation.