Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Though Valentine’s Day sales might lead one to believe otherwise, it’s rather foolish to put a price on love. That is, unless you are a massive corporation, in which case the courting process is defined by the flirtatious offerings of massive sums of money. These very public unions are often watched somewhat warily – with worried parties jumping up to offer evidence for why the marriage should not be allowed– with checks and stock options being exchanged in lieu of rings. Such protestations against a worrisome pairing were on recent display in the show of dismay at the proposed joining of Comcast and Time Warner Cable – as many realized that the coupling would look quite a bit like a monopoly.
One might suspect that the opprobrium directed at Comcast and Time Warner Cable might prompt other corporations engaged in gazing lustfully longingly at other companies to feel as if it might be worth waiting to declare new acquisitive intentions of their own. After all, it seems that the Comcast / Time Warner Cable deal may have roused the slumbering figure of anti-trust regulation from a very deep doze. But young lust love knows no bounds! It must declare its affections! And thus…Facebook has announced its intention to be united with WhatsApp.
Which is just a flowery way of noting that Facebook has announced that it will buy WhatsApp for the sum of $16 billion (most of which is in Facebook stock, with an additional $3 billion to be paid out later).
It’s easy to understand what Facebook finds so alluring about WhatsApp, it’s an old story of attraction: a company being drawn to the qualities in others that it wishes it could see in itself. While Facebook has achieved an impressive level of dominance in the field of social networking, it has been less successful in breaking into the realm of messaging services (Facebook’ Poke did not achieve much success and Instagram Direct [Facebook owns Instagram] has not significantly undermined Snapchat). The mention of Snapchat raises an interesting question – should WhatsApp be worried about the ardor of Facebook’s affections given Facebook’s recent, unsuccessful, courtship of Snapchat? Perhaps, but this is not a discussion of people, it’s a discussion of corporations, and WhatsApp seems quite pleased to take the money that might have originally been directed towards Snapchat. In the world of corporate marriages you can always reuse the engagement ring, provided you glue some additional stones onto it.
The announcements of the impending nuptials was cause for the standard prose from Facebook (which achieves the same rarified level of clichéd heights as Google’s “Don’t Be Evil”), as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took to his Facebook page (naturally) to repeat the canard:
“our mission is to make the world more open and connected.”
More connected? Certainly, after all, WhatsApp does have a large (and growing) user base, and they are undeniably quite connected. As for “more open?” Well, that all depends upon how one defines the term “open.” Here it may be useful to consider the term “open” in light of a comment from Herbert Marcuse (One-Dimensional Man):
“private space has been invaded and whittled down by technological reality. Mass production and mass distribution claim the entire individual.” (Marcuse, 12)
The “open” world discussed by Facebook always represents above all else a world that is “open” to inspection by Facebook, and by extension is therefore “connected” with the rest of the informational apparatus that Facebook has constructed. The “technological reality” of social networking has made significant inroads into “private space;” however, Facebook knows that there are areas where it has not managed to get a suitable hold. Whereas Facebook has proven unable to gain a significant position independently (Poke) in the realm of messaging applications it is flush with the finances to purchase such stature by scooping up already existing (and successful platforms). For tech platforms seeking ever more information it is not acceptable to settle for anything less than the information on the “entire individual” – and if ownership of a messaging platform will give Facebook more control than of course Facebook will aim to acquire such a platform.
The larger societal/technological context is also important to be aware of in this regard as tech firms have been snatching up small (and not so small) tech fiefdoms at an impressive pace – spending large sums in the process: Yahoo! buys Tumblr, Amazon buys GoodReads, Google buys Nest, Facebook buys WhatsApp…and this list will be out of date within a very short amount of time. It’s somewhat difficult to think of how such a closely consolidated and tightly held realm can truly be considered “open.” After all, having fewer choices scattered across a small group of massive tech corporations seems quite closed – increasingly the remaining “open” option may be to renounce a given App or platform, yet this is a move that winds up cutting individuals off from the “connected” world in which they have come to be involved. Things are quite open, as long as one is content with remaining inside a close system.
Though there seem to be no shortage of individuals looking for opportunities to declare that Facebook is heading towards extinction, moves such as the purchase of WhatsApp demonstrate that Facebook has no intention of winding up preserved in a museum next to the dinosaur bones. Facebook has only recently celebrated its tenth year of existence, in the course of its first ten years it has undergone quite an impressive number of changes, and it seems clear that Facebook will change quite a bit more over the following years. Yet the Facebook of today is a financially engorged, politically connected powerhouse that has come to serve as an important part of the way that many people are “connected” even if it has done so in a way that turns “open” into a shorthand for “open to Facebook” (and by extension the NSA). What is clear is that Facebook has learned an important lesson from Google, namely:
“existential unhappiness and commercial success can be viewed as two sides of the same coin” (Berardi, 116)
Wait…that’s not it. That was Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s point that corporations can easily turn the desire to be “connected” amongst alienated denizens of a technological society into a rich stream of profit. What Facebook actually has learned from Google is that in expanding an empire it is easier to simply buy off David than risk having him kill Goliath with a lucky blow. By the same token, it can also be quite useful to hide the larger brand identity (Google, Facebook) behind convenient masks as one of the best ways to ensure that people do not get to anxious about a monopoly is to hide the ownership structure behind the façade of numerous seemingly autonomous companies.
It is not a perfect parallel to compare Facebook buying WhatsApp with the proposed merger between Time Warner Cable and Comcast – yet both cases are episodes of corporate matrimony dreamt up by financial matchmakers. Increasing centralized control in the world of cable sees its online reflection in the consolidation of Internet platforms.
Do not feel bad if you did not receive an invitation (or a check) to the impending ceremony, for if you are a WhatsApp or Facebook user you are at the ceremony. It’s just that you’re not watching the ritual, you (and your information) are being offered up as a wedding present from one of the newlyweds to the other.
And no, they won’t be sharing the cake.
Berardi, Franco “Bifo”. The Uprising: on Poetry and Finance. Semiotext(e), 2012.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Routledge Classics, 2002.