Challenging Facebook is not about delivering a naive message about privacy and freedom from ads. It is about understanding how we use the market, brands and technology to construct our moral identities.
In a matter of days, the new social network Ello, described as the "anti-Facebook" for its stand on privacy and advertising, has become an Internet sensation. Ello is rapidly catching on on with its simple message which takes aim at frustrations of Facebook users. As Ello's "manifesto" states: "We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce and manipulate -- but a place to connect, create and celebrate life. You are not a product."
But you actually are. We all are.
As a sociological game, social media is not about being an authentic person. It is about trying to become an authentic person in the eyes of your audience -- a moral protagonist. The goal is to convince family members, friends, colleagues, customers and other stakeholders, through a continuous process of emotional self-branding, that we are able to do the right, or even better, the "righteous" thing -- even though we are forced to navigate a complex landscape of moral ambiguities.
As authenticity enterprises, we need two things:
- cultural and market resources to build authenticity
- a technology that brings multiple authenticity producers, including not only regular consumers but also brands, advertisers, opinion leaders, intellectuals, celebrities, journalists and other technologies together so that we can "like" and "share" each others' standpoints
Facebook understands its leading role as an identity technology -- it is providing the leading tool for individual empowerment, not although, but precisely because it is also the leading tool to deceive, coerce and manipulate the perceptions of others.
At present, Ello does not even compete in this market. It rather competes in the market for quickly expiring authenticity resources -- manifestos, big and small, that allow consumers to take a normative stand: the most recent Guardian article about fairness, the Peta video about the benefits of vegetarianism feat. Paul McCartney, Naomi Klein's new book about global warming or the Robin Williams Buzzfeet that drives home the point that "depression is real."
This interplay between identity technologies and symbolic materials market actors use to create their identities, however, not only illustrates that Facebook's most important advertisers are not the industry advertisers but the 1.3 billion members who go online to market themselves and their lives.
It also shows that announcing, on Facebook, that one is now also a member of Ello is never a sign of migration or large-scale market change. It illustrates the urge to make a moral pronouncement. And as such, it rather reinforces Facebook's status as the leading channel for moral identity construction online.
Moralistic manifestos aren't enough. Whoever challenges Facebook will have to move beyond ethic and find better ways to redefine how all market actors -- not only consumers -- can use symbolic materials and technology to construct their moral identities.