Of Meta and Monsters, Inc.

Facebook hopes people look “Beyond” its dehumanizing AI profit engine and into the fully immersive commodification of the metaverse.

Facebook’s mission statement is odd. While corporate mission statements can be lofty and aspirational fluff, most companies are comfortable with being clear about the vital elements at the heart of their endeavors: Their products and their customers. McDonald’s talks about their food, their restaurants, and their customers. Amazon talks about online retail and its vast selection of goods for its customers. 

Facebook is having none of that:

“To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”

Facebook/Meta Mission Statement

Facebook doesn’t want people to think about products, clients, or its obscene profitability. Instead, it would rather talk more obliquely about “people” in terms of empowerment, community, and unity.

I wrote about the mission statement in 2017 (which seems like a lifetime ago now). In light of the Facebook Papers showing the company as the antithesis of its stated mission, one must wonder if the lofty words are more about managing cognitive dissonance.

The Meta corporate rebranding is the most recent example of Facebook doubling down on wishful thinking amid a long-standing identity crisis, perpetually uncomfortable with who it is and how it makes so much money. It turns out; the monetization process is far less benign than they would have people believe.

Facebook’s new brand metamorphosis

In a communication history project, I looked back on Facebook’s initial foray into the commercial monetization of its platform. Early on, a fundamental conflict arose between founders Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin. Growing the commercial revenue of Facebook to recoup his startup investment was a huge driver for Saverin. An early copy of a Facebook sales deck used by him in 2004 shows that he was keenly aware of the magnitude of Facebook’s marketing revenue potential, especially its ability to target desirable market segments. Zuckerberg kept putting him off in favor of rapid user growth unencumbered by the online advertising methods of the time. He felt that adding advertising too soon would destroy Facebook’s cachet.

Zuckerberg’s reticence turned out to be a wise business strategy. Social media was an entirely new medium, and social media advertising would need to be a new and evolving endeavor. Once Facebook achieved a certain user scale, attention turned to how best to monetize this unique resource beyond the interruption-based models borrowed from mass media.

Mass media and social media business models essentially share the same product. From the New York Timesto NBC to Tik Tok, all media companies assemble and sell commercial access to audiences. For television, programming popularity is quantified by viewer ratings, and advertising revenue is set accordingly. High ratings for popular programs equate to more sales. The product is the quantifiable audience, made so by measurement such as A.C. Neilson.

The social media business model operates on the same premise but cultivates a more efficient data-rich environment of user-generated content and individual online profiles. TV networks and programs have been replaced by a networked software platform and “content” generated by all manner of socially networked and interested parties, including users (the audience), news organizations, and marketers of all stripes. Database quantification adds consumer marketing logic to the process, and intelligent algorithms shape the flow of all the available content at the individual level in order to drive higher engagement—another way to describe increasing user data generation. The process leads to wildly more effective marketing tactics for Facebook’s paying customers (comprising consumer product companies, political entities, nations, and more nefarious interests). Just as with traditional media, the audience is the product, and profits are made from those willing to pay for access to “users.”

The key difference between the political economies of mass media and those of social media is the popularity required for successful mass media programs and the way social media content drives engagement. Clearly, television programs trade-off entertainment for audience access. This has led to increased quality for television programming in all genres, with the exception of news. Whether the cause is human nature or symbiosis with social media content, television news has found that polarization and negative animus are more effective in driving ratings.

Facebook’s intelligent Algorithms have learned that the concept of popularity is not equivalent to engagement where a social media newsfeed is concerned. The primal emotions of fear and anger—the ones that short-circuit critical thinking and empathy—are far more effective motivators. This dynamic creates the paradox of increasing profitability in the face of decreasing user happiness. Users are the product, not the clients. Steadily increasing revenue is evidence of high client satisfaction with the product Facebook produces. Yet, the externalities of their business model—the side effects borne out in previously hidden research— manifest in a highly divisive, disgruntled, depressed, and deceived society: the antithesis of the mission statement. 

Branding Beyond the Pale

In the rebranding announcement, Zuckerberg said the new name was inspired by the Greek word meta, which means “beyond.” A quick perusal of an online Greek etymology database shows “beyond” to be a third-tier meaning, with the first tier being “after, behind; among, between” and the second tier being “changed, altered.” 

Zuckerberg is quick to point out that the company is more than just Facebook. In that sense, Meta is intended to get people to look beyond the single platform to see a more complete picture of the company. The name is also intended to alter people’s perception of social media toward the “metaverse,” a virtual or augmented reality where all our social interactions can take place in a more immersive, physically present way. A metaverse seems wholly consistent with the company’s mission to “bring the world closer together” when only seen in a positive light. While this may feel similar to the early phase of Facebook (when digitally networked sociability was fun and exciting), in Meta’s brave new world, the monetization engine, shareholders and clients are already a material reality. These factors generate an inexorable drive toward quantifying, predicting, and monetizing as much human behavior on the metaverse as possible.

The second level meaning of meta is change, which relates it to another term: Metanoia. In English, metanoia denotes penitence or spiritual conversion. The English form draws from the Greek metanoia, which signifies repentance. The only effective form of repentance for Facebook (now known as Meta) is to go back, instead of beyond, to rectify its business model’s ill effects. The revelations of the Facebook papers demand metanoia, not meta.

Deep Capture on a Monster Scale

Of course, a remedy for the negative externalities of algorithmically generated profit may mean less profit, something that has proven to be untenable for Zuckerberg and company.

In the 2001 Pixar film, Monster’s Inc., a power company in the monster world, found that scaring human children generated energy and profits. The discovery led to a highly successful scare-based business model, along with a grand conspiracy to preserve this waning resource. When the top company scare team, Sully and Mike, discover that scaring children is actually a pretty horrible thing to do (thanks to Boo, a little human girl lost in the monster world), the powers that be jump into action to preserve the status quo by exiling the monster heroes who are determined to return Boo home safe. 

The human child commodity and the company’s scare-based energy production platform required economic capture. An energy-hungry monster society had to be convinced that scaring was the only way to produce the needed energy. Regulators and workers were captive to the company’s societal power, ensuring that monsters kept scaring and energy kept flowing. 

Sully accidentally scares Boo in the scare demonstration

The moment that gets me choked up is when Sully sees that his monster scaring makes Boo cry. This is a revelation leading to metanoia. In the end, Sully and Mike discover that making kids laugh releases exponentially more free energy than scaring—mostly through Mike’s exceptional burps.

The history of mass media and social media share similarities of economic capture with Monsters, Inc. In the print and broadcast eras, advertisers were beholden to media companies (newspapers, magazines, and television networks) because there were no other means to reach consumers. This type of advertising was costly and inefficient, but the excess profits from commercial capture produced social benefits in the exchange: free entertainment that improved in quality over time, as well as nearly 200 years of journalism essential to a healthy democracy.

Social media platforms have drawn most of these inefficient mass media advertisers into the highly efficient ecosystem of algorithmically-driven digital marketing. Businesses and organizations have embraced social media marketing for its high accessibility, lower cost, and high efficiency. Social media cultivates users to fuel this arrangement, offering individuals a free and highly accessible means of social connection and free expression. For many, the combination of social media and mobile devices now comprise the bulk of how they experience the Internet.

In a 2003 paper* by Harvard law professor Jon Hanson and Harvard Law graduate David Yosifon, “Deep Capture” is defined as, “The disproportionate and self-serving influence that the relatively powerful tend to exert over all the exterior and interior situational features that materially influence the maintenance and extension of that power—including those features that purport to be, and what we experience as independent, volitional, and benign.”

“Because the situation generally tends to be invisible (or nearly so) to us, deep capture tends to be as well.”

Hanson & Yosifon

Facebook and its social media properties have reconstituted a much deeper level of capture than the mass media forms that preceded, with a diminishing level of public good (and growing evidence of harm). Even in the wake of the Facebook Papers and hard evidence of the inversion of growing profit and decreasing user happiness, businesses, organizations, and individuals have little practical ability to opt-out of social media as their economic and social communication needs cannot be met elsewhere. The thought of exiting social media platforms for people subject to deep capture is tantamount to disappearing from the Internet. 

*Jon Hanson & David Yosifon, The Situation: An Introduction to the Situational Character, Critical Realism, Power Economics, and Deep Capture, 152 U. Pa. L. Rev. 129 (2003).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s