Navigating the Social, Cultural, Economic and Political Internet through Facebook

How our dependence on Facebook has locked us within its walled garden

Facebook logo in surrounded by a large group of people. Image: MarketingLand, All Rights Reserved.
Facebook logo in surrounded by a large group of people. Image: MarketingLand, All Rights Reserved.

Since its inception, Facebook has grown into a multifaceted platform that permeates all aspects of our lives. Its growth has created a platform that facilitates not only social connections, but also those of a cultural, economic and political nature. Thus, this essay will critically analyse how Facebook has transformed the way we navigate the Internet given the ubiquity of its presence in our lives.

In exploring the above, this essay will begin with defining Facebook and its historical development. Following, Facebook’s business model and ecosystem will be explored, and finally, its transformative effects on our navigation of the Internet is considered. From this, it will be determined that whilst Facebook does facilitate a multifaceted experience of the Internet via its platform, this experience is theirs to shape and control.

Defining Facebook

Facebook, formally known as the Facebook app, is a free social media platform owned by the company Facebook, Inc. It uses a real name policy and enables people to connect, share and communicate with friends, families and communities online (Facebook, 2020c; Dijck, 2012, p. 146). This is in line with Obar and Wildman’s (2015) definition of social media platforms as participatory internet-based applications that allow users to create, interact and connect with user-generated content and profiles.

Dijck (2012, p. 142) extends on this understanding of interaction and participation by highlighting that social media platforms are made of dynamic connections between users of varying nature and size. As such, Facebook offers key features and integrated applications, such as the News Feed, Marketplace, Messenger and Facebook Ads, to engage this dynamic mix of users which includes ordinary users, media publishers, advertisers and many others.

Facebook ‘Home’ page layout in 2020 showing news feed and stories and links to other pages including ‘Watch’, ‘Marketplace’, ‘Groups’ and ‘Gaming’ (accessible via the 5 centred icons along the top). Image: Facebook Engineering, All Rights Reserved.
Facebook ‘Home’ page layout in 2020 showing news feed and stories and links to other pages including ‘Watch’, ‘Marketplace’, ‘Groups’ and ‘Gaming’ (accessible via the 5 centred icons along the top). Image: Facebook Engineering, All Rights Reserved.

These features thus enable Facebook users to engage in their social, cultural, economic and political interests. Hence, Facebook is an evolving platform that facilitates online interactions between different users and interests.

Facebook’s Historical Development

In 2004, Harvard University student Mark Zuckerberg launched a social networking site called ‘The Facebook’. This site was initially for exclusive use by Harvard students, but quickly expanded and became publicly accessible in 2006 after a rebranding that dropped the ‘The’ to become ‘Facebook’ (Andrew, 2020; Marichal, 2016).

Facebook has significantly changed over time. However, at its core, the platform continues to appeal to our human desire for connectedness by linking our private and public lives (Marichal, 2016, pp. 4-5). Thus, to remain relevant, Facebook has developed beyond being just a social platform, into one that permeates every aspect of our lives. This development shift can be informed by two key influences, one, Facebook’s mission to bring people closer together and, two, the pressure to conform to different user interests.

The Facebook welcome page in 2004. Image: Tamar Weinberg, Flickr, All Rights Reserved.
The Facebook welcome page in 2004. Image: Tamar Weinberg, Flickr, All Rights Reserved.

To bring us closer together, Facebook continues to innovate to expand the ways we connect. In 2006, Facebook launched the ‘News Feed’; an algorithmic curation of a user’s updates and posts into a news format on the homepage. The idea was to help users stay informed about their friends and to provide a feeling of perpetual connection (Rader & Gray, 2015). Yet upon its release, users immediately protested with privacy concerns, pushing Facebook to add user privacy controls to restrict what could be seen (Hoadley, Xu, Lee & Rosson, 2010).

Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook ‘News Feed’ in 2006. Image: Facebook, All Rights Reserved.
Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook ‘News Feed’ in 2006. Image: Facebook, All Rights Reserved.

Beyond social expectations, Facebook is also informed by commercial interests as seen in its 2007 release of ‘Facebook Ads’ (Lodha, Khanna, Shah, & Sharma, 2019). Since then, Facebook has exponentially grown and dominated platform advertisements, resulting in scrutiny from regulatory bodies, including the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) in their 2019 Digital Platforms Inquiry.

Other instances of regulatory influence on their development include the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica data breach, where Facebook received fines from the UK Information Commissioner’s Office for breaches of data protection laws.

Additionally, Facebook also responded, via a Facebook update Re Cambridge Analytica from Zuckerberg, with steps they’re taking to better protect user data. Therefore, this history reflects how Facebook’s development has balanced different interests to ensure we remain engaged.

Facebook’s Business Model

To better understand Facebook’s development, we must consider their business model. Teece (2010, p. 173) defines a business model as an entity’s architecture for value creation and capture. In Facebook’s case, they operate on a multi-sided platform (MSP) business model that works by connecting multiple groups of users (e.g. consumers and advertisers) interacting on their platform (ACCC, 2019, p. 59). As such, Facebook’s MSP creates and captures value through:

1/ Data Collection

On one side of Facebook’s MSP, consumers are offered a service free of monetary charge. In exchange, consumers provide their digital labour, which refers to human activities captured by platforms and translated into value in the form of data and attention (ACCC, 2019, p. 58; Andrews, 2020, p. 40; Fumagalli, Lucarelli, Musolino & Rocchi, 2018, p. 13). This business model is subsequently sustained on a “positive feedback loop” (ACCC, 2019, p. 61). More specifically, Facebook’s free service attracts high numbers of users as the most popular social network worldwide.

World Map of Social Networks, January 2020. Image: Vincenzo Cosenza, vincos.it, Attribution by CC-BY-NC 2.0.
World Map of Social Networks, January 2020. Image: Vincenzo Cosenza, vincos.it, Attribution by CC-BY-NC 2.0.

This enables Facebook to obtain more user data which can be used to improve their services, and in turn, attract more users (ACCC, 2019, pp. 58-61).

2/ Advertisements

On the other side, Facebook uses the collected data to offer targeted advertising opportunities to advertisers, including businesses and media content creators (ACCC, 2019, pp. 58-61). As such, their advertisement earnings form a substantial portion of their total revenue, totalling over 98% of their reported 2019 revenue (Facebook, 2019, p. 44).

Image: 2019 revenue pie chart for Facebook, Inc. based on data obtained from the Form 10-K lodged with United States Securities and Exchange Commission, for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2019 by Amy Do.
Image: 2019 revenue pie chart for Facebook, Inc. based on data obtained from the Form 10-K lodged with United States Securities and Exchange Commission, for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2019 by Amy Do.

Their success can be attributed to the quality and quantity of their user data, which enhances their ability to profile users and offer targeted services (ACCC, 2019, p. 61). Thus, advertisers partnering with Facebook can reach specific demographics such as gender, age, location, education and workplace. These demographics are often voluntarily supplied by users; however, other personal attributes, like sexual orientation or intelligence, can also be inferred from the users’ platform engagement (Doyle, 2015, p. 59).

This business model that sustains Facebook’s development is demonstrated below.

Relationships between digital platforms, consumers, businesses and media content creators. Image: ACCC, All Rights Reserved.
Relationships between digital platforms, consumers, businesses and media content creators. Image: ACCC, All Rights Reserved.

Facebook’s Ecosystem

Facebook’s business model reveals that their operations rely on the interactions between interdependent actors within an Internet ecosystem. Dhamdhere and Dovrolis (2008, p. 183) define an Internet ecosystem as a network of autonomous systems varying in size, functions and business objectives, that interact jointly to create economic value and to form the global Internet.

The following ecosystem map demonstrates how Facebook’s success is predicated on these interdependencies. It highlights their business model is executed not only via the Facebook app, but also through subsidiaries attained from strategic acquisitions, partners, third-party providers and pressures from regulators and competitors.

Ultimately, these interdependencies shape how Facebook develops their platform into a social, cultural, economic and political imaginary of the Internet.

Image: Facebook ecosystem map showing Facebook’s internetworked dependencies based on information obtained from ACCC (2019), Facebook (2020), Papamiltiadis (2018), and Wieringa (2020) by Amy Do.
Image: Facebook ecosystem map showing Facebook’s internetworked dependencies based on information obtained from ACCC (2019), Facebook (2020), Papamiltiadis (2018), and Wieringa (2020) by Amy Do.

Facebook’s Transformative Effects

Facebook projects their utopian potential through their mission to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” (Facebook, 2020f). In pursuing this mission, Facebook has, both positively and negatively, transformed the navigation of our social, cultural, economic and political lives online.

Social and Cultural

Aligning with their mission, Facebook has transformed the way we socialise and forge connections. Marichal (2016, p. 40) observes how features like News Feed, by default, allow users to stay updated with friends at low effort and cost. As such, Facebook enables us to build deep social connections as a default and allows us to maximise our social capital (Marichal, 2016, p. 40; Shih, 2011). Shih (2011) defines social capital as “the collective value of all social networks and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other”, such as providing a source of ideas, knowledge, support, opportunities and visibility.

Thus, Facebook has engineered a culture of connectivity that cultivates a connective space for communication and information (Dijck, 2012). But this utopian potential is disrupted by the reality of Facebook’s strategy to bring connectivity to users – by integrating their Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram apps to form a cross-platform experience. McCracken (2020) observes that the merge hurts Instagram’s historic independence and cultural quirks, like having a “fake Instagram” only for close friends that has no links to their real-identity account on Facebook.

Image: Screenshot of Facebook Messenger and Instagram app merge update on 20 October 2020 by Amy Do.
Image: Screenshot of Facebook Messenger and Instagram app merge update on 20 October 2020 by Amy Do.

Hence, platform connectivity is “a double logic of empowerment and exploitation” (Dijck, 2012, p. 144). Facebook proposes that the interconnection will enable better user experience, yet it also allows them to further profile users and avoid potential anti-trust lawsuits that would require a company split.

Economic

Beyond the sociocultural realms, Facebook’s strategy for connectivity also permeates economic life. For example, their Marketplace feature provides a connective platform for buying and selling in our local communities.

Facebook’s Marketplace feature on their mobile application. Image: PRNewswire, All Rights Reserved.
Facebook’s Marketplace feature on their mobile application. Image: PRNewswire, All Rights Reserved.

The platform also empowers small and medium-sized businesses with tools, such as Pages and Facebook Ads, to connect with consumers more easily and less costly when compared with traditional advertising channels (Deloitte, 2015). Thus, industry analysis by Deloitte (2015, p. 4) reports that the platform “has become a hub that democratises marketing [as] it facilitates economic activity for businesses of all sizes”.

Screenshot of a café business, Circa Espresso, Facebook page by Amy Do.
Screenshot of a café business, Circa Espresso, Facebook page by Amy Do.

But whilst their platform does provide an avenue for different users to engage in economics online, it operates by commodifying our data, attention and connections (ACCC, 2019; Andrews, 2020; Fumagalli et al., 2018; Marichal, 2016). This is clearly a detriment for consumers, but businesses are also at a loss if we consider Facebook’s algorithms.

The ACCC (2019, pp. 12-13) reported that Facebook’s possession of advertising market dominance and opaque algorithms may lead to self-preferencing decisions, like restricting access to data and promotion of competing products. There are real implications as Kowalewicz (2019) writes on how changes in Facebook’s 2018 algorithms resulted in declining organic reach of businesses’ Facebook posts. Therefore, Facebook controls, rather than facilitates, our navigation of the Internet.

Political

This control is also present in our online political lives via Facebook’s re-distribution of news. Saldaña, McGregor and Zúñiga (2015) found that news consumption encourages political participatory behaviours and enables a “healthy functioning of democracy” (ACCC, 2019, p. 280). Thus, Facebook plays a pivotal role as the most popular social media platform for accessing news (Park et al., 2020, p. 108).

According to the University of Canberra’s 2020 Digital News Report, the global average use of Facebook as a news source is 42%. Therefore, this high user dependency on Facebook for news, combined with Facebook’s power to curate what users see, has significant implications on our political engagement. Martin (2019, p. 119) argues that Facebook’s tracking of users enables them to keep us on their platforms as News Feeds are curated with content that validate our own views, or outrage us enough to participate.

Furthermore, their control is extended through their asymmetric relationships with news media companies. Whilst these relationships can help boost business, it simultaneously exposes these companies to Facebook’s strategic, self-interested policy and algorithmic decisions (Andrews, 2020, pp. 57-58; Martin, 2019, p. 92).

Image: Screenshot of Facebook’s update of their Terms of Service in response to the ACCC media bargaining code on 1 September 2020 by Amy Do.
Image: Screenshot of Facebook’s update of their Terms of Service in response to the ACCC media bargaining code on 1 September 2020 by Amy Do.

This has consequently garnered significant regulatory attention. In Australia, the ACCC have developed a news media bargaining code to address power imbalances. Yet under regulatory scrutiny, Facebook continues to display the extent of their control by updating their Terms of Service to enable them to limit content if aids in avoiding legal liability.

Conclusion

Facebook has become our source of social, cultural, economic and political connection. Without adopting a critical lens, Facebook is seen as a positive force of innovation that transforms:

  1. Sociocultural connection
  2. Economic engagement
  3. Political participation

Yet this utopian imaginary is disrupted by the reality of Facebook possessing full power to engineer our navigation. Even with awareness of this dystopian reality, we remain reluctant to abandon Facebook because it provides us with affordances that can be utilised in every aspect of our lives online. Thus, Facebook does indeed allow us to navigate the social, cultural, economic and political Internet, but this is done so within their “walled garden” (Best, 2014, p. 21) that they shape, commodify and control.

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About Amy Do 3 Articles
Amy is a student at the University of Sydney. She's currently studying a Bachelor of Commerce and Arts, and exploring the world of Internet transformations.