The Facebook Panopticon

So everyone is up in arms about Facebook’s latest effort to serve its assets (us) up to its customers (the advertising industry). The new idea, already in practice, is called “Sponsored Stories.” It lets advertisers pull content from your posts, and use it in ads that show up on your friend’s pages. So instead of getting a generic Starbucks ad, you’d get an ad that replays one of your friend’s posts – “I just got a Tall Latte at Starbucks” or “my MINI really got me out of the snow this morning.”

What does it mean? Likely nothing, as the feature could conceivably be pulled once people complain – as it happens with so many other Facebook innovations. Of course, they’ll only pull back so far, keeping some element of this technology and marketing policy intact.

What’s so pernicious about this one, as I see it, has less to do with its impact on the ads’ viewers than on the ads’ unwitting creators. As I explained to Annalee Newitz for her article on the subject, the thing that’s spooky here is not just that advertisers can get leverage by using the comments of “real people.” It’s that our behavior as consumers is itself being retrained. We are to feel like we are living in the ads.

Whether or not any of our comments is actually chosen, it could be. It’s like a panopticon, where the surveillance is all that is required to change
our behavior. Those of us who remain on Facebook are now ever closer to identifying completely as consumers, trying to please the corporations observing our behaviors.

And even if they pull the whole Sponsored Stories thing right now, we still know they are watching.