Thursday, December 29, 2011

Facebook is scary

Yesterday I played a facebook game called "D&D: Heroes of Neverwinter". I had never played a facebook game before, but I've played D&D and other role-playing games off and on since I was a lad. The game was disturbing. In order to do well, a player must recruit other people from facebook to play it. Players are also rewarded in the game for spending more time playing it, and for playing on consecutive days. The game is optimally designed to spread through social networks and to take up more and more of a person's life.

 Part of the appeal of games like D&D is that they allow people to create their own stories. Role-playing games offer a DIY alternative to the stories and entertainment created by the commercial media. But "D&D: Heroes of Neverwinter" is a preeminently commercial game. Its sole purpose seems to be to spread through facebook to as many users as possible and to get people to spend as much time on facebook as possible (presumably for the sake of generating ad revenue). In other words, welcome to the machine.

 After thinking about this game and why it bothered me, I started thinking about facebook in general. It's a great tool which has enabled people to connect, to reconnect, and to stay connected with people they care about. But the fact that it is a commercial enterprise should give us pause. The owners of facebook want us to spend more and more of our lives using their product. They want their product to become indispensable to our work, play, and intimate relationships. The life experience and connections between people have become commodities. There is a risk that we will live our lives for the benefit of and at the pleasure of a commercial enterprise.

 I say all this as a fan of the free market who believes that competition is the best way of checking the market power of firms. The point is not that free market capitalism is bad because it has given birth to monsters such as facebook. The point is that we as consumers should be as intelligent and careful as possible about how we consume commercial entertainment and social media. Social media like facebook and Google+ are network goods, which means that the greater the number of people who use them, the more valuable they are. (If only a few people used facebook, it would be harder to find people you know and the product would be less valuable. The more people who use facebook, the easier it is to find people you know and to meet new people.)

This can make it hard for alternative social media to compete. But it is not impossible to unseat an established network good. For example, consider Microsoft's Windows operating system, a network good which now has several viable competitors. It's hard to say how things will play out, but the worst case scenario is that people become extremely dependent on facebook or other commercial social media in order to have satisfying work, play, and relationships. A better alternative would be a crowd-sourced, non-commercial social media platform.
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