I was overcome with a feeling of nausea when I read that the twitter IPO has created 1,600 new millionaires – the bulk of these most likely in San Francisco, twitter’s headquarters and the city where I live. My feelings about twitter’s IPO is only matched by revulsion at the site of the Google, yahoo, box, and other technology company buses ferrying their employees down to Silicon Valley.
Arround the turn of the millenium, the dot com bubble resulted in a major change in the demographics of San Francisco, with many lower income people (including many artists) evicted from their apartments to make way for higher rents and the tech workers who could afford them. The bubble burst but now we are seeing much larger changes in San Francisco, because it’s not a burstable bubble any more it is the new long term reality. Those of us who have erected barricades at the doors of our rent-controlled apartments are among the few lower income (by San Francisco standards) residents who can live here. And if we leave, we can never afford to return. But, really, who wants to live here any more with the evil speeding black buses, the hoards of technocrati maruading down Valencia Street on Saturday night, the breathless adulation of everything tech-related? The income and reality gap is huge. The other day I walked past the line for the Google bus on 24th Street and a homeless guy was lying face down in front of them, oblivous as they stared into their smartphones. I checked on the man to see if he was OK, and he grunted an affirmative reply. The scene is emblematic of what is going on in this city, if not globally.
But, where does all the money come from? How can twitter be a viable business where massive fortunes are being made? What is it selling? The chilling answer is that we are the commodity, we are the product. Twitter’s (and facebook’s, and google’s) massive database of users is what is worth the billions of dollars of its IPO. The social network connects more of us to the database, and the number of users increases exponentially. As Guy Debord writes in the Society of the Spectacle, “The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as society itself, as a part of society, and as a means of unification.” The more we are connected, the more we can be manipulated.
It’s nothing as blatant or as simple as advertisements on twitter pages. Rather, twitter will be selling us to other media outlets which rely on advertising, like TV. I just read an article in Fast Company that presenting twitter’s strategy to do exactly that. And, you can read about it straight from twitter in a promotional piece that reads like a parody of Orwellian mind control.
And what is being advertised? Cars, hair color, detergent, target, Home Depot, etc, of course, but it’s the perpetual idyll that consumption is still the inevitable path to happiness that’s the important overall message – exploitation of labor and the environment be damned. Social networks are a mobius strip that appear to turn the world upside down but take us back to where we started. There are reports that twitter has been used for revolutionary purposes (for example in Iran, Egypt and Libya), but I would argue that reports of the importance of such uses are exaggerated (see for example this report, and this one) and that rather, twitter represents a further stage of the capitalist revolution, in which we become even more fully integrated into the spectacle.