Facebook, a virtual attention plantation

Facebook gave you access to your “friends.” And now, much of the energy formerly devoted to blogs or other online projects was now channeled into upgrading one’s Facebook profile and, with it, the value of Facebook itself. In this way, the public became like renters willingly making extensive improvements to their landlord’s property, even as they were made to look at advertisements. Facebook’s ultimate success lay in this deeply ingenious scheme of attention arbitrage, by which it created a virtual attention plantation.

Facebook had supposedly replaced cyberspace with something more “real,” but what it created in fact was just another realm of unreality, one that, on account of looking real, was more misleading. Here was a place where friends always congratulated and celebrated; where couples did little but eat at nice restaurants, go on vacation, or announce engagements or newborns; and where children never cried or needed diaper changes or hit each other. On Facebook, all happy families were alike; the others may have each been unhappy in their own way, but they were not on Facebook.

From The attention merchants by Tim Wu


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