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True Observer


The Observer reveres the One True Observer, who lives in the wires of the West and in the Great Cloud.

Facebook (and probably Google, too, but let's focus on Facebook) knows everything about you. Anywhere there is a little Facebook button on a page, it tracks all your clicks on that page — combining this with data purchased from offline credit firms and adding in the tracking of your phone ID (which it has) — and creates a detailed report of your life. This newspaper's simple Observer, a humble servant of looking, pales in comparison to the mighty power of Facebook and yet ... what is Facebook doing with all this knowledge? At least The Observer gives you a weekly article.

A better way of asking that is: What is Facebook selling? It is certainly not the experience for users of being on Facebook. Studies show that Facebook makes you feel bad — and not just when you see posts with negative content. "The more people use Facebook, the more unhappy they are," wrote John Lanchester in an article for the London Review of Books, summing up a study of Facebook use over time. No one would pay to be on Facebook, The Observer hopes.

The problem, Tim Wu argues in his book "The Attention Merchants," is that you cannot think about the users of Facebook as the buyers at all because the users are actually the product being bought. Your observation, our observation, is what is being sold by the One True Great Observer (Facebook Inc., hovering at $170 per share while this was being written). You are laboring with your attention and that is sold to advertisers. We, as in Facebook users, spend a collective 39,575 years on Facebook each day. And our collective effort, this great focused attention connected across the world, is not for something grand. "All this information is used for a purpose which is, in the final analysis, profoundly bathetic," writers Lanchester, after recounting the myriad ways that Facebook knows everything about you. "It is to sell you things via online ads."

You should probably be upset at being observed and that a company knows your entire life. But, in all honesty, we lost the fight long ago. You likely cannot un-sell yourself from these companies. Maybe we can just agree on something much more juvenile: the utter lameness of this as the collective accomplishment. We toiled away as a global community to look at ads and a few people got very rich from it. Moreover, it made us all sad.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg spins this accomplishment as "connecting communities" — zipping around the United States in a compassion tour that seems aimed at eventually running for president. The Observer is sure he will come to Arkansas and take a picture in a field and talk about the "heart of America." But, do you feel connected by Facebook to the rest of America? Or, do you feel sold?

It reminds The Observer of Richard Rorty, a philosopher who wrote an essay in which he imagined himself a fake academic in the year 2096. Looking back on the United States, Rorty argues that economic inequality of the 21st century caused a lack of "fraternity" and that "everything depends on keeping our fragile sense of American fraternity intact." Facebook pretends to pedal this connection — fraternity among all of us — but it is actually the opposite. It sells companies a direct connection to you masked as friendship.

The Observer can see the eyes rolling. It is fine. You don't care. After all, I'll see you on Facebook tonight. The Observer is actually going to post something good: a Don DeLillo story that just came out called "The Itch." The post will probably quote a part in which a few people are eating brunch and they're discussing the deluge of knowledge they now have about the world. One character asks, "What do we do with this information?" And, in a jump that is unsettling and does not make sense for the reader, the next paragraph begins, "Three or four commercials every two or three minutes. Commercials in clusters." Jumping time in the story, but answering the question. Hopefully the post gets a few likes.

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