I have always been deeply troubled by the fact that more than a billion people willingly share, for free, endless amounts of information about themselves and the people they care about with Mark Zuckerberg & Co. over at Facebook, and then allow Zuckerberg to mine that data and sell the relevant bits and pieces to advertisers.
Whether you agree with my take on the inherent inequity of Facebook or not, there’s no denying -- for the moment -- the power of Zuckerberg’s business plan. These days, thanks to the generosity of all those Facebook users, Zuckerberg is worth $30 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, and has increased his wealth so far in 2014 by $5.3 billion, more than any other person in the index.
But, now, thanks to “Generation Like,” a powerfully disturbing Frontline documentary produced and written by Douglas Rushkoff and Frank Koughan that airs tonight, an even darker side of Zuckerberg’s master plan is revealed: In a never-ending quest for more and more of the dreaded “likes,” Facebook is manipulating unsuspecting teenagers into becoming walking, talking and clicking billboards for advertisers and marketers.
Throughout the film, Rushkoff interviews one hooked-on-likes youngster after another. He seems to be in a state of disbelief throughout, as was I. The kids, meanwhile, are unflappable in their devotion to doing what is necessary to acquire as much of the new currency as possible.
There are many disturbing portraits in “Generation Like” but one, in particular, stands out: Steven Fernandez, a.k.a Baby Scumbag, a now-13-year-old from Compton, California, who starts off his quest for likes innocently enough by making skateboard videos of himself and posting them to Facebook and YouTube. Fernandez is a decent enough skateboarder, and he begins to attract a following by the time he's 11. He quickly realizes that purveyors of skateboards and skateboard clothing want access to his followers and are willing to ply him with all sorts of free swag to do so. He begins to imagine that the accumulation of likes could be his, and his family’s, ticket out of their financial struggles.
If only Baby Scumbag could get even more likes. Then it dawns on him. Of course, the sure-fire Internet attention-getter: porn. He starts inviting scantily-clad Latinas to join his videos, and soon enough abandons the skateboarding ethos that got him noticed in the first place.
Says a dumbfounded Rushkoff in an interview: “These platforms are embedded with values that end up changing kids. Some kid starts as a skateboarder, and he wants to get more ‘likes,’ in his case because he wants to get sponsorship and get his family out of the ghetto. But the way you get ‘likes’ is not by being a great skateboarder; how you get ‘likes,’ he discovers, is by having hot Latina girls in his videos that are pulling their pants down and doing outrageous things. So the thing that he thought was the skill that would get him out of the ghetto turns out to be just being a 13-year-old pornographer, a comedic pornographer.”
Let’s hope that Zuckerberg’s Facebook ends up being something more beneficial to society than simply seducing a new generation into becoming, wittingly or unwittingly, tools of the commercial machine. Unfortunately, I am not optimistic that Zuckerberg has anything else in mind, and neither is Rushkoff.
(William D. Cohan, the author of “Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World,” is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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