Is Facebook the New Walmart?

The price consumers pay for free services and deep discounts has far-reaching ethical and social implications.

Kevin Systrom, chief executive of the popular photo-sharing app Instagram, now owned by Facebook, displays his photo on a mobile phone during an interview. (Photo: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

Dec 19, 2012· 3 MIN READ
Amy DuFault is a sustainable fashion writer, consultant as well as Digital Content & Communications Director at the Brooklyn Fashion+Design Accelerator

It’s hard to keep up with the ways we are being duped daily, living in a fast-paced society of convenience, unlimited social sharing and a desire to get more for less. Numbed from the sheer quantity of what we take in, we forget that for every action, is a reaction.

Danish philosopher, theologian, poet and social critic Søren Aabye Kierkegaard summed it up when he said “As a result of knowing and being everything possible, one is in contradiction with oneself.”

If the philosopher/social critic were here today, what would he say of our use of social media. Could he have ever predicted such a worldwide platform could exist? And while we’re hitting him up with questions, what would he say about Sam Walton’s exercise in creating products at rock bottom prices for people who find worth in consuming?

MORE: The Twitter Counterrevolution

The price we pay for free and discount has implications and direct blood ties to a dark psychology that has increasingly become embedded in our DNA.

Take for instance when Facebook bought Instagram last April. Despite already being disillusioned by Facebook on a number of cloudy privacy issues, fresh cries went up decrying the injustice of a massive company growing massively bigger.

Mashable’s 20 Witty Reactions to the buy showcased a mix of reactions from being taken by “the man,” to snarky posts on preparing to lose identity...again.

Just this past mid-December, Kevin Systrom co-ounder of Instagram, issued a statement clarifying the Instagram Terms of Service, which are already easy enough for the Everyman to understand: “From the start, Instagram was created to become a business,” Systrom said.

As if we didn’t know.

“Their drive to be the total digital representation of every person on the planet is having huge impacts on personal privacy, ownership of our personal digital creations, and expansion of government’s ability to intrude in their citizens’ lives.”

Yet the idea that our private lives have been packaged into products, are social collateral for sale, is troubling to many, but maybe not troubling enough to abandon Instagram and other mass social media platforms.

A friend recently posted on Facebook regarding the Instagram invasion of privacy “This whole thing is ridiculous and people just need to embrace social media for what it is...ugh.”

We might ask just what “it” is and why it smells ripe of social injustice.

Alex Steed, Partner at Knack Factory, a creative content firm based in Portland, Maine, says that, if we need comparisons, Facebook just might be the post-modern, digital Walmart.

“Walmart came around in the age of the uninformed consumer, and they built an empire. The consumer is now more informed, ironically, because of Facebook and other platforms like it,” Steed tells TakePart. “In that way, its greatest strength, the fact that everyone uses it to pass along information, is its greatest weakness, which is that the platform could be used to spread information about the terrible things it is doing.”

He adds that companies and organizations can clearly still cross lines and anger the public. But when people become dependent on services, and accustomed to the role providers play in their lives, it becomes more and more difficult to divest oneself.

From cheap packs of underwear at Walmart to a morning status post on Facebook, have we become addicted to these bargain services that come at the cost of environment, personal property and even death?

It’s okay. Everyone else is doing it. You’re just a drop in a huge bucket.

A Stanford study titled “Social Networking and Ethics” dives deep into the psychology of social media and a “digital totalitarianism” that uses the power of information rather than physical force as a means of control, “a trend which itself would beg for ethical contextualization.”

The study says that through these social networking technologies, “the urgent need for attention to this phenomenon is underscored by the fact that it is reshaping how human beings initiate and/or maintain virtually every type of ethically significant social bond or role: friend-to-friend, parent-to-child, co-worker-to co-worker, employer-to-employee, teacher-to-student, neighbor-to-neighbor, seller-to-buyer, and doctor-to-patient, to offer just a partial list.”

Erik Ritchie, Vice president of Strategy at Salt Branding, wouldn’t go so far as to say that either Facebook or Walmart are totalitarian in nature, but he does believe they share a similar characteristic: Their societal costs are essentially hiding from their customers/users.

“In the case of Walmart, their efforts to drive down costs at all costs have had ripple effects that negatively impact the global environment and the livelihood and work conditions experienced by their direct employees and those employed by their suppliers. In the case of Facebook, their drive to be the total digital representation of every person on the planet is having huge impacts on personal privacy, ownership of our personal digital creations, and expansion of government’s ability to intrude in their citizens’ lives,” Ritchie tells TakePart.

He adds that only when the true costs incurred by these companies are placed front and center in a meaningful way to all consumers can we expect change.

Computer scientist, composer, visual artist, and author, Jaron Lanier frames the point cynically when he says: “The only hope for social networking sites from a business point of view is for a magic formula to appear in which some method of violating privacy and dignity becomes acceptable.”

It doesn’t take a fresh pair of reality goggles to see we may already be there.

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These are solely the author's opinions and do not represent those of TakePart, LLC or its affiliates.