Can We Build Community by Selling Our Attention?

Earlier this year, Facebook unveiled a new mission statement: “To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” A laudable goal! With two billion monthly users, Facebook has the potential to become the commons for the global village: a place where we meet people with shared interests from around the world, hang out with friends and family and re-connect with old acquaintances.

Your use of this place doesn’t come for free. To participate in the new commons, you must launch Facebook’s app on your phone, open its website in your browser — and stay there for as long as possible. This is because the funds for building and operating this place (an expensive undertaking!) comes from selling your attention to advertisers. The more of it there is to sell, the better off Facebook will be.

I don’t mind giving my attention to advertisers if I get something of value out of the transaction, and I understand what that is. If I visit Amazon.com looking for a new pair of running shoes, seeing ads for running shoes is a service, not an inconvenience. That said, I’m not convinced we can “build community” on top of an environment designed to monetize our attention, at least not in the way we’re used to thinking about community. A civic commons cannot function effectively as such if it’s also a venue for arbitraging attention. (“Commons” and “community” both come from the Latin word communis.)

Facebook is in hot water at the moment because it apparently sold targeted political advertising to foreign nationals during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. It’s obvious how this can be a problem for a democracy. But is the real issue that foreigners can influence our opinion by buying our attention, or that anyone — regardless of nationality — can?

Social networks such as Facebook can be a great force for good. But we must be clear that the experiences we have in these places influence our actions in the “real” world. As we move more of our attention to these information environments, it behooves us to explore business models that don’t rely on selling it to the highest bidder.