WhatsApp? Even private chatter now exploited by billionaires

university-of-salford-logoDavid delivered a paper on the acquisition by Facebook of the messenger WhatsApp at the Challenging Media Landscapes conference, part of the Salford Media Festival, at Salford Quays, November 2014.

The Programme is available here.

Abstract:  The purchase of internet chat application WhatsApp by social networking giant Facebook this year should give us pause for thought regarding the real agendas behind such monopolistic acquisitions in the technology world.  It’s clear that the teen market is something Facebookmust buy into in order to capture the next generation, but even if Facebook does delay placing advertising on this messaging platform, it will still have access to all the meta-data of teen chatter, so valuable to them in targeting their advertising at people on Facebook itself.

Look a little deeper, however, and there are disturbing traces of the activities of self-styled neoliberal elites (Kreps 2011), a newly superrich class unto themselves (Picketty 2013) continually trying to ensure that the world runs in their best interests. The meta-data about our relationships in social networks so valuable to Zuckerberg and his advertisers is, as we have recently seen all too clearly, also extremely valuable to the national security agencies in the US and UK (Landau 2014). It gives us the incredibly detailed depiction only Big Data can offer of the shape, trends, shifts and movements of societies: those amorphous entities neoliberals once upon a time dismissed as irrelevant to market needs.

We can gain even more insight into this acquisition by taking a look at Peter Thiel. Paypal founder turned venture capitalist, Thiel was Facebook’s first big investor back in 2004 and still sits on the company board.  As an undergraduate Thiel was taught by the French philosopher Rene Girard (and now funds the Imitatio organisation promoting Girard’s work). Girard is famous for his assertion that all human behaviour is based on imitation – his mimetic theory – to which heaccords objective scientific status, while at the same time basing it all in Biblical references (Pommier 2010).  Thiel’s video about Girard’s influence on his life makes it clear the Facebook capitalist believes human beings act as a “herd”, and that his success has come from second-guessing the herd mentality, innovating in spaces counter to the movements of the herd.

This paper takes a close look at these interweaving issues and asks: have online social networking sites, supposedly a place of family, friends, and pictures of kittens, become little more than sinister harvesting machines for shadowy government agencies and billionaire elites to hoover up the data about our ‘herd’ behavior in their attempts to maintain social control and competitive advantage?


Kreps, D (2014) ‘WhatsApp? Even private chatter now exploited by billionaires’ Paper delivered at Challenging Media Landscapes conference, as part of Salford Media Festival, November 2014

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