If we take social media networks as part of popular culture, and we believe that popular culture maintains power structures beneficial to consumer capitalism, then we can view these networks beyond what they appear to be on the surface. For participants, they are vehicles to "stay in touch," "share your own story," voyeuristically view others' stories, and so on. For businesses, they are vehicles for branding, for gaining customer loyalty, for gleaning insights from your competitors' practices, etc. For businesses, also, social networks are enormous vats of data -- very valuable, detailed outlines of consumer profiles. Many people realize networks are structured this way, yet willingly participate anyway, which is inherent to most aspects of popular culture.
A somewhat new approach to social networks appears to be in the works with www.personal.com, which claims to provide a safe place for the "Digital You" with their "online and mobile service." Still in its beta phase, the start-up has raised over $7 million as of January 2011. With a Personal account, you no longer will have to worry about the "multi-billion dollar marketplace [that] has emerged to buy and sell [your] data and target you with advertising." All of your data remains "private" until you consent to sell it. And therein lies one of the most interesting things about the site. In a blog post, the CEO breaks down the consumer/producer relationship, urging people to see themselves as owners of information valuable to producers:
"I’d like to propose a new word for the new media lexicon: Owners. Companies are very clear on who their 'owners' are, and they go to work to pursue their interests every day. When it comes to our data and time, we should start thinking of ourselves as a little enterprise organized for the express benefit of ourselves. We have tools never before imaginable to build a far more favorable model for ourselves."At the end of the post, he states, "I hope you will consider using Owner when referring to yourself in the context of using services that require your data or time. Names matter."
What a brilliant display of wordplay! Simply by referring to ourselves as owners, and signing up for a new social network that inhabits the same consumer capitalist playing field, we evidently can break down the power structures of said playing field.