“Our private hall of flattering mirrors”

Sunday, May 29th, 2011, 12:46 pm Facebook, Public space 3 Comments

News Feed

This morning Facebook selected for my news feed a link from my girlfriend, who has been 12 times zones away for far too long, to a Jonathan Franzen piece making the argument that love and consumer culture are antithetical to one another. There’s a line in it that may be more true than Mr Franzen realizes. This line was referenced by my girlfriend in a bit of irony as she posted the link: “To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.”

Yesterday I wrote my column for Plaza de Armas on a topic closely related to this. Although I’ve realized for a while that Facebook and Google (and many other information portals) have been filtering search results and news feeds based on their algorithmic interpretation of personal preferences (search history, click history, etc), I’ve only in the last couple of weeks started to think about how truly radical this idea is.

The thing that got me thinking more critically about the implications of personalized information filtering was this TED talk by Eli Pariser on what he calls the “filter bubble.” The idea is simply that if Facebook chooses to show you only what it has calculated that you already like, you won’t be exposed to new ideas. This has been a problem that tech companies like Amazon and Netflix have wrestled with for a while: how do you make “suggestions” that actually expose people to something new?

So, this isn’t particularly revelatory, but important to think about as the problem extends from “you might also like…” to actually, in effect, hiding ideas and information from people. And it becomes particularly acute as we start to move real communities online. So, in the case of Facebook, the authority that deems a particular piece of news relevant is not a newspaper editor, or the collective opinion of my peers, but simply the links that I have clicked on, or liked, in the past.

The media echo chamber idea has been codified to create implicitly closed communities. But what exists on Facebook could hardly be called community, because it is based to a significant extent on what Franzen rightly refers to as a narcissistic hall of mirrors. And so many of the vital functions of natural, face-to-face social networking actually cease to function in this environment.

One example I bring up in the Plaza de Armas piece is related to Iran’s ‘Green Revolution,’ and the current wave of ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings. Stratfor released an interested report on the role of social media in contemporary political uprisings. Contrary to some uncritical discussions, they found that social media presents a real liability for these protest groups. Part of the reason is that these information networks are relatively easy for authoritarian governments to monitor. But the report also notes that on networks like Facebook, the protestors have a hard time coming into contact with potential allies that may have different values, but shared strategic goals. The social network then fails to serve the needs of the oppressed, because of an over-reliance on a social media that actually separates people into small, homogeneous groups.

The “openness” that Mark Zuckerberg loves to tout comes with some significant caveats. And this is where I come back to Franzen. If this social media is built on likeability rather than love, superficial openness rather than real honesty, then it does not serve a social good, but is merely narcissism dressed up to look like community.

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3 Comments to “Our private hall of flattering mirrors”

  1. Ben! Excellent piece (like) honing in precisely on a self-imposed struggle I have not been able to properly articulate (thanks.) While I am a fan on what can be gleaned from personal data for marketing purposes (nerd) it frightens me being submerged in the “you like me…you really like me” culture.

    Exposing myself to new ideas and trolling for yet-unknown pockets of information that might stimulate me is a plus (like.) However marketers’ ability to mine the metric of any online activity (heat-mapping one’s cursor on a site, combined with search history, on-line spending data and social interaction) is a Pandora’s Box peeled open for we’ll eventually pay the price. (dislike.)

    In addition, a risk remains from the virtual never-ending cocktail party of “friends” whose use of the ‘verb’ I deplore, as I take the term term literally…which suck you dry of your time and energy. The aspirational nature of relationships with these ‘friends’ is highly touted by those seeking to market, to network and climb the social stratosphere is now forever tainted. (seriously dude, I hate to tell you, but your ‘friend’ Mayor C doesn’t really care about how freaky the concert was last night…)

    I liken it to consumption of spirits; partake, with pleasure, but also with heed — and know when to say when. Information enhancement, perhaps, but on-line social communities are no substitute for authentic interaction. Step away from the virtual; it will never take the place of honest-to-goodness conversations, ideas, relationships – and life.

  2. Andi Rodriguez on May 30th, 2011
  3. Andi – thanks for your thoughts. I want to be clear that I think Facebook is a useful tool. After all, I would never have thought to personally send you a link to this post. Certainly it provides an effective way to scatter information & ideas around and see where they take root.

    The problem comes when we fall into the trap of seeing it as a social space rather than an advertising platform. It’s designed for promotion rather than deep engagement, and as long as we don’t try to substitute ‘ambient intimacy’ for direct intimacy, it’s a great tool.

    The privacy issues are worth considering in this light. To the extent that our social engagement is limited by the algorithms’ use of our personal data, we become trapped within this identity. Which has been a problem since long before FB, but as we’ve seen with the feedback loops created by automated stock trading, the problem can be greatly amplified by systems that few of the participants actually understand.

    More soon…

  4. Ben on May 30th, 2011
  5. Not much I can add to this conversation except, perhaps, to reiterate how interesting the piece is. I have never understood the facebook fascination. I am “there” but it is not a place in which I would have a meaningful exchange of ideas with anyone. For me, it is primarily a way of keeping tabs with former students who care to keep tabs on me.

    I enjoy and appreciate the suggestions offered by netflix and amazon, but they are by no means a primary source of book and film selection. I take them for what they are-suggestions. I have other sources of information-like Ben!

    Thanks again for the creative way you have chosen to live and be in the world….very happy to know you!

  6. Pam on May 30th, 2011


Scattered Work is a blog about San Antonio, place, and planning by Ben Judson.



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