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.
Just a quick follow-up on my Facebook post from earlier this week. The problem here isn’t just one of moving existing social circles online. It’s the fact that they all get lumped together. We each maintain overlapping identities that come into play in different social situations; we show a slightly different face to our family, our drinking buddies, our coworkers, or our neighbors (or our rock-climbing friends vs our car enthusiast friends). The very idea of privacy means different things in each context. But while Facebook allows grouping of friends, it’s sufficiently awkward that people rarely limit their messages to a particular social sphere. So I think this leads inevitably to a sort of uniformly bland online identity, and ultimately stifles creativity. We all become politicians trying to keep multiple constituencies happy. To be fair, this is a problem that pre-dates Facebook. But the external identity control inherent in a service like Facebook makes the problem much more pressing. As Anil Dash said a few months ago:
Perhaps by engaging more with its users in an honest way about its radical stance on public sharing, and by clearly articulating the social costs that can arise from that stance, Facebook can become as truly inclusive as it strives to be.
For many years, anonymity on the Internet was taken for granted as the natural state of things. Everyone used cryptic handles, and even respected journalists used these nicknames for attribution; it was considered pointless to try to verify the real identity of someone posting on a message board or commenting on a blog (or, in many cases, even writing a blog). Pioneering social networking website Friendster, struggling to bring real identities online, was overrun by fake user profiles (aka the “fakester insurrection,” shortly followed, of course, by the “fakester extermination”).
Where Friendster failed, Facebook has largely succeeded, ushering in a real name only culture, and bringing us to an inflection point in the nature of identity on the Internet. Nearly everyone I encounter on Facebook uses their real name. The light blue leviathan is now leveraging this victory by exporting identities to other websites. Already, on too many sites to name, you can login using your Facebook account, further cementing its reality and its usefulness as a commodity.
I’m convinced this stabilization of online identity echoes the movement from urban centers to the suburbs in the 1950s and ’60s. Where the city’s core was a chaotic mix of different ethnicities and social classes, the suburbs provided a safe haven: a place where you could have a pretty good idea of the background, value system and income level of your neighbors. To be sure, much of this was driven by racism, which I certainly don’t see in the appeal of Facebook. But I do think that the unwillingness to deal with unstable social groups and unknown value systems has a lot to do with the widespread embrace of both the surburbs and Facebook. Your online community is now made of your friends, whom you’ve carefully selected and sorted over a lifetime.
What’s troubling about this is the amount of control a single website is able to have over the way that our identities are expressed and perceived. What if this safe zone on the Internet eats away at our social and aesthetic variegation as much as the suburbs have? What if the way Facebook chooses to cycle posts, and limit post lengths and resize images, has as much impact on our sense of social space as the way that suburb developers chose to lay out streets and design homes? The bland uniformity of Mark Zuckerburg’s social container should be obvious to anyone who used MySpace (or Tumblr or Twitter or WordPress or…). But the implications go much deeper than aesthetics.
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- Planning for public life
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Research (my Evernote clips)
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