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



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