Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Often Disturbing Reality of Social Media

Julia Angwin's column entitled How Facebook is Making Friending Obsolete provides a revealing look into the ways that supposedly free services like Facebook and Twitter are mining the data of unsuspecting users for profit. The tactic is unethical at best, but it highlights just how desperate some companies are to turn a profit. The idea of monthly or yearly subscriptions, which were the bread and butter of old media cannot be relied on in this medium because online users refuse to pay them and then gravitate to the latest platform that can be used for free™. As for my own personal leanings, any technology that subverts the established system and forces it out of its comfort zone is worthy of praise in my book, but I suppose this degree of perfidy and with it monetary gain ought to be expected under the circumstances. The basic idea of capitalism is built on the idea of change and the next big thing, but this, of course, threatens the establishment that doesn't like having to think outside of its cozy comfort zone.

Angwin sets up her column by saying,

Friending wasn't used as a verb until about five years ago, when social networks such as Friendster, MySpace and Facebook burst onto the scene.

Suddenly, our friends were something even better - an audience. If blogging felt like shouting into the void, posting updates on a social network felt more like an intimate conversation among friends at a pub.

That degree of false intimacy, however, proved to have consequences. It lulled many into an imagined sense of security that could be broached by ten mouse clicks or less. Potentially embarrassing personal details could be accessed easily by complete strangers, and when these users complained and very publicly cried foul, the media picked up on it by running stories and op-eds that adopted the tone of a finger-waggling parent. Apparently it deemed that the best way to keep from oversharing personal details online was a good hearty dose of stern lecturing and abject moralizing. To be sure, irresponsible behavior led to the establishment of a thousand or so online-based drama queens and flame wars. That which had been an interesting concept in drawing people together began to show some serious flaws.

Or, as Benjamin Franklin put it,

Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

I never recognized how repressive a culture of which we are all a part until I incorporated the internet into my daily routine. The guise of anonymity that cyberspace provides gives people the opportunity for people to come clean with a million different, but highly related fears, phobias, neuroses, and insecurities as though we were all members of a giant support group. Unlike some, I don't get much pleasure out of observing the scars of other people, no matter how selfishly rendered they may be. I pity those who feel that the only way they can truly be honest with themselves and in so doing brave vulnerability and sincerity is when among those who they cannot see, hear, or speak to face to face. And yet, each of us is like that to some degree.

Regarding keeping ourselves in check a bit, I don't mean it in a kind of Puritanical repressive sense, but rather that the immediate gratification and instant attention the internet provides us caters to a sense of narcissism and me-centered discourse. If intimacy with friends is what we were seeking, the Wild West freedom provided by the technology makes a true circle of trust and discretion nearly impossible. One can only work within the limitations of the medium itself. Whatever ends up being broadcast online usually can be discovered with enough searching.

When I was younger, I volunteered information in cyberspace that hindsight allows me to recognize that I probably should have been a bit more discerning. But again, I was a teenager then, and every adolescent is half child, half adult, and all insecure. I am fortunate I had the internet at that formative time in my life because I met other people my own age going through the same things I was and I had a shared sense of solace there. Had I been born even five years earlier, I would not have had that outlet and would have suffered mightily in its absence.

Returning to the larger point, the true lesson here is that major sectors of our capitalist wilderness are desperately trying to find ways to make money and are doing so by methods that openly violate our trust and our sense of security. I suppose I could jump up and down, screaming about constitutional statutes and right to privacy being broached, shortly after contacting the ACLU, but I doubt it would do much in the way of good. The recession merely exacerbated trends that had been slowly, steadily progressing of their own accord.

That certain companies would have the testicular fortitude to so sneakily use our own information and thoughts for their gain is damning enough, but provided we remain complicit and enabling in it, more companies will attempt similar tactics. Any system based on profit will be adaptive and find a way to use our humanity against us. In an age where we are lonely, desirous of companionship, isolated by distance, and hoping to find a means to be a part of something larger than ourselves, Facebook arrived to fill the void. It captured the Zeitgeist, for better or for worse, and now it is merely the latest manipulator for profit. I am decidedly not a purist in this regard and though I will certainly take care to make sure I don't resort to blarf on the page, neither will I take stock that someday social networking will replace what face-to-face personal contact ought to provide.

It is a testament to the fact that judge not, lest ye be judged is probably the moral teaching we disregard the most in this day. That we judge ourselves more harshly than any troll or disapproving person ever could gets down to the root cause of the matter. These are "guilty before proven innocent" times. These are Nancy Grace days. If we wish to change them, learning to forgive ourselves for being imperfect might be a good place to begin. Embracing this unfair, didactic standard forces us to feel as though jumping through hoops and adhering to an obstacle course of needlessly complex, self-appointed guidelines is the key to living a satisfying life. Micromanaging every aspect of who we are is the quickest road to misery I've ever seen. We have unfortunately adopted a belief in the letter of the law, not the spirit of the law.

Intentionally following the letter of the law but not the spirit may be accomplished through exploiting technicalities, loopholes, and ambiguous language. Following the letter of the law but not the spirit is also a tactic used by oppressive governments.

This is something, quite predictably, with which we have been struggling for a very long time.

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, "Why does he eat with such scum?" When Jesus heard that, he said to them, "Healthy people don't need a doctor; those who are sick do. I've come to call sinners, not people who think they have God's approval."

But neither do we need to appear self-righteous in talking about self-righteous, egocentric behavior. That is deepest irony and part of this same judge-addicted culture.

Twitter's updates were also easily searchable on the Web, forcing users to be somewhat thoughtful about their posts. The intimate conversation became a talent show, a challenge to prove your intellectual prowess in 140 characters or less.

People are competitive in nature. I take it Angwin finds this sort of conduct distasteful. I myself have used my Twitter posts to underscore the larger points I was mulling over at the time, often while in the process of constructing my posts, but the point was never to be adored or to win a fan base. Often I felt a compulsion to put down something substantive to counterbalance the vast amount of trite banter that makes its way onto status updates. Along these same lines, I notice that many people seem to make it a challenge to see how many friends they can achieve on Facebook, no matter whether they actually have ever met in person or not. Life may be a talent show, but no one forces one to sign up for a space, either.

Angwin concludes her column, vowing,

...I will also remove the vestiges of my private life from Facebook and make sure I never post anything that I wouldn't want my parents, employer, next-door neighbor or future employer to see. You'd be smart to do the same.

We'll need to treat this increasingly public version of Facebook with the same hard-headedness that we treat Twitter: as a place to broadcast, but not a place for vulnerability. A place to carefully calibrate, sanitize and bowdlerize our words for every possible audience, now and forever. Not a place for intimacy with friends.

While I agree with the author's conclusion, I also add that being careful about that what we post in a public forum might not be a bad habit to get into, after all. Her frustration with Facebook is quite palpable, but I'm not sure cutting off our nose to spite our face is a good solution. Nor am I completely certain that there was ever some golden age where vulnerability on any online platform could be safely protected and manipulation of intimacy did not exist. Secrets have a way of spilling out, even among friends, and even in real life.

Nothing can be covered up forever and the paradoxical reality about success and increased exposure is that the larger a profile a person has, the more public is his or her life. When I was growing up, my mother frequently invoked the old saying that just because you have dirty laundry doesn't mean you ought to put it out on the front porch for all to see. I've always disagreed with the statement and what it implies, because I think being vulnerable need not be purely irresponsible. It's a matter of degree and it's a matter of balance.

The internet has catered to a fickle side of who we are. MySpace was once the end-all, be-all of social networking sites, and now it has given way to Facebook. Twitter, not to be forgotten, has muscled its way into the public consciousness. Anyone designing a social media network should keep in mind that success is ephemeral in the internet age and that one needs only look back roughly a decade to see all of the companies, platforms, programs and their ilk that have fallen out of public favor. We are no longer beholden to brand loyalty, which is probably what separates Baby Boomers from their children regarding the strongest sense of disconnect.

Today Facebook, tomorrow something else. Whatever comes afterward will probably have to be monitored, too, but my belief in our economic system was that so long as we cling to Adam Smith's invention, we will have to be our own regulators, but neither does this mean that all of our efforts should be devoted to plugging the dam. I have no doubt that if we adopted socialism wholesale we'd need to be mindful of its shortcomings as well, but neither should we be utterly consumed with finding fault. Life is too short.

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