I can no longer keep myself from commenting on the Facebook “emotional manipulation” study. Alas. Here are several points.
- Do you want your money back?
- Don’t we only know about this study done on 689,003 people because it was written up and reported on in a prestigious journal?
- Could it be that other studies might have been done, or might be going on right now, or might happen in the future, and we might know nothing about them because their results will be kept as proprietary information?
- Why didn’t something this massive and egregious ever happen on the Web – you know, the open Web that isn’t run by a single corporation?
- Don’t we have, or didn’t we used to have, news feeds on the Web, like the Facebook news feed that the company manipulated?
- Such as RSS feeds?
- Using a free standard, which anyone in world can set up in their own way without adhering to a single company’s policy?
- Don’t we, or didn’t we, subscribe to these RSS feeds with feed readers, such as Liferea?
- Wouldn’t it be harder for a person or company to manipulate a news reader that subscribes to feeds on the open Web and is running on a person’s own computer?
- Particularly if this news reader is free software and you can build it from source that you and everyone else in the world can inspect?
- Could it be that the “users,” as we like to call them, are the ones who really made a fundamental mistake here, rather than Facebook?
- You know how Facebook is, well, a company, a for-profit corporation?
- So, it’s actually supposed to harvest data from users as efficiently as possible and exploit that data to make more money, up to the limit of what the law allows?
- Can’t companies be sued by their shareholders if they don’t act to maximize profits?
- Could it be that Facebook is, in everything it does, trying to harvest information from, exploit the data of, and learn how to profit from the behavior of those people called “users,” whom Facebook legally and officially owes absolutely nothing?
- Remember the World Wide Web?
- Remember blogs?
- What happened to these blogs, including the one that I was part of that helped to shape the emerging field of digital media?
- Was the recent zombie craze formulated to help metaphorically describe what has happened to blogs?
- Why do I still blog?
- Have you noticed that I get a comment on my blog about every other month?
- What does it mean that I can announce the publication of a book that I worked on for years, and after more than two weeks, this post hasn’t garnered a single comment?
- Remember how, after overcoming a few (diminishing) technical barriers, anyone could write about whatever topics – personal, political, academic, technical, aesthetic – and could host a forum, a blog, in which anyone else in the world, as long as they were online, could respond?
- Remember how attitudes toward technology, changing methods of media consumption and transformation, and other important discourses were shaped by people having public conversations on the Web in blogs?
- Why do I get thousands of spam comments on my blog each month, sent in complete disregard for the things that are posted here?
- These spam comments might be sent by organized crime botnets, in part, but since some of them are commercial, might they be sent by or on behalf of companies?
- Companies trying to maximize their profit, indifferent to anything except what they can get away with?
- Why do we think that we can fix Facebook?
- Why did people who communicate and learn together, people who had the world, leave it, en masse, for a shopping mall?
27 Replies to “The Facepalm at the End of the Mind”
Some of us read syndicated feeds (my Newsblur set exceeds 600, of which one third is not very active (anymore)) without stopping to comment, or sometimes without having the bandwidth with which to comment.
Um, congratulations on the book!
Your points are of course well made regardless; “some of us” reading syndicated anything = tiny droplets compared to FB pageviews. Funny, however, how I comment here yet not on the book announcement on the basis of having met you once very briefly at a conference 10+ years ago; were the announcement on FB, at most I’d click Like unless it were from a close friend. Perhaps rants are less personal than achievements.
Sharon, thanks for the congrats and the comment. I too use a newsreader (you can guess which one) and very seldom visit a site to leave a comment, so I don’t mean to hold myself up as an example of virtue. It’s good to know that there are some of us still reading blogs in this way, though.
It was pointed out to me online (on a non-corporate information system) that the maximizing profits/shareholder value idea might have been a misconception (although it’s one to which some executives subscribe) and might even be obsolete:
So, I consider plenty of for-profit businesses (many independent bookstores and independent coffeehouses, for instance) are quite positive contributions to society. Even big corporations can work well in some cases. I wouldn’t count on one to manage all of my personal, political, academic, and technical writing and conversations for me, though, even if very socially adept and non-evil.
Thanks, nice post.
Right, but that’s not an accident — they wanted to publish it because they wanted the prestige of the journal (and of Cornell) without adhering to the normative ethics constructed by academia.
So while it would be sad if complaining resulted in them retreating from academia, I think there’s still value in drawing an ethical line in the sand. Assuming the academic imprimatur remains attractive, companies (there’s little point in treating Facebook as an outlier, so let’s think about this should work society-wide) who want to publish will grudgingly comply, using the same profit-maximizing tactics you describe.
(I don’t have a Facebook account, and I think the paper ought to be retracted by PNAS.)
Yeah. See the thing is I read your blog through my RSS reader (I use bit.ly and get the feeds from feedly) but it’s such a pain to click through to the actual blog post so I rarely comment. I often star things in bit.ly but I don’t think you ever see that. And it sucks. Because you’re right, it destroys a discourse, a free (in the free speech) sense discourse that we actually had a few years ago.
One of the reasons I use Facebook is that conversations happen there. And maybe you’re right that we should boycott it (I agree with your ideology but as you know I’ve never quite followed through on my principles – I still use iPhones and macs not Linux) but Facebook is an amazingly vibrant space for discussion if you have the right friends. I mean, sure I don’t see what people in gaza see or people in Israel see but I see my Norwegian friends totally sodding with the Palestinians and my ameitcan friends remaining silent or posting an occasional image from the Israeli Defense Force (which is really into image + slogan posts). I can participate in excellent discussions with prominent scholars about the Facebook emotional contagion experiments I’m even a member of a Facebook group for scholars interested in the ethical backlash from the Facebook contagion experiments
Christy Dena recently posted that she was joining the indie web and running. Her own self-hosted blog with special indie web software plugins. I thought well that’s what we’ve always done. Except I blog once a month and Facebook several times a day. When people blog now it’s sort of got to be these long edited posts, like on Medium (I hate medium, what is that, taking even blogging and making it proprietary?) and on Facebook you can stu write something short, just a link and a short comment, and likely get some response.
So I looked at Christy’s Indie Web (no links because I’m
on an iPhone writing this which is part of the reason I don’t really participate in comments – it’s easy to read blogs on an iPhone and to click like but not to write and post links) – and the indie web seems
Really a pain. The plugins hook up to Facebook and twitter so you see all the likes and shares as comments on each blog post. I had that a couple years ago (before it was called indie web) and it sucked. Twenty comments that say “jilltxt retweeted this”
are really not that useful. You can’t even see the real comments for all the retweets. I dunno what to do. But I’m about ready to do something.
Yor blog post says stuff not really raised in this whole kerfuffle though.
I’m going to share it on Facebook. And retweet it.
I know I’m a few years behind with the #indieweb, but it isn’t pervasive yet and perhaps Jill’s problems with it is why. I personally do find having social engagement in other places collecting onto your blog an important step. The conversation has been about binaries — you’re in Facebook or you’re out. What I like about the #indieweb movement is that is about using the best of both: publishing your posts on your own site and still having conversations in lots of places where peoples’ attention is. I like that the #indieweb is about coming up with technical solutions to a problem. It is self-described as “a people-focused alternative to the ‘corporate web'”. It is A step, but not a definitive step. I like that it is about utilising the best of what already exists (inclusive of different places of being) than slapping down a superseding mindset.
I’ve gotten out of the habit of consulting my newsreader. The returns it pulled became irregularly informative: there was less activity, and I became lax about curating the lists.
Most of the blogs I’ve followed for years are now venues for stuff that’s too long for a Facebook post. Blog posts and comments lean toward the erudite now. Certainly my own blog has become less informal. It’s almost exclusively about my work. I use Twitter for my professional conversations; FB is a constant resource for smart stuff my professional network is doing. My own posts mingle professional & personal. I think that’s why I like FB: it’s the most personally revelatory of my networks. And it’s fast to skim.
As Jill notes, you go where the conversations are. I found this post b/c Jill posted it on FB. My husband uses his reader because he reads a lot of daily comics, which means he catches all the updated blogs too.
When Google stopped supporting its reader I moved everything to Yahoo & promptly forgot about it.
I hadn’t thought of my feed aggregator as a tactical intervention in FB. I’ll let you know if I make time to reinvigorate it, and what happens as a result.
Killer last line, Nick. A serrated elegy.
Great blog I love content and also selling Viagra! We bots deserve Viagra-based subsistence for algorithm and moxy. Facebook 2 gud at spam remove quick. Viagra pay for fb love but blog so ez.
Very provocative questions, Nick!
You’ve asked them before in other situations– quite famously at ELO Paris– so they’ve been chasing me for a while.
Here’s one case in which they’ve had an effect in my practice. A little over a year ago I started a G+ community dedicated to bots and you politely and understandably abstained from joining because it would mean entering a Google space and its terms of service. Others have done so, too.
Last week I created a new space for the bot community to congregate and have conversations in: The Bot Forum (http://botforum.net).
It’s powered by WordPress and Commons-in-a-Box, and should offer us a robust set of tools to have our conversations in. This space has both private and public components, and in order to develop the community, I’ve created information flows from its public feeds that broadcast its conversations into social media spaces. I’m hoping folks hanging out at the different shopping malls run across tidbits of our conversation and come join us for a more substantial engagement.
I hope you (and others reading this comment) consider joining us.
Nick’s absolutely right about most of this. Except that he’s also right about it. That is to say that I post a lot of stuff that I would have posted to Grand Text Auto in a prior decade on Facebook now because most the former Grand Text Auto audience is now on Facebook and not on blogs. And while a dedicated group of people would have had the GTxA feed in their RSS feeds, or remembered to check in there once in a while, the FB environment includes a different scale of multitudes. It is also the site of a great deal of information fascism, corporate farming of my personal data, wholesale big brother surveillance, strange perverse experiments with the emotions of users, and a lot of other things I don’t like.
Facebook is the space of a lot of contradictions. The conflation of worlds for instance. Some people in my family would prefer not to see so much on Facebook about my work, and some of the people I work with would prefer not to hear so much about my family or see pictures of my kids. Other people don’t want any more of my politics and hardly anybody likes when I post pictures of food I have cooked. And I know that Nick absolutely hates it that I do any of these things on Facebook.
Tough tooties, all my friends.
My conclusion is that basically anything my Facebook feed will inevitably offend someone, or that someone will think it’s inappropriate—because everyone has their own sense of what function a social network should fulfill as a medium. There is no fundamental agreement about what Facebook is. It’s a place to celebrate life, it’s a place for obituaries, it’s a workplace, it’s filled with stupid cat videos, it’s where you promote your book, it’s got a bunch of idiots playing Farmville and Candy Crush saga, it’s about your sports team, it’s a waste of time, it’s a place for open political debate, it’s about all your childhood memories, it’s about your career, it’s where you communicate with your family you haven’t seen in years.
This is one of the main problems with Facebook and also its main merit. The mess of all that stuff together is more akin to life than a careful segregation. This may represent the contemporary banality of evil, or (per Talan Memmott) banality-based-banality, but it’s also far too interesting for me to retire from it just yet.
Am I going to stop posting about my kids because a few people I’ve worked with don’t like hearing about other people’s kids? Am I going to stop posting about work because I have some relative who thinks I’m just showing off every time I post about a work project—when in fact that’s one of the main ways I communicate with other people I work with around the world? Am I going to stop posting about the insanity of gun violence in America or the dangers of the right wing insurgency just because some of my friends are gun owners or Republicans or are otherwise confused? Hell no. I’m just as offended every time I see another racist post about Obama or a right wing little victory dance about the success of gun legislation that makes it easier for you to carry an automatic weapon to the neighborhood baseball game or my kid’s school.
So I’ll go on over-sharing. Deal with it. Turn it off if you don’t like it, but don’t tell me how I should be using this medium. You don’t own it any more than I do.
I’ll admit to laziness. Most of what I post on Facebook is intended for some portion of the, whatever, 500 or so people who are my “friends.” Some of whom are my intimates, some of whom are my family, some of whom are my colleagues, some of whom I have barely met but work in the same field as I do, some of whom are faint acquaintances from high school, and so on.
This convenience is how Facebook has me buying in. I check in, and I learn a lot about a lot of people who I am interested in. I post, and I reach a lot of the people who I want to reach. I’m not so naïve that I think this activity is somehow utopian, or makes the world a better place than it would be if an alternative peer-to-peer social network were fulfilling Facebook’s functions.
Facebook is feeding off of you, and you are feeding off of it, but it is feeding off of all of us at the same time. The relationship is asymmetrical and problematic. Just like Google, just like Apple. These corporations are giving me a lot but I am giving them far more than they give me. And yet, the problem is that it is still sort of enough. I’m conflicted. I am not entirely in control of my information, but I’ve always been conflicted, and I’ve never been entirely in control of my information.
So there you are. What I think about why I use Facebook and will go on using it, at least until the next information revolution comes.
This over-sharer wants to group blog again!
Sent from my iPhone
I love this conversation! Hooray! But where is Nick?
Christy, I didn’t mean to be snarky about #indieweb – I actually really liked that you posted about that, and are trying it out, and I love that people are trying to re-claim the web. And I do like connecting our blog posts to the conversations taking place about them other places on the web. But the effect of all this lists of retweets also shows that a lot of those conversations are really banal. Just a retweet. Or a like. Which is actually important, but nothing like as valuable as a real conversation.
I also have this immense urge to click “like” on comments in this thread. Nick, where’s the like button?
Much to say! Sorry I’m late and have only a comment to Jill and Scott right now.
You both write of heading over to Facebook because that’s where things are happening: “conversations happen there” and “the former Grand Text Auto audience is now on Facebook and not on blogs.”
My question is, when did you become followers?
Jill, when you were (at least approximately) the first blogger in Norway, you didn’t do it because the audience was on your blog — you developed your blog and people came to it (and began blogging themselves).
Scott, when you were a founder of the Electronic Literature Organization and coining the term “electronic literature,” e-lit wasn’t where all the authors and readers were. It wasn’t even a thing. It was, at best, several different things that people didn’t see as hanging together. You helped us develop that category and see reading and writing online in a new way.
You’re both still doing very groundbreaking work with ELMCIP itself, the ELMCIP data, video collaboration, and self-representation. So it’s not like you have to retire from making a difference in the way people communicate online. You can set an example. You’ve done it already — you can do it again, if you want to.
Christy, thanks for you comments and your discussion of choices beyond being in or out. In the case of Facebook, though, part of its problem is its hegemony — you have to be on it because “everybody’s there.” So, yes, I think it very important that some of us boycott it completely, so that some of us, at least, are not there.
Leo, thanks for starting Bot Forum — I’ll email soon to request an account and will look forward to joining the conversation there.
No worries Jill :)
Your comment about the effect of just a few retweets is specific to the nature of posts now. I am excited about blogging again. It has been years for me (doing almost 1 blog post a year). I am excited about doing longer form posts/essays, and short shares again. At present the small amount of my posts has just garnered some likes and retweets and some comments (I didn’t have the plugins working fully when I first posted). It will take time for the comments to happen again as hardly anyone I knows blogs still. So I’m not worried about there just being a few retweets here and there. I also don’t need there to be lots of conversation on every post. I am purposely posting short shares as well as longer pieces.
And Nick, it is great that you’re not there. I have a few colleagues who aren’t. One day many of us won’t, once again.
These conversations, and the spirit behind the #indieweb, (for me) is about bringing back the excitement I felt when I first started blogging. It is my web again, with room enough for my voice…an individual with the right to my own space.
“The movement is unfinished.” – http://www.wired.com/2013/08/indie-web/
Read this on Nettime: viva la listserv…
(I agree absolutely & belated congratulations on the book.)
Thanks Nick, for making this polemic.
I think it is telling that many people make the argument that their use of facebook is motivated by convenience. “Convenience” (ease-of-use, UX, usability, etc.) is the defining logic of most of the recent marketing for new products that define the recent media-era from the first iPod to the latest chat apps. One should buy this or that or upgrade again because the new one is even slicker and the UI hides even more complexity from the user. Lots of technical things are poorly designed but any time somebody tries to sell you something based on a notion of convenience it is worth asking if there are some things that are worth doing a slightly more difficult way, if it means retaining a bit more freedom and autonomy. Often “convenience” is merely symbolic and one is really transferring away responsibility. The problem is not the banality of cat videos but that people are so conformist that they can only exchange these human sentiments when and where a large corporation tells them it’s ok.
I would also question the argument that one goes to facebook for a bigger audience. This is, again, the logic of marketing. With this line of thinking, it’s as if the internet were not a place of discourse but a marketplace for promotional messages. By looking for the biggest audience, we are not people having a very interesting conversation and contributing to a discourse. No, we are free agents competing for “ratings”, “eyeballs” or “mindshare” in a zero-sum game.
But this kind of feed-based vomitorium model of human interaction can be pretty damned annoying. When I look at various feeds (regardless of which corporation is manipulating them), I get really irritated sometimes when I realize that I have to work so hard to ignore so much irrelevant crap. It feels like it was designed by a cynical PR operative and a nerd who was very traumatized by social experiences in american public high-school.
In sum, for writers with messages to sell, it can be a very useful medium, but for readers, it sucks. There’s little context, no narrative and very little control for reading other than to keep on scrolling and scrolling and scrolling until you realize that you are not, in fact, being social, but sitting alone in front of a little screen in a very non-ergonomic posture while neglecting the entire physical world around you.
A day not using facebook is like a day without Top 40 radio or H&M trousers or popular sitcoms or 3D action movies or Yellowtail wine or McDonalds burgers or Starbucks coffee. That is to say, it’s not so bad and often much more diverse and surprising and exciting. It’s also much easier than you think.
If we are writers and coders and media theorists, there’s absolutely no reason we can’t start coming up with things that are simply different, if not better, where we control the terms of service. I believe that within every grumpy, complaining curmudgeon there is actually a starry eyed utopian dying to come out. Now is a good time to get off the bar stool, put aside convenience and claqueurs, and get to work building something.
I’m looking forward to having you join us at the Bot Forum!
I must say that one thing I like about Facebook is that it created a space where users can share absolutely banal stuff. Little things that simply aren’t worth the effort of starting a blog for, like a funny thing I saw on the way to work, or whatever. (I enjoy Scott’s food pics, for example, and I especially like the descriptions- it’s like watching culinary platform diving).
I’ve created dozens of blogs for courses, departments, offices, topics, community building, and (ironically enough) only in the past 2.5 years for actually blogging, but I wouldn’t want to create a blog for the little things. And I wouldn’t expect my friends and family to follow it.
But Facebook encourages us to share this kind of minutiae, vanity, and so on. This past weekend was Kara’s and my 11th anniversary. I wouldn’t dream of blogging about it, not unless it was some epic celebration, but sharing a few choice moments created opportunities for some delightful interactions, and a sense of community among friends near and far, close and distant. Facebook encourages us to respond in the most empty ways (liking), but sometimes that’s enough.
I suspect the FB craze is ebbing, and people are rediscovering the joy of blogging, if only because they find that after all the little interactions, we still crave more substantial engagements.
I got nothing against getting the band back together, though I’ll probably never be purist about independence from our corporate overlords. Part of what I was trying to say there was that the Facebook experiment has been interesting. I mean, I have LIKED it. The things I have liked the most maybe are the weird world-crossing conversations that have occurred there. I got into political arguments with my best friend’s mother. I had honest conversations with people who think in radically different ways than I do through two elections. I posted pictures of food. I like that shit. I’ve seen cocktails that Andrew has sampled and said “you know, I might like to try something like that myself one day.” Nothing is insubstantial. Everything is irrelevant. I have watched friends find themselves and I have watched friends die. The banal everydayness mixed in there, you could never get that on Grand Text Auto. The every oneness of the thing. On the other hand, when the revolution comes that book will be the first one they cast onto the fire and the drones will be recording every minute of it.
“When did you become followers?”
This wasn’t directed at me, but – in college. I’d been blogging in high school, but as a freshman in college, when FB just opened up to William & Mary, everyone I wanted to stay in touch with was on it. Everyone from high school, everyone at WM; all of my contemporaries in my immediate social circle. In those days (2006) not even everyone had a phone, or a knowable email account, but everyone could be found (and conversed with, and quietly admired, or quietly hated) on FB.
Since then, it’s just spread out, right? FB owned a (comparatively) broad crosssection of Americans in the 18-22 range, who began pulling in their contemporaries and younger siblings out of camaraderie, who begin pulling in parents and teachers out of concern, and sooner and later, the network just metastasizes into a Metcalfeian monster. It’s too hard to leave.
I come to these posts from Planet-IF and I am not on Facebook one tiny bit. Also, the answer to “Why didn’t you comment?” is usually “I’m trying to think of what it could be if it’s not ‘tofu wanter unsoothed’ and anyway it’s too challenging to formulate what I want to say as a palindrome.”
But I find the emphasis on open source tools kind of offputting. Saying “You don’t have to worry about underhanded stuff if you build your tools from source on Linux” is kind of like reading the stuff in The Jungle about workers being ground into the lard and saying, “Well, you won’t have to worry about that if you raise you own pigs.” It’s true, but not helpful to most people. Just as it’s not true that anyone in the world can set up RSS in their own way — I can’t, and I’m a lot more computer-adept than most people worldwide.
So what’s that mean? Well, the government had to step in to regulate the food industry. Do we want the government regulating the ways Big Network can exploit their customers? Maybe so, although it won’t happen in the current political environment.
Seriously, why isn’t it “tofu wanter unsoothed”?
Brendan, I greatly appreciate your discussion of marketing and other forms of discourse. Your discussion of a day without Facebook is quotable and will be quoted — by me, at least. I admire the attitude and will strive to let my starry-eyed Utopian emerge.
Leo & Scott, you both mention the banal, and I see that having a channel for this sort of exchange on a global scale is worthwhile. But my concern is not that Grand Text Auto (which was organized around creative & academic practices) cannot accommodate the banal — it couldn’t, and I felt that at times when I thought about posting banalities — but that the shopping mall cannot accommodate the productive, non-banal discourses we had there. While I opt out of Facebook, and I’d love for others to do the same, I don’t really feel that it needs to be destroyed, just that it shouldn’t be the dominant, hegemonic, default way of having all online conversations.
Chris, I hear the “peer pressure” argument — believe me, even coming to the Web at a different time, I do. If it feels impossible to leave, I would say don’t. If you do, it might just be a temporary stunt. Instead, I would look for meaningful communities and conversations to add to your obligatory (and perhaps in some ways rewarding) social experience on that system.
Matt, I didn’t mean to overstate the free software case. Free software has bugs and complexities and can be difficult to deal with, certainly. But we (everyone — the editors of Wikipedia, the people who add to the Web) can indeed improve free software tools using the open web, while we can’t improve proprietary systems. I don’t want government regulation of Facebook or other corporate systems; I do want free and open alternatives that are beautiful, regular, pure … like tofu … and my wants are, alas, unsoothed.
It’s odd to me that Twitter has come up not at all in this thread. For me it is a way of having conversations as well as a kind of surrogate RSS feed, filtered by those I trust and (literally) “follow.” The interaction between Twitter and other platforms and services, including open Web platforms such as this one, is often thick and rich. I’ve seen this post discussed on Twitter, for example. And I suspect the reason for the robust comments thread here is precisely because this post has been widely circulated and RTed on Twitter.
I mention this not to celebrate Twitter per se (which is also a corporation) but because I think it is worth differentiating between the kinds of interactions and access different services afford. I don’t use Twitter to write palindromes. I also don’t use it to talk about what my cat ate for breakfast.
I also don’t have a cat.
Like RT +1
(or as originally mistyped, +!)
Also, congrats on the book, it’s on my to-buy-when-I-have-book-money list.
I didn’t leave for the shopping mall. I left for the wilderness and a cave. I won’t join FB because of what they do, I miss the conversations I used to have on Livejournal, and no longer read my friends blogs.
The mass went one way, into a corporate embrace, and being a contrarian, I went another. After struggling with my Comicpress site, being deluged by botcomments and generally unappreciated, I lost interest and one day discovered I missed an update cycle and everything was broken.
So sad, Sasta. Your story reminds me of Existential Comics #1: http://existentialcomics.com/comic/1
Matt K., Twitter is an interesting case. I am on it, as you refer to — as a conceptual writing project (to produce word-unit palindromes) rather than as a normal person. One important difference between Twitter and Facebook is that anyone can search on and read from Twitter, whether or not that person has an account.
We could also talk about Reddit, which is a corporation. Even the entity that ultimately produced by Linux distribution, Canonical, is a corporation. I don’t mean to say that all corporations are bad or of course equally bad. I do think that handing over our social lives and online communication to any one corporation is inherently problematic.
Sasta, I’m sorry about your site’s fate; one can, however, go on. I know at least one person who has broken a site/lost a password several times and has started back up anew.