I’m doing what I set out to avoid at the beginning of the term, posting blogs last minute. Most of this is poor time management, guilty; but a small part is that, since the US election in November 2016, I’ve purposefully tried to spend less time online. I wish the impetus for this was personal betterment or testing my will power but I wouldn’t call my move principled, as much as a guttural, defensive reaction. The true impetus to my fundamentally reconsidering 15 years of habitual behavior can be summed up in one word: fear. This blog is not meant to grandstand against online life or provide a prescription for how others should proceed. It is rather a cautionary exploration of what I view as a co-option by the powerful of two spaces also home to unruliness: social media platforms and our private realms.
I quit Facebook – sort of – at the beginning of the year. My account is still active – partially because I couldn’t (and still can’t) figure out how to completely disentangle myself from the company (a telling example: even if I delete my account, Facebook still owns and compiles information about me generated by other users). It is this ubiquitous nature of Facebook that is so terrifying to me and has led me to reconsider how to wrest back a bit more control in my private realm. Facebook owns Instagram and WhatsApp, two other social media and communication tools that I rely on. Having the lived in four countries on three continents in the last couple years, WhatsApp is my primary communication tool. I was gutted when Facebook bought it. As an avid photographer (even trained back in the day to use analog cameras!), I have always enjoyed the simplicity of Instagram, as well as its utility for maintaining social connections with friends scattered around the world. But there is a difference in the content I feed these two, versus the much longer, more uninhibited legacy in my Facebook footprint.
Facebook and I came of age at the same time. When I joined in 2004, the year ‘The Facebook’ launched, it was a completely closed online community – elitist in fact. Invitations to join were initially given to private, high ranking US universities. At the time, no one could have predicted it would become the preferred communication platform for many parents and grandparents across the globe less than ten years later. For me then the novelty was intoxicating, it was an outlet, a creative space, and an escape. In reflecting on Facebook since the election, it is hard to imagine ever feeling this way about Facebook and has made me come to internalize the lesson that what a piece of technology starts out to be and what it ultimately becomes are unknowable. Facebook and its ilk, with their corporate profit models, are no longer what their startup visions may have professed (though I am unsure what Facebook’s original ‘vision’ really was, if it had one). These days, in the social media space especially, it’s difficult to imagine any technology launching with a genuine commitment to lofty ideals like altruism ahead of profit.
Discussions in class and content in our readings explored ways in which technology has been used as a disruptive means for unruly social action, as well as the cyclical co-option of tools used in unruly politics to reassert or strengthen the powerful status quo. In global politics, one might contrast how social media was credited with playing an influential role in social movement organization in Tahrir Square in 2011, whereas in the 2016 US election it was co-opted and used for something decidedly more perverse (more on this later).
In the private realm-a place where many begin to explore their unruly sides- we can see this co-option in the commodification of our privacy. In the early days of Facebook, data privacy was considered either a given, or for many (me included) it wasn’t really considered at all. Free meant free services, or so it seemed. In reality, the data users generate – including your photos – on a given platform are owned by that company and will be used for whatever purposes the company chooses. It is a new societal norm that ‘data is the new oil.’ Our privacy is a lucrative commodity, to be bought and sold, and protected only by those who can afford it. Often the software is not the product being traded; we, the users, are the product who generate billions in profits for a handful of supra-national corporate juggernauts.
In the US at least, this commodification of privacy is perfectly legal, as the judicial system favors corporate rights to commerce above individual rights to privacy. In Europe, privacy seems to matter a bit more. For example, the EU recently fined Facebook for lying about its data unification capabilities when it acquired Whatsapp. What this means, in plain English, is that Facebook has matched all information in your Facebook account to everything in your WhatsApp account. Bringing Instagram into the equation, one company now knows almost every step I’ve taken and a lot of conversations I’ve had for the past 15 years of my life. They are able to connect all these pieces of information into a digital dossier, which they are then allowed to sell to the highest bidder. When companies tell you they are only selling your ‘anonymized’ information to ‘advertisers’ to improve the ads you see, question this deeply.
One entity that Facebook considers an advertiser is Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analytica, in the words of a former employee, is ‘just a psychological warfare firm’ conducting ‘psychological operations – the same methods the military use to effect mass sentiment change… We were just doing it to win elections in the kind of developing countries that don’t have many rules.’ Cambridge Analytica’s parent company SCL was good, so good that it was bought by right-wing, white nationalist billionaires, and renamed Cambridge Analytica, and utilized to great effect in support of the Leave and Trump campaigns in the UK and US respectively. Here’s a comprehensive, shockingly transparent overview of the firm’s strategies in ‘micro-targeting…levers of persuasion’: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAW1kTLuAIs).
Unlike in 2004, I am conscious now that how I interact on any given platform may have unintended consequences, and I am slowly learning to calibrate my interactions with platforms in light of this. I log on to Facebook as sparingly as possible. I no longer fall asleep reading from a feed on my phone. I make more phone calls and handwrite letters. The greatest surprise in all of this is that it hasn’t been that difficult. I don’t wrestle with the temptation to log on anymore. In fact, I almost dread it. The corporate goal is to keep us online and addicted to these platforms, so once I am on, like everyone else, it is hard to get off. All of these incremental actions bear a sense unruliness because, in questioning the benefits of online engagement, contesting the profit models which drive them, and going to extra lengths to protect my privacy I wrest back a bit of agency. It is perhaps a weapon of the weak (Scott, 1985). I miss out on events and am, without a doubt, less informed about my loved ones and their lives. But I also feel more empowered and I treasure my private realm in a way I didn’t before.
I would encourage all of us to consider how central these platforms are to our lives. How, like cyborgs (Haraway, 1985), we are in fact connected to the platforms so that they’ve become extensions of ourselves. They are not just a conduit to connect to others. How might our interactions be mined, even weaponized, such as is the case with Cambridge Analytica? And how might we be able to exercise a form of unruly politics by logging off, taking back our time and our mental energy to learn and create, and not just to consume and be consumed?
Haraway, D. (1985), ‘A cyborg manifesto: science, technology and socialist- feminism in the late Twentieth Century’ in Haraway, D. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs and Women: the reinvention of nature. New York: Routledge, pp. 149-181. Available at http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Haraway-CyborgManifesto.html