Tactical Facebook Politics

I’ll begin with a little context. I quit Facebook two weeks ago. Why? I’d taken to describing Facebook is my manipulative, drunkenly gossiping, remorseless friend. Facebook’s privacy changes, confusing controls, and refusal to acknowledge upset users seemed to make it a place of bad faith. I mean, hiding the Logout button under the account tab? Forcing you to either switch you interests to pages or delete your interests from your profile? When I designed user interfaces (UIs) at Google, we’d hire people coming over from EBay which by then owned Paypal. They’d talk about Paypal UI tricks they’d have to design to get people clicking on the $2 insurance policy they didn’t really need. Human factors for deception. These shady UI tricks were popping up all over Facebook. To make things worse, Facebook’s privacy controls are horribly confusing and Facebook has a very long history of fumbling new features by oversharing unexpectedly (recall when Newsfeed first came out, broadcasting old profile edits; remember Beacon). I worked on Web History, Search History, and Google Accounts while at Google and we regularly worried about and tried to design safe, clear ways for people to encounter personalization and data tracking features. It wasn’t rocket science. It was just caring and spending a few weeks thinking about it. Since it seems like half the people at Facebook are former Googlers (Elliot Schrage, Shona Brown, and also some friends from my Google days), I couldn’t figure out how they kept messing it up. Eventually, I decided they just must not care.

So I quit. I joined the ranks of the Facebook “privacy nuts” (as one of my twitter friends put it). I’ve spent the last two weeks thinking a lot about Facebook with Keith Murphy, who hated Facebook from day one and never joined. The half-bakedness of these ideas is completely my fault.

A week later, I laughed very hard at this XKCD comic. I was also thrilled that the comic raises questions about the politics of infrastructure.

I’m not, however, actually coming to see the light of open source. Open source — and “openness” — is only one infrastructural tactic. Open source seems to promise transparency, access, and democratic participation. The obvious feminist question is transparent, open, and accessible to whom? The dearth of women in open source should give us pause, not because open source isn’t a representative microcosm of the larger world but because the relative absence of women points to the unevenness of citizenship in open source modernity. It’s a symptom of other sorts of racialized, gendered practices of technoculture. (XKCD has lovely if sometimes overprotective comments on gender here and here.)

Does open source offer control and transparency? Clearly not to most Facebook users. Does control or transparency even exist? The EFF thinks bill of rights so but I disagree. I think believing in some bar of “control” that users have universal rights to get is like believing in a perfect public sphere in which rational communication and decision making can include all people. In other words, I don’t believe it is possible and pretending it is is dangerous. There’s no universal human who can be expected to have the capacity, access, and epistemological alignment with Facebook to perfectly understand levers the service provides. That’s why I posed the question about whether a command line interface and ability to do database queries would be sufficient “control” in Facebook.

I’ve instead been thinking of it, tacitly I think until now, as responsibility in the Donna Haraway sense (yes, the stuff about dogs…ha). My problem with the deceptive facebook UI tricks is at one level the lack of control but it was also what the UI design said about FB’s intentions. They were trying to deceive us into not logging out, installing pages, etc. You can read this deception as imperfect information and impeding my rationalism but it is more importantly, for me, evidence that facebook is disingenuous to begin with so even if they gave me levers to the UI, I wouldn’t trust what was happening inside the facebook sausage factory, if you will. Facebook further evidences the shadiness in the NY Times elliot schrage response, in their radio silence or “don’t worry!” response to user backlash, etc. By contrast, when Google launched the Buzz service and automatically opted people in, people got pissed and Google said “I’m sorry! Our bad!” and actually changed the code to opt-out and increased visibility of the follower con trols. It’s not that Google got the perfect controls. It’s that they were responsive and responsible (respons-ability is what Haraway calls for as an ethical mode of engagement since we can’t believe in universal rights and figures anymore) when the process of technological change started stepping on too many toes.

Rather than relying on one open platform then, I’m interested in approaches that allow for platform pluralism — talking and being present across multiple platforms that can talk to each other. The unicorn social software Diaspora may allow for this by creating software people can run on their own servers or host for others, more like how email works today with a range of options from corporate hosting to a server in your closet. For me, simply switching from Facebook to a combination of twitter, Flickr, email, phone, and Buzz is also platform pluralism. You don’t have to author software anew to tactically reconfigure it. Articulation work, Leigh Star taught us, is worthwhile and thoughtful practice. Pluralism doesn’t hope for a perfect interface but instead hedges its bets, commits provisionally, and keeps one hand on the door knob.

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6 Responses
  1. zelda says:

    Thanks for this really timely post, Lilly. I’ve never moved beyond being a lurker and very occasional poster of low-impact items on FB, mainly because I am a lifelong skeptic about the abuse potential of information collectors. The only social networking sites I have trusted have been the ones I myself created and controlled (ah, I do miss those days…).

    Fundamentally, what makes it possible for people to be surprised by these kinds of abuses is a radical failure of imagination: people generally refuse to see themselves as bad actors so they are unable to project bad actions onto others except in very simple ways. *Of course* the FB team is sitting around trying to maximize their invasion of our privacy (since that is how they can drive their profits) while minimizing our awareness of it. Why would we even doubt this? Why would we believe anything they said to the contrary? Short of a strongly held ethical position on the part of those in control—such as are in laughably short supply in American business life; Google counts only as a partial exception (viz: China)—it makes no sense to expect otherwise.

    The question with American corporations isn’t whether they’re telling the truth; it’s what truth their particular choice of lies and misinformation is designed to conceal.

    For this reason also, I don’t expect any foreseeable social network successors to FB to be any better— with the possible exception of an open-source effort built on clearly articulated privacy principles. While I agree, Lilly, that there are some real issues related to who gets involved in open-source building projects, I also see no other way that something could be built and maintained with adequate privacy affordances. And I say “possible exception” because first of all I doubt that the government will ever allow something deeply protective of personal information privacy to be built; and secondly, there will always be the potential of a disaffected individual throwing open the data vaults.

    For me, a bigger issue ultimately is my suspicion—articulated by many others before me—that FB has quickly become a coercive space, much like high school cliques. Or watching TV in the old mass-media days. Or perhaps a better analogy would be to church-going in former eras: something many people participated in solely because they had to be seen to be doing it by anyone who had some kind of social, economic, or political hold over them. And like church-going, there are several different ways to rationalize it so as to be able to tell yourself that it’s worthwhile… something I’d be doing anyway… just another way to catch up with my friends… and hey, I really like the music…

  2. nick says:

    Great post Lilly. I’ve been thinking about dropping out of facebook for a while, and in fact stopped using for a couple of weeks, but then realized that I can “use” it through a FLOSS service like identi.ca (where I tell identi.ca to also post to facebook). This still doesn’t stop them from monetizing my news feed entries, but they were likely mucking up Facebook’s algorithms anyway 🙂 And since I’ve basically removed all of my information from my profile, I am okay for the time being using it for its main purpose for me: keeping up with friends and people I meet at conferences. But I hope something like diaspora comes to fruition, as I think that will be an interesting platform to add to the ecosystem.

    Also, and you can e-mail me off-line about this if you want, but I’m really interested in the extension project you mentioned in your comment, for obvious reasons 🙂

  3. Chris says:

    What a great discussion. I think my mind works in analogies, which leads me to many logical fallacies, but bear with me for a sec. I can’t escape thinking of Facebook as a landlord with an unusual proposition: I’ll give you a room in my building, I’ll do the same for your friends, and you can stay for free. I’ll pass messages for you, put up bullitin boards on the walls, put some games in the rec room. Heck, I’ll even tell you if your friends are up to something interesting. And I’ll watch the front door so undesirable people don’t drift in. All I want is … nothing.

    Well … maybe I’ll put some extra mail in your box. Make it harder and harder to lock your room. Maybe I’ll leave the door open wide enough for McDonalds and Verizon to get in, so they can watch you while you shower and rummage through your photo album. Whoops!

    Looking back, maybe it’s weird we thought it would ever work to expect a profit-seeking corporation to look after all of our personal data for free. Or to ever stop looking for more ways to make money with whatever was handy, like my diary.

    With so many good housing options on the web, I think it’s time to move out. Get several new places–I’m not one person, after all. I think, speak, and behave differently at work than I do with my grandmother or in a job interview. I’m really excited to see new tools to let me control the linkages between my different selves. I think it’s going to be an interesting time.

  4. Lilly says:

    I was talking to another PhD candidate who does Comm and she also felt like she had to be on Facebook to know what was going on. Non-use is still an orientation towards Facebook though. It’s not like you’ll live in a world absent of Facebook and cannot comment on it. The commentary will have to be explicit about your relationality since it will fall out of conventional definitions of “user.” Christine Satchell and Paul Dourish have a paper “Beyond the User: Use and Non-Use in HCI” that talks about different ways of thinking about knowing technology.

    There’s another compulsion to use I’ve picked up on — the sense that facebook is a required literacy. CNN had a story on Facebook last night and one college senior said she couldn’t quit facebook because the job’s she’s been applying for require social media expertise. Somehow, I’ve never heard of a job that demands windows users because familiarity with a mac is not enough. Why is knowledge of facebook seen as so irreplaceable, particularly when there are many manifestations of social media? Or maybe the job market is that bad? Or facebook, at least in social-media-corporate-hype stage of the web 2.0 bubble, is a requirement of corporate citizenship.

    All this said, is quitting the only valid tactic? Probably not. I don’t believe in emancipation and standing outside of things — just provisional reductions in crappiness. I thought about staying on Facebook and making a secret account without my name to follow friends and check out what’s going on, but I figured out that to Facebook that is as good as me staying on since I will produce content for their service (I think it’s time for me to reread Tiziana Teranova) and they will track me around the internet with cookies whenever I’m logged in.

    I have a friend at Berkeley who is making some sort browser extension that generates fake “like” clicks and other sorts of Facebook data jams. (Reminds me of Helen Nissembaum’s Google jamming TrackMeNot.) It reminds me of Alex Galloway’s counterprotocological tactic of replacing resistance to the protocological with “thrust”:
    “The goal is not to destroy technology in some neoluddite delusion, but to push technology into a hypertrophic state, further than it is meant to go. We must scale up, not unplug. Then, during the passage of technology into this injured, engorged, and unguarded condition, it will be sculpted anew into something better, something in closer agreement with the real wants and desires of its users.”
    There’s some pretty gross rape imagery in there (thanks to my old classmate Bethany for pointing that out), but it seems like there could be tactics to pervert facebook. Facebook, however, is not simply protocological in its logic. It also surveills, it is also a supoenable body of inscriptions that conventionally would be attributed to you even if you are just engorging the network with fake data. Kafka’s Trial isn’t behind us. These attitudes towards control linger together simultaneously.

    To think more with Galloway’s sketches of the counterprotocological: “They will attend to the tensions and contradictions within such systems, such as the contradiction between rigid control implicit in network protocols and the liberal ideologies that underpin them.”
    What if we created fakester Facebook accounts that many people, say thousands, could use to roam the network, make comments, raise rucus, or just talk to each other. This would jam the individual’s data model with data from many, and also perhaps reduce appeal to advertisers. Of course, you don’t get your own wall in this model — people have to email and IM you to get to the individual but actually, that might be a benefit. A sort of ghostly and monstrous life on facebook.

    Just some thinking…

  5. Lisa nakamura says:

    Lilly: what a thoughtful post, and I’ve been thinking about opting out of Facebook pretty seriously for a few months now, ever since it tried to highjack me into being part of Pages and wouldn’t let me opt out in any clear way. It was like a joke of what things like Windows agents or wizards did back in the day, which was give you options that didn’t include the ones you want. At ROFL.con Ben Hsu said that Facebook is the Internet with training wheels for people who need that. But this felt like something way worse.

    On the other hand, if I opt out of Facebook it will make it kind of hard for me to teach my courses on digital media since I won’t be up on what SNS’s are anymore. There’s no possible way to be an expert on all new media–I sometimes wonder when the day will come that new media studies becomes like literature and history, where people will need to have “periods” (pre-2.0, post-Xbox) in order to divide up the material correctly. For the time being we have “games studies” that are kind of separate and on their own, social media versus software studies (which I know you pinged me about, and I’ll write about it in a couple of days once the semester has wound down. What kind of bums me out is that digital humanities is unable to or doesn’t want to look at digitally mediated interaction between people, just between machines and people. Hence this gives it some serious problems writing about race), etc.

    So opting out of Facebook would make it a little harder to teach about SNS’s. Then again, I only spend a week or two on those anyway, and not doing FB would free me up to study other digital media (like finishing Mass Effect, a really interesting game re: race, gender and sexuality–some are saying the first mass market queer game?) The main reason to stay on facebook is to track the ways that it circles the drain and takes a lot of people with it, and to see if there’s a reform movement that gathers around it and what it will look like, FB has the potential to be the first massive protest in/around social media as disaffection with it grows and becomes widespread.

    I too have friends who never got onto FB. They are seeming extra smug righ now