A little while ago, the New York Times ran a piece where they discussed the ‘Sticky-factor’ of Facebook. Effectively the article boiled down to the fact that it’s a nightmare to exit the Facebook ecosystem – actually removing your data from their ecosystem borders on being a Sisyphysian task. The most poignant part of the article reads:
It’s like the Hotel California,” said Nipon Das, 34, a director at a biotechnology consulting firm in Manhattan, who tried unsuccessfully to delete his account this fall. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
The Obligations of Social Networking
Imagine this: you adopt some service or another and it doesn’t require you to exchange the popular unit measurement for access to that service (i.e. you don’t shell out cash for access). That said, you do provide an alternate form of capital – one that tends to elude a clear monetary value – your personal information. You give information concerning your religious orientation, your gender, relationship status, etc. Now, you’re not required to put all of that information into a public space, but what you do provide should be accurate to improve the service for both yourself and – this is the catchy part – the other people who are using the service. The system is more valuable both to others, and to yourself, by providing as much accurate information as possible.
In order to receive the service, a condition is that you avoid corrupting the service through the insertion of inaccurate information. Your obligation is limited to be truthful, but not just for your sake, but for the sake of other users as well.
When I provide information to Facebook, it tends to be done in good-faith; sure, I might goof off and identify a carrot or something in a picture, but by and large the information that I provide is relatively accurate. Why shouldn’t it be? It’s a ‘fair trade’ for the environment that I get to operate in. This accuracy both assists me (because developers can comb data to improve various services), but it also creates more and more ways to monetize the system – a large quantity of inaccurate data would hinder its marketability. Similarly, when I agree to the End User License Agreement (EULA) that accompanies my Facebook account, I’m consenting to their terms surrounding the retention of data. Of course, Facebook is particularly nebulous when it comes to defining their data retention periods, but aren’t you signifiying that their defined (or, as it may be, more or less undefined) retention periods are acceptable?
Effectively: Haven’t you already consented to the ‘stickiness’ of a Facebook profile? Don’t you want the benefits of complex data analysis that accompanies the insertion of past and present data if such an analysis improves the service for you? Don’t you owe it to others to leave your data for this analysis, just as others did prior to your arrival?
I Choose Gatekeeper Number Two
There are various companies (Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google) that are striving to become more effective digital gatekeepers. Effectively, they want to absorb all of your data traffic, giving them large quantities of data that will allow them to present services, goods, and other consumables that you will be likely to purchase, either because you are looking for the consumable in question, or because you are susceptible to buying that consumable even when you don’t really want/need it. In other words, they want to take data and translate it to marketable information. However, because of the inefficiencies in data collection by the aforementioned Big Three, social networking services such as Facebook, Bebo, and MySpace are seen as particularly valuable. Imagine: the ability to have a more or less accurate portfolio of millions of customers! Rather than fighting to understand data, everything that’s provided is immediately useful information.
The problem, of course, is that to develop increasingly valuable portfolios, new data-consumption programs and applications have to be developed. In Facebook, this has meant that there are more immediate ways of informing users about changes in their Friend-based ecosystem, and now you can even communicate in real time to other members of the environment. This has the end of drawing users into the environment for longer periods of time and, since Facebook is predicated on the sharing of personal information and content, the more time that you spend in the Facebook environment, the more pressure there is to add more content. This is experienced in a series of different ways, such as:
- Changing one’s status;
- Importing new blog posts;
- Adding pictures;
- Commenting on other people’s posted items;
- Collaboratively creating content;
- Collaboratively or independently critiquing content.
These divergent modes of content-interaction amount to participating in info-ecosystem that is provided to you for ‘free’ by social networking companies and subsequently increasing the value of the environment for for yourself, your Friends, and the corporation. Critiques are observed whenever an individual posts false information – there are even processes in place to cut down on ‘fake’ and ‘false’ content. These processes, in turn, reinforce the notion that a person as a duty to be truthful, or at least they are not expected to deceive others. You are obliged to be honest and, if you are found to be contributing content that deviates from truth, it can be removed/deleted and/or your account can be closed. Additionally, critique can simply be a refusal to engage with a particular facet of content – the refusal to speak about something that is created to be spoken about is as psychologically harmful (perhaps more harmful), than the active negative engaging of that content. Thus, content provided must be simultaneously truthful and appealing – normatively ‘good’ content has these two nebulous social tags.
Who Performs as the Gatekeeper?
Social networking services, in their attempts to act as gatekeepers, rely on the members of the community to actually be the gatekeepers – the administrators of the service are members and gatekeepers with considerable power, but that power is divested amongst all members, rather than being persistently held by the admins alike. Much like in Discipline and Punish, the inmates of the Facebook discipline one another through their collective gazes upon one another – that gaze normalizes behavior, detecting and reproaching deviate behavior.
What is perhaps most significant is that these gazes penetrate beyond the prison itself; whereas the inmates in Discipline and Punish stare at one another and (presumably) cannot see beyond the prison walls, in social networking services the inmates necessarily see past its walls and militantly observe what transpires in the areas where content for inmates’ consumption originates. This occurs by virtue of the contents’ importation into the social networking service. By consenting to have their content drawn from sources outside of Facebook’s maw-like walls, content creators are forced to be aware that their external content repositories will be examined; while one’s ‘Friends’ may never visit your Livejournal blog, their gaze is directly experienced in the process of content creation on that blog. This works to normalize content creation that is external to Facebook itself insofar as what is being created is expected to be consumable by other inmates. Cases of deviance will have your account removed from the prison, leaving you unable to inspect others and unable to be inspected and valued by other inmates of the Facebook ecosystem. Indeed, the pleasure of content aggregation in Facebook is that there is (hopefully) a pleasurable experience when you, through the content you contribute, are positively valued. Diametrically, there is a terrifying despondency when your creation is rejected by your peers. It is of incredible importance that the morsels provided to social networking sites are palatable because their palatability indicates your own degree of integration with your peers, it provides a metric that evaluates whether you are ‘normal’ and thus like your peers, or whether you are abnormal and potentially in need of normalizing assistance as a diseased body or mind requires professional medical assistance. Moreover, as you refine you content and improve its palatability for the content-consuming masses your behavior is further normalized, that normalization is internalized, and you are consequently able to provide ever-more-appropriate content feasts.
A good meal is essential for healthy growth. What does it mean when your good meal is simply what others expect you to prepare, and ‘good’ has transformed to meeting the expectations of normal?
Can content begin to ‘taste’ like chicken? Has that already occurred?