Social Networking Sites are increasingly integral elements in the lives of many. There are many different reasons for hopping on the virtual bandwagon but regardless of these differences in motivations, all individuals essentially end up creating on-line versions of themselves and using a virtual space to communicate with others.
“Virtual” creation and display happens in variety of ways; uploading photos, publishing diaries, and sharing personal information with other users. New technologies and spaces are welcomed, and seen as beneficial, or trivial, or harmless.
But are they trivial? Is this change in our way of interacting harmless, or does it mask a darker truth? And finally, what is at stake and who is in danger?
If we consider Michel Foucault’s observation that “The three fundamental elements of any experience are: a game of truth, relations of power, and forms of relations to oneself and to others” , the increasing importance of the social networking experience must be examined more closely.
In his introduction to Cyber_Reader, Neil Spiller posits that the growth of access to computers and cyberspace “has rearticulated nearly every aspect of our lives”; because information travels freely and rapidly through both space and time. In the same way, Ursula M. Franklin, in her CBC Massey Lectures series on the Real World of Technology sees that new information technologies influence the human mind and “structure our social and political institutions”.
Therefore, given the influence and power technology has over society, new technologies should not be accepted and embraced blindly. As Spiller cautions, computers and the cyberspaces we engage in are paradoxical, offering both opportunities and threats. They can lead to better health, creativity and learning, however they also make us “more vulnerable to surveillance, open to disenfranchisement and manipulation” . It is not surprising in a post 9/11 world, where government actions increasingly invade our privacy in the name of “security”, and Corporate America uses our personal data to manipulate us in the name of “personalization”, that our virtual identities and habits are increasingly valuable both on and off line. Unfortunately, legislation, technology, and our own practices, instead of focusing on the opportunities offered by cyberspace, are increasingly realizing its potential as a threat.
Inspired by increasing blog entries and articles with regards to the evils of Facebook, this essay examines how Social Networking Sites allow the Big Brothers of the 21st century, government and corporations, to watch and manipulate users, ultimately gaining power over them through knowledge. This essay illustrates this by firstly examining the loss of privacy in our increasingly socially networked world and by then extending Michel Foucault’s ideas on society’s objectification of sick people and prisoners to the objectification in social networking sites and the often invisible power relations that they establish.
From Facecrime to Facebook
The World is Watching, But so is Big Brother
Social Networking Sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, allow members to create personal profiles, establish relationships, and ultimately communicate with other registered members. Facebook, for example, describes itself as “a social utility that connects you with the people around you”. MySpace sees itself as “an online community that lets you meet your friends’ friends”. According to Hitwise, the US market share of Internet traffic to the top social networking sites grew by 11.5 percent from January to February 2007, to account for 6.5 percent of all Internet traffic in February 2007. MySpace still ranks first, with Facebook as its closest challenger, accounting for 10% of the market.
Blog entries and articles are increasingly turning their attention towards Facebook and its supposed evils. One such blog entry entitled The Facebook.com: Big Brother with a smile reads:
“TheFaceBook is the devil in sheep’s clothing. It is leading the vanguard of the “consumer friendly” Big Brother targeting young people, specifically college and high school students. While pretending to be a harmless and fun service, TheFaceBook is a dark foray into psychological profiling, where the cryptocracy wants to know every detail of your life and track your location at every moment.”
Facebook and George Orwell. The two should be worlds apart. But are they? In his famous novel of totalitarianism and constant surveillance, Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell describes a world where:
“It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself—anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face… was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime…”
In his book Privacy Lost, David H. Holtzman indicates that to the contrary of the Baby Boomer generation, who are afraid of networking because the Big Brother theme fueled their suspicions of government and their fear of loss of privacy, the current generation believes it normal that “everyone is watching”. He states that “to them, there’s no such thing as privacy”. This changing perception of privacy is evident when one looks at how social networking site users broadcast their own personal lives in exchange for rights to view those of their friends. Perhaps the best example of this is YouTube’s slogan “Broadcast Yourself”. For Holtzman, the Generation X’ers have accepted that “privacy does not mean that they’re not being watched but rather that no one is looking” .
We want our comrades to look, but are we aware that Big Brother is also watching? Or are we so used to the private becoming public that we don’t care?
Ultimately, whether or not are aware of this loss of privacy, concerns are brushed aside in the name of security and personalization. The loss of privacy thus experienced becomes a result of both decreasing rights to privacy, and a changing conception of it.
National security has never been so important. Since the events of 9/11, the Bush Administration has not hesitated to infringe upon the liberties of civilians, and consequently violate their right to privacy.
Bush recently gave permission to his administration to bypass the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, put in place to prevent intelligence abuses post-watergate. He defends this as necessary, but many opponents say this amounts “to a violation of the law, and perhaps the U.S. Constitution itself”. This follows the line of previous legislation, such as the infamous Patriot Act of 2001, which accorded increased power to authorities in the fight against terrorism, including the right to search e-mail and on-line communications and activity. As Canadians, we may think our situation to be different than that of our neighbors south of border. But the reality is that US law often applies to our Canadian data. Not only do many Canadian enterprises outsource their IT departments to American organizations who store this data in the U.S., but also many on-line companies are global organizations based in the U.S. Furthermore, Canada has its own watered-down version of the Patriot Act, called the Anti-Terrorism act. At present the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) can demand access to information (including on-line activity and communications) with the appropriate warrant from a judge.
How do individuals view the privacy of on-line identities and communications? A 2008 article in The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies by Harvard University’s Danah Boyd looks at how thousands of Facebook users protested the 2006 launch of the “News Feeds” feature, which publicly lists “every act undertaken by their friends within the system”. The protests were calmed however, by a response from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg entitled “Calm down. Breathe. We hear you” where he indicates that all this information was not private to begin with. Boyd responds by stating that it was not the making public of private information that upset users, but how the new feature changed “the social dynamic of Facebook”. More importantly however, she continues her article by examining how the making of social information more readily available ruptures “people’s sense of public and private by altering previously understood social norms”. In the same way as Holtzman, she finds that new technologies are constantly changing assumptions we have about our on-line interactions, resulting in the normalization of on-line “social convergence”. She explains that users were uncomfortable not with their own disclosing of private information on their profiles, but with the broadcasting of this information by Facebook to everyone in their digital sphere of friends. What is more interesting however is that these voiced protests were quelled when Facebook introduced new security features. These new protective measures however are based on an opt-out dynamic, meaning that you need to consciously choose to keep your private information private, the default being complete exposure.
The fact that a user needs to choose to hide certain things, not to expose them, proves that we privacy concerns overruled in the name of security, because the current political climate makes one afraid of being singled out as someone that has something to hide, and also because personal information is increasingly “the currency of social hierarchy and connectivity” . For example, one cannot merely observe the communications that take place in Facebook applications; they need to add them to their own profiles, thus relinquishing their security in exchange for social interaction.
Ultimately, what is important to note here is that the “Newsfeed” feature is still alive and well. Although in no way suggesting that this be representative of all Facebook users, only four of my two-hundred and forty-one Facebook friends have disabled the function, I assume either because most people like it, have accepted it as normal, or as in my case, joined Facebook after it’s introduction and thus never questioned its existence.
Personalization: The Turning of Subject into Object
Whether to track them or to profit from them, both governments and corporations benefit from easy access to peoples private information. In addition to issues of security, the personalization of our on-line worlds in the name of better customer service has also dramatically impacted our conception and right to privacy.
Marketers depend on communication networks to advertise their products to potential customers. In order to fix the problem of unwanted marketing, such as junk mail, pop-up ads and telemarketing, many marketers are looking for ways to personalize their offers and increase their chances of successful selling. Amazon.com is perhaps the pioneer of this trend on-line, personalizing their product suggestions based on a customers past buying habits and browsing. Personalization customizes the content of a website to each visitor. A 2000 article in Newsweek touted personalization as the “Web’s coup de grace, the quality that differentiates it from how business is done in the real world.” At the time however, few companies apart from Amazon were harnessing this potential. Eight years later however, with the growth of Internet access and difficult market conditions, many companies are turning to Cyberpace to increase their market shares and profits, and social networking sites are no exception. In a later November 2007 Newsweek article entitled Facebook: Marketers Are Your ‘Friends’, Catherine Hollahan reports on how founder Mark Zuckerberg decided to share with marketers the personal information of the over 50-million people who use his site to communicate with their friends. On Nov. 6, Zuckerberg made public his plans to allow marketers to send personalized ads to users based on the details they make available on the site, including work history, relationship status and political views. He is quoted as stating, “This is powerful stuff”. And it is powerful stuff. Database companies, such as ChoicePoint, once a part of Equifax, maintain vast amounts of information on incredible numbers of people. ChoicePoint “delivers comprehensive credentialing, background screening, authentication, direct marketing and public records services to businesses and nonprofit organizations” .
The threat data mining and marketing pose to society is not necessarily the collecting of the information, but how, why and, by who it is subsequently used. To quote Einstein: “Information is not knowledge. Know where to find the information and how to use it – That’s the secret of success” . However, success can be good or bad, depending on the winner’s intentions.
For example, Holtzman highlights an interesting case where past purchase records of a presumed highjacker were used by government officials to create a profile of would be terrorists. What’s more, because digital data is cheap and durable, the increasing concentration of “information power” in the hands of a few through mergers and acquisitions might eventually lead to one mega cross sectional database where every consumer (and let’s face we all have a left a trace at one point) will have his own “behavior and preferences file”. What if this information is not only made available to marketers who want our money, but also to future governments who believe in doublethink fashion that “War is peace” and that “Freedom is Slavery”? Evidently, a certain extent of comparison between Facebook and Nineteen Eighty-Four is not that crazy after all.
From Foucault to Facebook
So why, and how, are we involved in a struggle over our own privacy with marketers and the government?
Famous 20th century philosopher Michel Foucault saw power relations as being “rooted in the whole network of the social”. He outlined in his work that power relations depend upon “as system of differentiation that permits one to act upon the actions of others”. Since social networking sites use personal information as “the currency of social hierarchy” , we could consider this personal data, its collection, and use by governments and corporations, as a source of power. Foucault studied the relationship between subject-truth and knowledge-power by looking at three cases of formation of subjects and their objectification: the madman, the delinquent and the sexual being. In these three cases, Foucault questions how the subject fits into a game of truth and is problematized, following certain processes and defined by certain knowledge. He is careful t point out however, that there has been a shift in games of truth. They no longer depend on coercive practices, but on a “practice of self- formation of the subject”. Applied to the study of social networking sites, these “practices of self-formation of the subject” are represented by the processes of defining oneself, of categorizing oneself; a fundamental aspect of all social networking sites. On Facebook you are asked to supply religious views, political views and sexual orientation, right away inserting yourself into predefined categories. In other words, subjects (users) become objects (data) and are thus knowledge in the form of data, knowledge that is then used in the formation of relations of power. As Foucault indicates, we are objectified through the game of truth: through a set off procedures that lead to a certain result, which is considered valid or invalid, winning or loosing .
The power that knowledge gives marketers is the possibility to label us, sometimes erroneously. An interesting example offered by Holtzman is that of an individual who buys several children books and a copy of Nabokov’s Lolita on-line. He might thereafter be labeled as attracted to little children, particularly if he is crosschecked in another database (what is increasingly becoming the norm) as being a single, childless male. Being falsely labeled and associated with an undesirable market segment could mean a life of unwanted offers and solicitations. Even more worrisome is the possibility that a false label could become a permanent record in the archives of the increasingly powerful data mining companies. Holtzman foresees the possibility that marketing will increasingly “combine this information with historical personality patterns derived from marketing databases to wheedle, coerce, or intimidate people into buying their products”. Governments can use information to control a population’s mobility, such as in the case of the infamous “no fly list”, which prohibits certain individuals, profiled as being potential security risks, from flying. In the end, although their ultimate goals are different, both marketers and governments seek to mold people, whether it be to follow a certain political ideal or to be a faithful consumer. People are not supposed to deviate from these desired states, and therefore, as proposed by Foucault, methods of surveillance and control are exercised to ensure that individuals remain the objects and subjects that the truth of subjugator considers them to be.
“Power applies itself to immediate everyday life” he says, and it “categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him that he must recognize and others have to recognize in him”.
This theory can easily be applied to the data mining techniques employed by governments and marketers, of which an important part depends on the data collected in and supplied by social networking sites. Because government and major corporations have the means (in the form of information) to manipulate, coerce, and profile, they also increasingly have the upper hand in the relations of power to which users of social networking sites and the Internet in general are subject.
The most recent development in Facebooks “Orwellianization” is the creation of brand pages where “users can view related media, review products or services, add items they like to their personal pages, and become friends, or “fans,” of the brand—and even make purchases”. Each interaction is then advertised along with a picture of the user and fed through the “News Feed” feature. In her 2007 article following the launch of these ads, Catherine Holahan saw these them as turning “users into brand ambassadors” .
She reported that The Center for Digital Democracy in Washington had asked the Federal Trade Comission to investigate Facebook’s and Myspace’s targeting of America’s Youth “as one big advertising channel”. The center, she says, worries about “young people who may not realize how much information they’re divulging”. However, Facebook’s founder Zuckerberg doubted a backlash would arise because of the new application and Facebook did not even allow for users to opt out of the Social Ad feeds.
Although this essay looks rather negatively at social networking sites, having looked at the loss of privacy, data surveillance, and eventual manipulation they support, all is not lost. Foucault believed, “In relations of power there is necessary the possibility of resistance because if there were no possibility of resistance there would be no power relation”. Therefore, relations of power could be seen as leaving space for a possible resistance to the loss of privacy and subjugation we are currently experiencing. What this resistance could be is unknown, but it will have to come from individuals taking a step back and analyzing, critiquing, and changing the situation. It will not come from legislation or new privacy technologies. It is through the process that many blogers, writers, scholars, and students have already begun; questioning the current state of affairs. In the words of Foucault:
“It’s insofar as there’s been an awakening to a whole series of problems that the difficulty of doing anything comes to be felt… what is to be done ought not to be determined from above by reformers, be they prophetic or legislative, but by a long work of comings and goings , of reflections, trials, different analyses.”
On that note, I will end my own contribution to this necessary critique and questioning.
Books and Articles:
Boyd, Danah. (2008). Facebook’s Privacy Trainwreck. The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies. Vol 14(1): 13-20.
Franklin, Ursula M. The Real World of Technology. House of Anansi Press Inc. Toronto. 2004.
Holtzman, David. Privacy Lost. Jossey-Bass. San Fransisco. 2006.
Rabinow, Paul and Nikolas Rose ed. The Essential Foucault: selections from essential works of Foucault, 1954-1984. The New Press. New York. 2003. p. 256.
Spiller, Neil ed. Cyber_Reader. Phaidon Press Limited. London. 2002.
Catherine Holahan. “Facebook: Marketers Are Your ‘Friends’.” 13 Apr. 2008 http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/nov2007/tc2007116_289111.htm?chan=search
“ChoicePoint – Technology and Information for Confident, Smart Decisions.” 14 Apr. 2008 http://www.choicepoint.com/index.html
“ThinkExist.com Quotations. “Information quotes & quotations.” 14 Apr. 2008
“Year in review: The politics of privacy | CNET News.com.” 13 Apr. 2008
Jennifer Brown. “Canadian Security Magazine – Data breach law doesn’t go far enough.” 13 Apr. 2008
“Social network traffic up 11.5 percent; MySpace still dominates | The Social Web | ZDNet.com.” 13 Apr. 2008 http://blogs.zdnet.com/social/?p=114
“1984: Quotes.” 14 Apr. 2008