May 17, 2010

Does Danah Boyd Know What She is Talking About?

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 10:12 am

Apparently no. Some time ago, she called Facebook users “hegemonic  teens,” misunderstanding the term hegemony. Now, tapping into the Facebook hyperbole gripping people who tell a social media site what their favorite movies are or what they do for a living and then complain that the site uses that information,  she declares Facebook is a utility. She fails to understand this term’s meaning either.

People’s language reflects that people are depending on Facebook just like they depended on the Internet a decade ago. Facebook may not be at the scale of the Internet (or the Internet at the scale of electricity), but that doesn’t mean that it’s not angling to be a utility or quickly becoming one. Don’t forget: we spent how many years being told that the Internet wasn’t a utility, wasn’t a necessity… now we’re spending what kind of money trying to get universal broadband out there without pissing off the monopolistic beasts because we like to pretend that choice and utility can sit easily together. And because we’re afraid to regulate.

A free site where no one makes you go, where no one tells you to upload personal pictures, where no one tells you to reveal your occupation or tastes, is a utility? It is essential? It is like running water or electricity? No, of course it is not. It’s a site where people go to hear what other people think about, what the local bakery has for sale today, what such and such person is protesting or angry about, what so and so likes, and what someone’s three year old kid said today.

The bizarre response to Facebook and issues of privacy baffles. A sense of privilege has taken over the application’s users who believe, because they log in and tell their friends that they “like” something, they are outside of the company’s need to make money. The shock of all shock to Facebook users is that this free application uses user information to. . . .wait. . .. advertise.

The logic of free software is service and advertising. In the case of Facebook, I don’t know if it follows the model of selling additional services the way Google does or various open source projects do. But it does advertise. Advertising relies on user-centered information in order to target its message. The basic principle of advertising – outside of tapping into affective responses – is data mining.  Such information, and here is where social networking is at its most fascinating – is offered up for free by users of various online applications. Michel Maffesoli would call this offering the secrecy of social networking. Why do you tell someone you are in the airport (and thus, not at home for some time) or that you are mad at a new bill in Congress (revealing your political affiliation), or that you are sad that Dio died (what kind of music you like) or that you child said “poop” today (you have a child)? Who knows? It’s an affective secret. The information, though, is useful to the application which can then sell that information to advertisers who can, then, target their products effectively (or what they believe is effective based on patterns of consumption, behavior, and influence).

Thus, if someone wants to tap into my Facebook profile in order to sell me something, they would know that Let’s Go Swimming is one of my favorite movies, my religion is Rectatarianism, my bio line says “pudding?” and I’ve linked to Andy Griffith’s song “Cindy.” Go ahead. Send me ads out of this network of information. Data mine me.

The easiest way to avoid your privacy being lifted, as many note, is don’t join. Many people today lament all this privacy, and yet they (like me) initially downplayed Facebook as something silly that kids in our courses use to communicate with one another. The second easiest thing to do is don’t fill in any information you do not want to share. No one is entitled to Facebook, Google, Yahoo, or any other free Web-based service. This rhetoric of entitlement is silly and misleading. It’s about as silly as the application itself, which I, by the way, leave open all day long.

Why? I want to know what you are doing. I want to know what you like. I follow your behaviors, too, and I do not have access to any data mining technology. Facebook is not a utility (nor more than teens can be “hegemonic”). Facebook is a realization of human desire to know. We live in the age of involvement, McLuhan once wrote. Involvement at all levels of media and information experience. You are not entitled to this involvement, though you want it very badly. I am not entitled to data mine your information, though you give it to me freely. In the age of the network, we are all data miners. You can limit or opt out (for the most part) of this experience. But you choose not to. You are drawn to the giving of information (in the future, we are famous for longer than fifteen minutes or even fifteen links). Why? That is the secret.


  1. I clicked the link to Andy Griffith singing “Cindy,” and I could not get it to play. Maybe you have neglected to pay your Facebook bill?

    Comment by Derek — May 17, 2010 @ 10:44 am

  2. Testify! This piece says a lot of things I’ve been thinking, but better than I could.

    Comment by mike — May 17, 2010 @ 11:17 am

  3. Good points– Alex Reid made some similar ones on his blog and I tried to do the same. I know this stuff is coming about now because of changes to FB’s privacy rules, but I also have to think that some of it is because the fastest growing demographic on FB is old people. So when “those silly kids” were getting in trouble by posting potentially embarrassing pictures of themselves and their friends a few years ago, the old people said “that’ll teach ya! that stuff will be in your permanent record for the rest of your lives!” Now that its the old people who are accidentally sharing those embarrassing pictures, it’s FB’s fault.

    And I agree about Boyd. Why she gets as much attention as she does is a mystery to me.

    Comment by Steve Krause — May 17, 2010 @ 11:35 am

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