Moving Past Facebook

In this blog entry, Robert Gehl, author of Reverse Engineering Social Media, writes about the alternatives to Facebook.

At the heart of Facebook is a contradiction: Facebook is for friends (and family). Facebook is for marketers.

“Facebook for friends” is quite familiar to us. We go to Facebook to see what our friends are up to, keep up with family events, find out about the next gathering, support one another, or brag about achievements. We “friend” the friends of our friends. We like what they post, their profile pictures, and what they share. This is a software-mediated form of sociality, and what is quite amazing about it is that Facebook is only 10 years old and yet is ingrained into so many people’s lives. Facebook is for friends.

“Facebook for marketers,” however, is just as important, even if we try to ignore it. Did you “like” your friend’s post about getting a coffee at Starbucks? Well, now a Starbucks ad appears. Did you post something about your favorite movie, Toy Story? Well, now Disney is asking you to like its page. Did you post something about being a little under the weather? CVS Pharmacy appears, ready to sell you the drugs that will get you back to health. As you engage with your friends, as you post what you’re up to, there are incredibly complex algorithms parsing your statements, likes, and activities, all with the goal of bending your attention to brands and commodities. It’s as if someone is listening to everything you say to your friends and family and mining those statements to know your desires, fears, shames, and pleasures – as well as your location, your income, your education, your political stances, and your sexuality. Those aspects of yourself are sold to countless companies around the world. Facebook is for marketers.

Facebook is always caught in this tension, a powerful, dangerous fusion of longstanding traditions of sociality (friendship, family relationship, coworker relationships) and the longstanding practices of studying us as consumers in a market society. You’re caught in the middle. You probably don’t think of Facebook as a place for seeing ads or being watched as you like things, but of course it is, just as it is a place to find out what your old highschool sweetheart is up to these days.

So, let’s say you value (or “like”?) the social aspects of Facebook but deplore the reduction of all relationships to consumer preferences. Let’s say you enjoy keeping in touch with friends, managing your online sociality via software, but you don’t like being monitored as if you were on a McDonald’s focus group. What do you do?

Support the alternatives.

There are hosts of activists and technologists taking the communication practices and architectures of Facebook (as well as other sites) and recreating them in new systems. What Facebook has done that is quite incredible is help solidify and establish a new genre of communication – digital social networking. What it has fused to that genre – the intense monitoring of you as a consumer (and little more) – is, in the view of these activists, deplorable.

Reverse Engineering_smAs I argue in my book, Reverse Engineering Social Media, the activists creating sites such as Diaspora, Lorea, GNU Social, Quitter, Rstat.us, and Crabgrass are all working to “reverse engineer” sites such as Facebook. What I mean by this is that they are taking the positive aspects of Facebook – the powerful new forms of online sociality, the ability to express oneself with text, images, and media and share that expression with friends – while fending off the very real problems of ubiquitous surveillance and the reduction of our lives to consumption patterns. They attempt to keep our personal data under our control and protect our privacy.

These sites aren’t nearly as popular as Facebook, but given the steady drumbeat of Facebook’s privacy invasions – not to mention the fact that Facebook has patented a system to provide user data to governments – it’s time to take the alternatives seriously. For those who doubt that Facebook and the other social media juggernauts will ever be toppled by a privacy-conscious alternative, don’t forget that Facebook is only 10 years old, and that we’ve seen popular Web and Internet sites come and go (MySpace, AOL, and Yahoo! come to mind).

In time, the contradictory “Facebook for Friends and Marketers” may give way to a new site for friends that doesn’t sell your data to Starbucks.

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Looking at Slum Clearance in the Southwest

In this blog entry, Robert Fairbanks, author of The War on Slums in the Southwest, writes about how religious leaders campaigned for slum clearance in San Antonio and Phoenix.

The War on Slums in the Southwest traces the history of slum clearance and public housing in the Southwest and reminds us of the important role religious leaders had in the campaign to eliminate slums in the Southwest.

In two cities, San Antonio and Phoenix, Roman Catholic priests were the major actors in securing public housing for their cities. Father Carmelo Tranchese served as priest at Our Lady of Guadalupe on the San Antonio’s west side within its principal Mexican barrio characterized by a Works Progress Administration report as “one of the most extensive slums to be found in any American city.” Even before Congress approved the Housing Act of 1937, the priest campaigned for federal help in clearing the slums and the erection of needed public housing for his congregation. He worked hard to publicize the ill effect slum housing had on the city and finally, after teaming up with Congressman Maury Maverick, lobbied directly with Eleanor Roosevelt to secure the much needed slum clearance and public housing projects for his Mexican parishioners, as well as other needy groups throughout the city. The mayor rewarded him for his efforts by appointing him the chair of the city’s initial housing authority.

War on Slums_smIn Phoenix, Father Emmett McLoughlin, a Franciscan priest took on a similar role in securing public housing for that desert city. The headstrong priest arrived in Phoenix in 1934 to serve as one of several clergy in St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the oldest in the city. Working with Mexican Americans and especially with African Americans in the city’s slums southwest of the downtown proved an eye opening experience for the priest. There he found unfathomable slum conditions that were in the words of one observer   “fully as bad as any he had seen in the tenement districts of New York.” African Americans often lived in wooden shacks, trailers sheds, and abandoned stores without water or sewage. His compassion for those slum dwellers led him to lobby Phoenix civic leaders for slum clearance and public housing. By publicizing those horrendous conditions and emphasizing their relationship to sickness, crime and bad citizenship, he convinced city fathers to support his effort to secure public housing for Phoenix. When state legislators final passed the necessary enabling legislation allowing Phoenix to form a housing authority, officials named McLoughlin chair of that body. As a result of McLoughlin’s efforts, Phoenix civic leaders embraced slum clearance and federal public housing by completing three projects before the end of World War II.

Even though both priests experienced physical threats and were slandered by slum landlords and others fearful of the public housing program, they were major warriors in the war of slums in the Southwest. Clergy played significant roles in other southwestern cities public housing efforts too. Almost every housing authority in the Southwest included either a Catholic priest, Protestant clergy or Jewish rabbi (and often several) on its initial housing authority. Such stories remind us that those who are passionately committed to responding to the plight of the poor could and did make a difference in the booming cities of the Southwest.

A Q&A with Dan Rottenberg, author of THE OUTSIDER

This week, in North Philly Notes, a Q&A with Dan Rottenberg, author of The Outsider: Albert M. Greenfield and the Fall of the Protestant Establishment.

How and why did you come to study Albert M. Greenfield?
Like most authors, I’ve always had several books on the back burner. One, for years, was a book about how Jews have changed business in America and vice versa. Another was a book about the decline of the Protestant establishment in America. I came across Albert M. Greenfield, and I realized this man ties into both of those themes, and that’s what I was really interested in. He was the quintessential Russian immigrant hustler who terrified the Protestant establishment in Philadelphia. They tried to shut him down in 1930. They thought they had. He came back and shut many of them down.

What surprised you in researching and telling Greenfield’s story?
What surprised me was that I couldn’t quite get a handle on him: Do I like this man or don’t I like him? There were a lot of things about Greenfield that I really liked and that I found I had in common with him—he was a tremendous optimist, and had no use for people who whined and complained—I’m pretty much the same way. He had very little empathy for people who had problems. He said take your problems somewhere else. On the other hand, he did a lot of things that were not quite ethical. He had his own narrative of his life, a lot of it was total nonsense. What I had to do as the writer was sift out the myth from the facts.

The Outsider_smHow do you think Greenfield used his Jewishness, or broke away from the stereotype in his business affairs?
Greenfield was Jewish, but he really broke all boundaries, and all rules. His basic mantra was, I can define myself as whatever I want. Sometimes he defined himself as Jewish, sometimes he thought he was the second coming of Benjamin Franklin. He was all over the place.

Do you find that his business savvy was his sheer love of business, versus fear of financial failure?
When you come right down to it, he was not really that concerned with making money or power, he really just loved to play the game. He lost a fortune twice in his life, and came back and each time, he really got the sense that he enjoyed the comeback. It was much more fun. He once said, “I’d rather fall off the highest rung than never climb the ladder.”

Greenfield was active in real estate, banking, retail, and politics, among other things. What do you think was his greatest accomplishment?
In business, he built up a huge empire, including department store chains up and down the east coast. He built some of the major building that still stand to this day, including the Ben Franklin Hotel and the Philadelphia Building, which for years was called the Bankers’ Security Building, named for his company.  But really his business empire collapsed shortly after he died. It was largely a one-man band. His legacy really lies elsewhere.

What was his greatest disaster?
Probably the failure of the Banker’s Trust Company in 1930—his venture into banking. He just assumed he was smarter than everybody else and he could succeed at anything he put his hand to. Banking turned out to be something very different than real estate. In real estate, the biggest asset is your optimism, your ability to inspire confidence in your investors or tenants. In a banker, your biggest asset is your reputation for prudence, caution, and reliability. Totally different things.

What do you think Greenfield’s legacy in Philadelphia is today?
I would say his greatest legacy is the message that his life transmits to people, that you, as a private, ordinary citizen, can really exert tremendous influence on your community, your country—if you really want to. The idea that we ought to be a little more optimistic about the future—that we ought to be a little more accepting of change. You can make your own identity, whatever you want it to be, and collectively, we can make this community and this world a better place if we want. I also think his legacy is the importance of immigrants in our society. Every generation there is a fear of immigrants and a feeling that immigrants don’t really know what America is about. Greenfield had the opposite idea. He said immigrants really appreciate America more than anybody else does.

About the author
Dan Rottenberg is the author of eleven books, including The Man Who Made Wall Street: Anthony J. Drexel and the Rise of Modern Finance, and the founding editor of the Broad Street Review, an arts and culture website.

 

We’ve Got a Book on That!

This week in North Philly Notes, a rundown of recent news articles that relate to topics in Temple University Press books.

The Meaning of Emancipation Day in the Opinionator column of the August 4, 2014 issue of the New York Times

Korb writes about abolitionist writer and former slave Harriet Jacobs, who published Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

Envisioning Emancipation_smJacobs was featured in Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery by Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer. The authors quote Jacobs about fleeing her North Carolina master in 1842, and making her way to Brooklyn:

“What a disgrace to a city calling itself free, that inhabitants, guiltless of offence, and seeking to perform their duties conscientiously, should be condemned to live in such incessant fear, and have nowhere to turn for protection. This state of things, of course, gave rise to many impromptu vigilance committees. Every colored person, and every friend of their persecuted race, kept their eyes wide open.”

Willis and Krauthamer write that activists like Jacobs, “portrayed themselves as intelligent, empowered, sensitive, and dignified women.”

Another New York Times piece, Bright Passages, Along the Northeast Corridor, published on July 24, celebrated the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. The article showcased the five-mile stretch in Philadelphia that features, what the article described as  “Christo-esque installations of seven enormous works of art by the Berlin-based visual artist Katharina Grosse, entitled, ‘psychylustro'”

Phila Mural Arts 30_smJane Golden, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program for 30 years, co-edited Philadelphia Mural Arts @ 30, with David Updike, an editor in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s publishing department. Their book showcases the results of 21 projects completed since 2009 and features essays by policy makers, curators, scholars, and educators that offer valuable lessons for artists, activists, and communities to emulate. Philadelphia Mural Arts @ 30 traces the program’s history and evolution, acknowledging the challenges and rewards of growth and change while maintaining a core commitment to social, personal, and community transformation.

In other local news, Timothy Cwiek reported on SEPTA (Philadelphia’s transit agency) denying union workers same-sex marriage benefits in the Philadelphia Gay News on July 31.

Cwiek writes, “Due to an impasse with union representatives, SEPTA’s management only recognizes the same-sex marriages of its non-union workers for the purpose of workplace benefits.”

Out in the Union_smMiriam Frank’s recent publication, Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America, chronicles the evolution of labor politics with queer activism and identity formation, showing how unions began affirming the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers in the 1970s and 1980s.

Frank provides an inclusive history of the convergence of labor and LGBT interests. She carefully details how queer caucuses in local unions introduced domestic partner benefits and union-based AIDS education for health care workers-innovations that have been influential across the U.S. workforce. Out in the Union also examines organizing drives at queer workplaces, campaigns for marriage equality, and other gay civil rights issues to show the enduring power of LGBT workers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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