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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