Monday, June 20, 2011

On the Art of Making People Disappear

As of last Friday, over three and a half million people had answered the following question on Facebook.

However almost none of them were in fact answering the original asker, literally meaning that they wanted to remain friends with her. They were just expressing – by overwhelming majority – a general wish not the be unfriended and thus, by extension, not to drop out of the social network.

It's an interesting business, the culling of Facebook friends, especially when it is accompanied by such public announcements. I have never been through the exercise myself, but I assume that those who have might have come to the realisation that their feed had become cluttered, and likely with people who stretched even the famously impoverished notion of friend that characterises this particular platform and its vocabulary.

Another assumption I am willing to make with some confidence is that Facebook is aware of this, and that some of its features were developed in direct response to the problem. After all, it is in the interest of the company's bottom line that we all stay friends. And so over time a series of tools have been introduced to limit the clutter, hence the need to actually shorten your list of contacts. You can for instance hide some of your friends, meaning that the contents of their wall will no longer appear in yours – which is like stealth unfriending, essentially, and just the sort of thing that makes me glad I graduated from high school well before Web 2.0. You can also assign your friends to different groups and choose which of your own status updates and wall postings will be visible to whom, with a potentially baffling level of micro-managed control. (Cue more gladness that I'm no longer a teenager.) But since all of these stratagems require a certain amount of savvy – not to mention actual work – Facebook recently introduced a new default setting whereby the only feeds linked to your wall are those of friends you recently interacted with. You can disable this, but again, the likelihood is that relatively few people will.

The feature may seem benign at first glance, and simply designed to increase your exposure to the most relevant content, but I would argue that it is in fact quite insidious. Firstly, the very objective of uncluttering the feed is tied to the pervasive idea that what we should strive for primarily in our social relations is efficiency, turned here into no less than a default setting. Secondly, and more importantly, the feature defines the relevance of the content of the social exchange – therefore what we could call the intensity of friendship – in terms of its frequency. And this is just wrong.

I am willing to wager in fact that if you ran though the list of your Facebook friends (let us suppose that you are even on Facebook, for the sake of argument) and roughly rated them in terms of how much you actually care about them, and then compared the results to the graph of your actual interactions, you might find that the two pictures don't overlap at all. No, the virtue that the feature selects is simply proficiency in and attachment to Facebook itself: meaning the art of crafting the update or posting the link that will reliably attract the most likes and being a frequent user. The last point cannot be overstated, for Facebook (but the same could be said of Twitter, Google and so forth) cares very much that you use it often, and make it as much a part of your life as possible. It is by sharing information with these services that we increase their value to the advertisers, who are their actual customers.

This is all very obvious, the argument well-worn. But less attention is generally paid to the users of social media who are pushed to the margins of their networks by these algorithms. What Facebook's latest feature says is that unless you visit and contribute to Facebook often enough, you will become invisible to your friends. I’ll come back to this.


[Digital divide] tends to be used to refer to a binary black-white racial divide, but it fails to spur dialogue. It’s a phrase that Starbucks liberals like to use when overhyping equitable Internet access, while continuing to ignore fundamental issues such as equitable access to education and health care. Johnny can't read, Jane can't run, George has lost his curiosity, and they seem to think it will all be solved by the wonders of the Internet.

Art McGee said this in 2000. The phrase digital divide is not one you hear very often anymore in what we insist to call the developed world, where access to the Internet is estimated to have reached something close to saturation point.

The World Bank includes in fact the number of Internet users in each country amongst its development indicators. According to the bank’s latest data, which date back to 2009, Internet users account in New Zealand for 83.4% of the population, versus 78.1% in the United States, 5.3% in India and 27.1% worldwide. Read against the United Nations' recent pronouncement that Internet access is a fundamental human right, the data puts the number of the disenfranchised and underdeveloped at roughly four billion people. But how are we to interpret this proposition? Is it another case of Internet access being overhyped to avoid facing other, far more politically intractable obstacles on the road to social equity?

Wallace Chigona, Fidel Mbhele and Salah Kabanda of the Department of Information Systems, University of Cape Town, conducted a study in 2008, at a time when Internet access amongst South Africans stood at 8.6%. Their aim was to ‘evaluate the impact of ICTs, notably the Internet, in helping address social exclusion’ (2094). They tackled this task by visiting communities in which government agencies had initiated programmes for broadening access, and asking them to describe and evaluate their own experiences. The responses were at variance with the official reports concerning those communities, especially when the subjects were asked to state whether they were in fact socially excluded, that is to say, disadvantaged from a social, political and economic viewpoint.
Most were of the view that they were not socially excluded even though they did not enjoy nor participate in electronic activities. For example, none of the Bitterfontein participants in this study considered themselves socially excluded. Participants believed they were a part of a normal society even when they did not enjoy the same activities enjoyed in other societies that might not be socially excluded. When BIT 2 was asked if she felt isolated or excluded, her response was:
“I do not feel isolated. If someone tells me that I am isolated I will stand up and tell them that I am not” (2098)

The researchers’ conclusion was that the Internet in fact ‘[played] a very minimal role in eliminating social exclusion, with very few beneficiaries’, and that governments in the developing world should consider reprioritising their economic investment towards other spends such as ‘healthcare, education and economic resuscitation’ (2094). Whether or not one is willing to accept these findings – and in this respect one must at least note the small number of respondents as a possible limitation – the study is notable for its qualitative approach and for the willingness to distinguish between degrees of social exclusion and degrees of Internet access, as well as being open to the possibility that ‘provision of access may create new divisions’, privileging a limited core of users at the expense of peripheral and excluded users. I’ll come back to this too.


From a recent comment by Scar over at Ideologically Impure:
I’d also be careful with prefacing GLBTI with ‘MF’, as it’s going to offend some T and I people.

I’m taking this statement out of a context that may be familiar to some of you, but it’s not to pass judgment on the heated discussion that surrounded it, nor to engage in the always popular sport of mocking the taking of offence. I am simply struck by how much meaning is packed in those nineteen words, how much of the pain and labour of our identity wars one can read in it. That five letter acronym – GLBTI – contains a claim not just to equal rights and dignity under the law, but to visibility, to the right to speak and be heard. Facebook by contrast allows you to either be Male or Female, and to express your interest in either Men, Women or both – which in spite of the possible iterations is in fact almost solely of use to MF people, which rather underscores Scar’s point.

But this is not to say that gender identity-based discourse could not fit within a drop-down model of self-identification such as the one offered by Facebook – as a matter of fact I would argue that it could, quite seamlessly, at least from a design standpoint. It would also likely provide information of interest to Facebook’s advertisers. And so it is intriguing to speculate why the service offers such scant options in this area, whilst at the same time including Jedi amongst the available religions. In fact, under Religion and Political Views you can either choose from a list or create your own unique entry – a model that would seem eminently applicable to one’s sexuality and gender-identity. But perhaps that degree of openness would disrupt the social graph, and if people were free to choose who they are at their most intimate, then the whole information gathering exercise would simply cease to be profitable.

Facebook’s basic information pages are also notable for what they leave out altogether, chiefest among which anything to do with race and class. Of course nobody prevents you from making statements about yourself to that effect, in your own words – they will just lack their own slot in the company’s database. And ultimately that might be a good thing. But I contend that templates are a very powerful thing, and that the unavailability of the labels that define you amongst a series of equal options is a form of exclusion. In aggregate it will skew the numbers, and implicitly sharpen an image of what is normal centred around the narrow range of options available. Default settings are insidious like that.

At the same time, we must recognise that the utility of social networks is creating new divisions in the countries where they have achieved critical mass. Here – by force of the sheer number of users and the networks’ increasing uptake of meaningful forms of socialisation – the Internet is proving itself a truly indispensable social tool without having had to demonstrate an actual capacity to mitigate exclusion.

It is the core users who are driving this change, demanding that everybody else acquire a presence and be always available for interaction, or else become invisible; and it is the core users who are reaping the benefits beyond the social sphere alone, turning their online reputations into job offers or other forms of competitive advantage in the knowledge economy. Contrary to hype, Web 2.0 hasn’t invented socialisation, and it’s healthy sometimes to be reminded that this existed before and continues to exist in other forms and places; but even as its capacity to connect people across time and distance can be exhilarating and inspire change, so too its demands over leisure and attention can warp the social space, and conspire against forming ideas of collectivity based on the equal opportunity to participate.

And so whenever a social media platform tells you that it’s hiding people from you but it’s a facility, a feature, be suspicious. We have nothing to gain by being invisible to one another.

Wallace Chigona, Fidel Mbhele, Salah Kabanda. 'Investigating the Impact of Internet in Eliminating Social Exclusion: The Case of South Africa.' PICMET 2008 Proceedings, 27-31 July, Cape Town, South Africa, pp. 2094-2101.

With thanks to Jake and Pip - they know why.