Each time I try to compose a post for my philosophy class, I resolve not to discuss Facebook or Google this time. I keep mentioning them, using them as examples, to the point where one might think I spend all my time using one or both of those services. Not so. Not even close.
Wait, sorry, need to check Gmail on my Android phone….
Well, I will succeed in not mentioning Facebook and Google eventually. Not today. No, because for my second critical response, I am discussing “Friend Me if You Facebook: Generation Y and Performative Surveillance,” by E.J. Westlake. This article is in volume 52 of TDR: The Drama Review, available through Project MUSE (couldn’t find an openly-available copy, sorry). We will be discussing this during week eight of class.
This is an article that is exactly what it says on the tin (or title, as the case may be). Westlake discusses how Generation Y uses Facebook, arguing that members of older generations tend to be dismissive of Generation Y’s proactive use of Facebook, focusing on it only as a tool that promotes exhibitionism and apathy. At the same time, she examines how one’s activities on Facebook is a performance of the self, bringing us in some Erving Goffman for the theory side, which brings back memories of the first-year sociology course I took. Finally, Westlake also explores how this performance of self is mediated by Facebook’s enforcement of a panoptic sense of surveillance and self-policing, or what she terms performative surveillance.
Westlake begins with an anecdote about how she discovered the introduction of Facebook’s News Feed. I was aware that Facebook had not always had the News Feed, but having joined after its introduction, I’ve never been able to imagine Facebook without it, despite my dislike of its user interface design. Considering the outcry raised over Facebook’s privacy issues in the past few years, it was fascinating to read about how users objected to the News Feed (22). Can you imagine anyone doing that now? (My objections are purely from an interface perspective.) This alone is a useful reminder that time changes the perspective on everything, and that which we find unsettling or invasive at first may soon become the status quo.
Westlake singles out Facebook for analysis because of its insistence upon the convergence of online and offline geography. Although other services, such as MySpace, allow for the creation of subjectivities and a performance of self, Facebook’s ideology and structure encourages people to interact with other people in their real-world location (25). Westlake sees this as a way of fundamentally altering how we relate to each other, and she rejects the “prevailing attitudes of Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers that Generation Y is somehow socially and politically disengaged because of technology” (23). Why the difference in perspective? Westlake attributes this to the performance of self.
When we interact online, just as when we interact in person, we present a facet of ourselves based on our audience. We perform. Facebook is special because the dynamic, ongoing nature of our updates to our profiles means the performance itself is ongoing, so the selves we present are ever-changing. Moreover, “the predominantly Generation Y Facebook community uses Facebook to define the boundaries of normative behavior through unique performances of an online self” (23), so Facebook is a medium through which Generation Y is changing the standards of social interaction. As a result, instead of deviating from social norms by posting drunk photos, Facebook users “establish and reinforce social norms, but also resist being fixed as rigid, unchanging subjects” (23).
Consider this for a moment: every user’s Facebook profile is like a constantly-changing, continually-updated autobiography. Unlike a school yearbook or a memoir, written once and then fixed in text and left to moulder on a bookshelf, Facebook profiles are an ongoing presentation of ourselves in the moment. To a Facebook user, the idea that one’s profile would ever be frozen or left in stasis would be silly: change is constant and expected.
Users can also police Facebook deviants by reporting inappropriate photographs, fake profiles, and vulgar Wall posts. Facebook has an elaborate Code of Conduct and encourages users to click on “Report Abuse” links on every page.… While users can conceivably create fake profiles based on anyone, fake profiles are rigorously policed on Facebook.… It takes only one user reporting a fake profile for the profile to be removed. (34)
As with Winokur’s critique of the Internet as a panopticon, there is not a bijective correspondence between this notion and Facebook, simply because of the differences in architecture. Nevertheless, it is clear that surveillance and self-surveillance is present. There is a certain amount of self-censorship at work. Most of us don’t post drunk photos:
While researchers in a recent University of Dayton study expressed concern over the fact that 8 percent of Facebook users surveyed reported exaggerating the amount of drinking or drug use in their profiles, what they don’t mention is the reverse: that an overwhelming majority of users do not exaggerate or highlight so-called deviant behavior. (32)
We are aware that others are going to view our profiles and judge us, so for the most part we curtail our activities—moderate our performance of self. I am very much aware of this in my own activities, not only when I post to Facebook, but when I tweet or write a blog post. The latter activity in particular is always interesting, since my father and my paternal grandparents read my blog, so there is always a part of me aware of that. Additionally, when I post something online, it is there forever. It might not go away, not even if I try to delete it. As I grow and mature, what I have written in the past might come back to haunt me, even if I don’t consider it “deviant” behaviour at the time I write. For example, while rummaging through my blog archives, I’ve discovered I once claimed to enjoy The Da Vinci Code, which is far from my current opinion (I guess this my equivalent of “Big Hair”). How we choose to deal with these snapshots of our past selves is an individual matter, although some, including Google’s former CEO Eric Schmidt, have suggested that some youth will change their names to escape the records of their online past. That is rather extreme in my case.
Facebook users also participate in the policing of others, as noted above in the case of fake profiles. In fact, Facebook relies on its users to self-police. No matter how many people it hires to process reports, it cannot possibly have enough people to scour all the posts and profiles created each day. Perhaps most importantly, Westlake notes that despite the community’s own role in policing such profiles, “users continue to create fake profiles, showing a willingness on the part of the Facebook community to play with the rules established by Facebook administrators” (35). However, she also notes that users will receive criticism for having too few or too many friends (36). Thus, although those foreign to Facebook often see it as something outside, something Other, which promotes deviance and exhibitionism, it is clear that there are norms within Facebook, maintained by the self-policing user base, and not following those norms is what earns censure: “Facebook is a forum for the policing and establishing of normative behavior, more than the imagined forum of deviant exhibitionism” (35).
Westlake is very persuasive. Maybe it’s because I am a member of Generation Y, and even if I don’t use Facebook with some of the passion or intensity that my peers do, I like it as a communication tool. Nevertheless, I appreciate that she has taken the time to view the service as a sign of the new present rather than a deviation from the old past. That Facebook is changing our interactions seems undeniable. However, unlike what some claim, I agree with Westlake that “Facebook is not a substitute for social interaction,” and
Generation Y … will take what older generations view as a social disadvantage and create new norms for performances of self, and these norms are likely to be established online as they are in face-to-face interaction. (31)
This seems to be a quieter form of revolution than the type we generally like to ascribe to the Internet. “I’m creating new norms for performances of self” just doesn’t have the same ring as, “Man, I’m rebelling against the Man, man. Down with the establishment!” does. But the Internet doesn’t have to be revolutionary all the time, or consistently loud in its revolutionary quality. Westlake has done what some journalists and scholars seem reluctant to do, which is treat Facebook and other network-related phenomena as something more than a passing fad or an unpleasant deviation from the norms of their society.
In her rejection of this perspective, Westlake is placing herself opposite journalists like Robert J. Samuelson, who calls the Internet “ExhibitioNet” which “has unleashed the greatest outburst of mass exhibitionism in human history” (31). This is reminiscent of our readings of Guy Debord’s ruminations on the spectacle. Do you think that our performances of self are a form of spectacle? If so, what does this say about the way we enforce and police performances according to emergent norms?
For some additional reading, I—well, I don’t have any reading. I do have two podcasts, a video, and an infographic though.
- Episode 67 of Spark has an interview with Paul Taylor, founder of Arcalife, a service that wants to preserve family history including social networking. Would you want family members to keep your Facebook profile around for posterity?
- Westlake also mentions that, “Unlike older people, Generation Y-ers may not understand the purpose of public protest and are not likely to march in the streets to voice their views,” but they do join Facebook groups in force (38). Spark interviewed an internet psychologist who created a fake petition group to see if people were just doing this for the sake of, well, joining petition groups.
- Joel Jacob posted this in one of our weekly discussion forums, but I shall share it again for those classmates who missed it and for my wider audience: “You need to get off Facebook” is a short video that seems to deliver a message opposite to Westlake’s thesis. It’s interesting to note that, unlike most of the opposition Westlake cites, this video is from a member of Generation Y.
- Lastly, Matt McKeon has an interactive infographic that visualizes the history of Facebook’s default privacy settings. Click on the chart to advance through the last five years and see how more and more of your personal data is available by default. If Facebook profiles are truly a performance of the self, it’s worth knowing who the audience is, no?
But wait, I have a bonus question! We often refer to the Internet as liberating or freedom-enhancing, especially for minorities or the oppressed. But is this the case? If Facebook establishes a new standard of normative behaviour through the performative surveillance of its users, does it also create exclusionary practices similar to those created by offline norms? How does this affect non-normative groups?
This is a critical response to David Lyon’s “The World Wide Web of Surveillance: The Internet and off-world power-flows,” published in the Spring 1998 issue of Information, Communication & Society. Those of you lucky enough to have a university account that has access to such things can find it there; those of you following along at home can read the earlier version presented at a Canadian Association for Information Science meeting in 1997.
That was the single most difficult aspect when considering my response to this reading: it was written in 1997. True, that’s only 13 years ago—but the World Wide Web itself is only 20 years old. That is pre-Google, the entity that has, perhaps more than any other Internet-based company, single-handedly changed the way we use the Web—not to mention introduced a suite of privacy and surveillance concerns that weren’t around in 1997. So as a technophile upstart who came to the Web in 2004 and writes in HTML5, I had to keep my reservations regarding the article’s age in check. After all, despite the changes since Lyon wrote this, most of the article is still valid. There are parts that read as outdated, and I’ll point those out when we get there. For now, let’s talk about surveillance.
Like everything else online, online surveillance emerges from a tradition of offline surveillance going back to ancient times. Not all surveillance is necessarily sinister or malign: Lyon uses censuses and population statistics (like birth rate) as examples of surveillance we generally consider acceptable (though if the recent debate around the long-form census shows anything, it’s that “acceptable” is always a matter of subjective degree). In more recent times, against the backdrop of democracy, surveillance is the turf of an eternal tug-of-war between politicians and law enforcement officers and the freedoms of the citizens of the democracy. Too much surveillance infringes on those freedoms, whereas too little surveillance hinders law enforcement and aids criminals. As always, it is a matter of balance.
Lyon looks at some of the initial fears regarding surveillance back when the Internet really was young, citing concerns that we would have an “Orwellian police states and Kafkaesque faceless bureaucratic machines” (93). He notes that time has not borne those fears out exactly (though sometimes I look askance at the photos of signs I see on UK metro stops). Instead, he says that there are “two major debates … concerning surveillance,” the first being the extent to which online surveillance differs qualitatively from offline (paper and bureaucracy) surveillance, the second being the extent to which Foucauldian theories are applicable to online surveillance (94).
If the differences were not as obvious in 1997, I think they are fairly obvious today: the network provides speed and data collation abilities far beyond what analog surveillance could ever achieve. However, it is also decentralized. So instead of having a single entity, like the government or a corporation, spying on the users of the Net, anyone with a computer might be able to spy on anyone else. So do we really have a “panopticon” in Foucault’s sense? For a really detailled look at that question, you might be interested in Mark Winokur’s article, which we read previously this week. In Lyon’s case, the answer is that the panopticon might be part of it, but there is more to the Internet and surveillance as well. Moving beyond the realm of surveillance as a form of discipline, he raises another Foucaldian idea, that of biopower, and proposes that it might fill some of the gaps left by the panoptic consideration of online surveillance.
Citing William Bogard, Lyon delineates a difference between the classical panopticon and what he terms “hyperpanoptics.” The former is “an architecture” that deals “with real time and physical space,” whereas in the digital world, “time is asynchronous and speed of flows is crucial, and … distance and proximity are blurred….” In the classical panopticon, prisoners couldn’t know if they were being watched at all times, but the model was such that they weren’t—that is, there would be one guard in the tower watching some prisoner. Online, however, this model strictly ported would break, because it is possible to watch everyone at once, provided your guard is a sophisticated signals intelligence network like Echelon (not to be confused with the fictional artificial intelligence, the Eschaton). Lyon calls this electronic solution to the limitations of surveillance the “mythical goal” of surveillance (101).
He doesn’t explicitly go on to connect biopower to this, but it seems like Lyon means for biopower to elevate the theories of online surveillance beyond the notion of surveillance-as-discipline. That is, we aren’t just being actively watched or monitored; long-term surveillance collects our data, our patterns and behaviours and habits, and uses that data to build profiles of people and populations. The purpose of such data mining can range from law enforcement to marketing, but it all relates back to biopower, to the focus on human particulars. Facebook, which I’m sure Lyon would have mentioned were it around in 1997, is probably the paradigm case here. We share so much personal information with Facebook, and so it has this massive database of human relationships at its fingertips. It knows who talks to whom, who went to school with whom, who works with whom, etc. Caladan was ruled with sea power, and on Arrakis it was desert power; with the Internet, he or she who has biopower wins the day.
For me, however, the most interesting part of Lyon’s article is how he carefully differentiates between surveillance and privacy. The two terms are not synonymous, and privacy is but one concern related to surveillance. Lyon is careful to point out that surveillance can also cause social division and inequality on a scale beyond individual invasions of privacy. He obviously considers these coextensive, for he laments, “some theorists seem so concerned with the one that they ignore or minimize the significance of the other” (99). I myself must confess that often I focus on invasions of privacy to the exclusion of social inequality, probably because as a white middle-class male, I tend not to experience that inequality directly; I mistakenly view my privileged status as the normative experience across society. So it is good to be reminded of such things.
And once reminded, how can you really forget? Look no farther than the Great Firewall of China. This is a country with more people online than the United States (let alone Canada) has in its entirety. Yet owing to the regime’s control of access to the larger Web, the population receives an experience online that is fundamentally different from what we see in our countries. It is a little mind-boggling.
When it comes to privacy, Facebook offers us plenty of examples, notably Facebook Beacon. Our own privacy commissioner of Canada has reviewed Facebook’s policies and found it wanting. It is important to note that this is not necessarily a sign that Facebook is “being evil,” as privacy issues are complex, and Facebook is as much a newcomer to these waters as we are. Nevertheless, it is clear that corporations stand to gain enormous benefits from the data to which they have access.
I should hope that we all have at least a basic understanding of the privacy implications of surfing the Web, more so than the average user might have had in 1997. Lyon’s article is understandably a product of its time; the Clipper Chip project he mentions was dead on arrival. Historically, the governments‘ attempts to mix secrecy with control over encryption have failed miserably (keeping your cryptography standard classified so it can’t be peer reviewed is just asking for trouble). Keep in mind that this article also predates the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. While the US has not established a One World Encryption, those attacks led to the passing of the USA PATRIOT Act, and our own Anti-terrorism Act here in Canada. In fact, Lakehead University’s Faculty Association actually objected to the university’s use of Gmail as the basis for our new email system, on the grounds that Google would be subject to US privacy laws. So online surveillance has only become more complicated since 1998, not less.
- Of course, I’m going to link you to Spark, because it is seriously one of my favourite programs.
- Interview with Evgeny Morozov on Internet and repression
- Google Street View has been a fairly non-controversial subject here (aside from some naughty WiFi data sniffing), so it might interest you to learn about how Google did Street View in Germany.
- Though not necessarily surveillance per se, Episode 101 talks about workplace Internet filtering, which is related to Lyon’s brief discussion of how workplaces will monitor one’s Internet usage.
- For more on Facebook privacy concerns, I refer you to Rocketboom for May 17, 2010.
- The above video mentions Diaspora, a self-labelled “open alternative to Facebook” that is currently in alpha stage. Is it truly going to resolve the issues around Facebook and online surveillance? (Something about Diaspora that has nothing to do with online surveillance but is really cool is that its “gender” field is a text input. This is slightly controversial owing to issues of data integrity, and I’ll be interested in exploring this when we get to the part of the course that deals with gender and sex online.)
In his conclusion, Lyon says that
until the inequality-reinforcing and personhood-threatening aspects of contemporary surveillance are seen together, and until these dimensions are understood in relation to the virtualizing of surveillance, the real issues of contemporary surveillance will continue to elude us. (103)
This seems like a great starting point for discussion. I happen to agree with Lyon that these two issues (social inequality and invasion of privacy) are related, not disjoint, aspects of online surveillance (feel free to let me know if you think otherwise). If this is the case, how can we see these as a unified issue, and do existing theories (e.g., Foucauldian) allow for this, or do we need something else? Have we made much progress in this since 1997?
Back in December, I mentioned that I got a new phone, my first smartphone. This is the first in a hopefully lengthy series of blog posts chronicling my passionated love affair with my Android phone and how it is changing my behaviour and habits. Previously, in a sort of prelude, I discussed Swype and how I‘m attempting to get used to it as a superior form of text input on a mobile device. Today I’ll cover the basics: email, social networking, and instant messaging.
Being able to read and send emails on the go was my primary reason for getting a smartphone. I do not phone many people, but I do send a lot of email; it’s the primary way I communicate with my dad, when he’s at work, with my profs, and with some of my friends. Although Lakehead is finally beginning to roll out WiFi around the campus, it’s nice to have a phone with a data plan that lets me check my email wherever I want. Plus, I find it makes me slightly more productive.
I have trouble switching off, in that it makes me tempted to check if I have new email every five minutes. That’s why I love push notifications: if I‘ve got new email, my phone will let me know. Otherwise, I can get on with what I’m doing. In particular, my phone is a nice push notification system (as opposed to just having such a notifier on my computer) because I can take it with me. So I can have it sitting on my desk while I‘m working on my computer, or I can be in the living room, outside, or at school.
Also, I love having access to my email on the go. I store a lot of information in my email. I archive and label my correspondence so that when I need to recall something, a label or a quick Google search results in the information I want. So if I need to double-check a room number where my prof said the class was meeting, I don’t need to find a computer now; I can do that from my phone.
Of course, since it’s Android, it comes with a native Gmail app that’s pretty cool. There are some unfortunate limitations—e.g., I‘ve yet to find a way to see the email address of a sender who’s in my contacts, and sending from your non-default email address is problematic at best. Nevertheless, it works well with both my default Gmail account and the my school Google Account, so I won’t complain too much.
You know what’s really cool about having a smartphone? If I want to backup my SMS and call logs, there’s an app for that. All my text messages are automatically saved to my Gmail label, as are my call logs, which are also entered into a calendar on my Google account. I like the calendar integration, since it lets me see at a glance when I’ve made and received calls at any given time during the week or month. And I like being able to save all my correspondence—even SMS.
Twitter and Facebook for Android are pretty much what you might expect. I wouldn’t say I tweet a lot, because my volume varies depending on whether I have anything to say on a particular day. It’s nice to have the option to tweet easily from wherever I am. I could do this using my old phone and a workaround (because I couldn’t just text to Twitter, blah), but that required me to type out a message on an ordinary numeric pad. Now I have a QWERTY keyboard, a Swype QWERTY keyboard, and tweeting is much easier. Plus I can take photos and upload them. It’s this instantaneous connection, the fact that I can do this immediately from wherever I am, that is so awesome. It may not seem much coming from me, because my idea of “going outside” involves walking from my car to the building where my class is at university. But for people in Egypt, Tunisia, and all those other countries experiencing unrest? Twitter, at least until the government blocked it, was a primary means of expressing themselves and communicating using mobile devices.
I‘m not quite as obsessive a Facebook user as some of my friends confess they are, but I do like using Facebook to keep in touch. People send me messages, and once in a while someone writes on my wall. So it’s nice to be able to check Facebook from my phone.
Finally, I can use the eBuddy app to sign into my various instant messaging accounts on my phone. This is really convenient when I want to be away from my computer but still “online.” Right now I usually use it when I‘m in the living room, watching television or playing a video game, and don’t want to drag my laptop in there. I’m already imagining using my phone in the summer when I want to sit outside and read. Indeed, this is only the beginning.