(This essay was published at Inside Higher Ed on February 18, 2008, before I became a regular there. While it’s still online, it’s a bit hard to locate because it was accidentally attributed to a different author.)
My corner of the Internet has been abuzz over a muckraking article that recently appeared in The Guardian on the subject of Facebook. Tom Hodgkinson, the highly principled slacker behind The Idler and author of How to Be Free, makes some familiar complaints: online friends are a pale imitation of face-to-face relationships, Facebook encourages high-schoolish obsession with popularity, it prompts its members to reveal too much about themselves, and it uses that information for commercial gain. But the article goes further. Facebook is not just an American-owned company with global ambitions. According to Hodgkinson, it’s highly influenced by a “neocon activist” board member and funded by a venture capital firm that has ties to the CIA. Their ultimate aim: “an arid global virtual republic, where your own self and your relationships with your friends are converted into commodities on sale to giant global brands.”
Ironically, The Guardian helpfully provides a “share” link so you can send the article to all of your Facebook friends.
One of the most interesting responses to this article bubbled up on A-Librarians, a forum for anarchist and radical librarians. (Yes, I am, in case you’re wondering. And “anarchist librarian” is not an oxymoron. Look it up.) While other lists were debating whether the article’s claims were credible, or whether Facebook is valuable regardless, the members of this list were getting down to philosophical basics. Why does the concept of property so thoroughly infuse our understanding of rights? Are our conceptions of privacy dependent on owning one’s individual “self”? If we own our identity, is our public persona a form of intellectual property, as a trademark is?
I don’t know the answers to those questions, which relate not only to Facebook, but the debates over Google’s project to digitize great university library collections, and the fights over access to journal articles written by professors whose institutions can’t afford to gain access to them. But as a librarian who is in favor of sharing ideas freely, these debates made me rethink the fundamental relationship between the individual’s desire to share their thoughts and experiences with others and the commercial entities that provide the distribution channel for that act of sharing. It seems to me the crux of the problem is that the profit motive influences both sides of the equation – differently.
Corporations like Google and Facebook are worth a lot of money, which is a bit odd. They don’t create their content, and what’s there, they give away for free. They mediate the space where we go to express ourselves, and where find out what others think. Sure, we have to put up with a bit of advertising, but that’s just a minor irritant for something that’s free.
But there is a cost.
These corporations provide us with a space to play, engage with others, and make connections. We get to build our own identities in a public way. In return, we give them (perhaps without realizing it) a panopticon view of our lives, a chance to gather data on what we think, do, read, say, enjoy, and with whom we associate — our “communities of interest” in the parlance of the FBI, or “friends” in Facebook’s lexicon. It’s exceedingly valuable information because it can be sold to companies who want to follow trends and focus their advertising dollars on just those individuals most likely to respond. The more people involved, the more valuable the data.
Facebook embarrassed itself last fall by overestimating our enthusiasm for this exhibitionist social contract. They launched Beacon, a service that would send information about one’s online purchases to a Facebook member’s friends unless an obscure “opt out” box was checked quickly before it disappeared from sight. Their assumption was that everyone would enjoy sharing their shopping lists as much as their playlists — your friend Mike just bought Hanes underwear and thinks you might want to buy some, too! — but that idea hit an invisible barrier of resistance. Whoa, that’s going too far! We got cold feet when the commercial consequences of our sharing was made visible. The outcry, ironically mobilized through Facebook itself, forced them to back off.
But on the whole, the public is content to go along. Just give me a place to express myself to the world, and you can do … whatever it is you do.
People trust these playful-seeming corporations to not do evil far more than they trust their government. In 2007, an ACLU poll found a majority of the public opposed warrantless wiretapping. Earlier, tens of thousands of people signed petitions opposing the government’s ability to track what they were checking out of libraries or buying at bookstores.
Libraries have always taken privacy seriously – not because it’s valuable in itself, but because it’s a necessary condition for the freedom to read whatever you want without risk of penalty. When the PATRIOT Act was passed, librarians checked to make sure their databases erased the connection between a book and its borrower as soon as the book was returned. That erasure, however, makes it harder to offer the kind of personalization, such as recommendations based on previous book choices, that the public increasingly expects from online systems. After all, it’s what they get from Amazon.
Suspicion of the government does not extend to corporations running the Web 2.0 playground. Those guys just seem so … nice. And after all, if they give us the tools to tell people we read a good novel or like a particular band, why not let the company make a little money from it?
The complexities of private/public digital tradeoffs have been debated in many different contexts. Siva Vaidhyanathan has questioned why libraries, a public good, should partner with Google, a private corporation, to digitize their contents; aren’t we concerned that Google will control the most complete library in the world? Others defend the practice because – well, without Google’s deep pockets, it simply wouldn’t happen on so vast a scale. Besides, the books go right back on the library’s shelf once digitized. What’s the harm in sharing?
Let’s set aside the contentious copyright issue for the moment and concentrate on why Google is providing “free” resources. Unlike libraries, Google gets content for free, gives it away for free, and makes its money by being an enormous distribution channel for everything from physics research to 19th century scanned books to the latest YouTube video. By watching the traffic through those channels, they are able to provide highly-specific information on who’s interested in what. The more we use Google, the more information they accrue about what we’re using, and the more valuable that mountain of information becomes.
And, let’s face it: we have selfish motives, too. Social networking blurs self-expression and self-promotion. The idea of property and its exchange has so infiltrated our culture as a defining concept that many people do, in fact, think of their public persona as their brand. It’s important to “be out there.” Their lives grow more valuable as more people recognize and acknowledge their ideas, their tastes, and their interests.
This isn’t just a youthful obsession. Facebook has recently opened its service to everyone, regardless of school or college affiliation. A novelist I know was just advised by her agent to set up a Facebook profile to increase her online presence and engage in “relationship marketing” with potential customers. In other words, she’s expected to act as her own sock puppet so she can sell more books. Make friends and influence people.
Here’s the interesting paradox: The only way to increase the intellectual property value of your identity is to give it away. That’s the only way it can be shared, linked to and recognized by others. Trading a little personal information for a public platform, whether for personal expression or self-promotion (or both), seems a fair exchange.
Does this sound eerily familiar? It should.
As scholars, our ideas gain value as we make them public, and we have been historically myopic about the consequences of trading the rights to our ideas for access to distribution channels. This unexamined practice put us all over a barrel when publishers required the academy to ransom those ideas back through prohibitively expensive journal subscriptions for libraries. The personal advancement attached to making our ideas public only added to the problem; more publications translated into higher prestige. There was just too much stuff for libraries to buy back, and not enough budget. The Open Access movement is on track to significantly change the “terms of service” when it comes to scholarly communication. Though the battle’s far from over, we’ve made real progress.
But we’ve barely begun to examine the unintended consequences of the Faustian bargain we strike when we share content through privately-owned digital domains of the public sphere.
Tom Hodgkinson says we have a choice: we can help Facebook’s right-wing investors make a lot of money, or we can simply opt out of “this takeover bid for the world.”
But hold on – it’s our world. And we didn’t approach the problems of scholarly communication by ceasing to publish. We started by educating the community about the consequences and renegotiating the terms of our relationship with publishers.
Scholarly work isn’t the only form of communication worth fighting for. The privately owned digital public sphere is a fertile if febrile commons where millions of people play out their identities and share ideas. The bargains we used to routinely accede to in order to get our research published were easy to ignore because we personally benefitted from them. In fact, we didn’t read the fine print, and we didn’t anticipate the consequences. Something very similar is going on in social networking.
Scholars and librarians champion the value of free and open exchange of ideas for the public good. It’s time to take those values beyond the academy. If we made an effort to help the public understand the tradeoffs we make to be part of the digital social sphere, maybe we’d all think more critically about how our public identities are formed and exploited – for what they are worth.