Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Facebook Eye, Twitter, and Social Media Addiction: Thoughts on Jacob Silverman's Terms of Service

Jacob Silverman's book Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection made me radically rethink my participation with Blogger and Twitter. I've despised Facebook for years, perhaps in direct proportion to how much my wife, Dr. B loves it. In comparison to the relatively instructive world of film blogging, Facebook kept reminding me of a party that I didn't want to join (even as I might be real-life friends with some of the "friends" otherwise), full of distasteful agendas and opinions, family pictures I didn't want to see, and alarming efforts at self-promotion. Worst of all was being privy to the sad developments in old acquaintances who keep posting cheesy homilies that betrayed all kinds of despair. Facebook comes across as a semiotic wasteland for people seeking importance in increasingly hopeless and disturbing ways.

Still, in the same dubious vein, I have a weakness for writing blog posts and composing link lists. I value writing, and it's a way to get a small readership for something like the kind of newspaper work that I used to do (which paid me a little). As an instructor, I'm often busy during the regular semester, but the summer hiatus gives me much time to brood on precisely who am I stupidly writing for and why. Silverman's book clearly lays out how social media platforms exploit our desire to interact on them, our "informational appetite," and our desire for attention. Silverman explores the drawbacks of getting psychologically caught up in the Pavlovian mini-rewards (all of those likes, retweets, favorites, etc. that we seek) as we try to rise in the media hierarchy of whatever platform we happen to indulge in.

Speaking as a tweeter who has over 3000 followers at the moment, I am not proud of the amount of time I have spent on Twitter for the past 6 years, posting over 17,000 tweets, many of which do link to the worthy work of writers and filmmakers. After reading Terms of Service, I'm seriously considering deactivating my account, especially given the condescending way Twitter now forces me to see a "promoted" ad tweet for every 10 regular tweets on my feed. Silverman gets one to consider why one might spend so much time on a social network, what kind of ant heap one finds oneself trying to climb on top of, and how the entire system is rigged. As he phrases it in his introduction, "Mostly, we're only surrendering ourselves, in the form of data and personal autonomy, to oligarchic platform owners, who sell us to advertisers, data brokers, and intelligence agencies" (x).

Some of Silverman's key points:

a) When we feel like we are playing around on a network, we are actually working, providing content for others to capitalize on.

b) Soon enough, our machines will know us well enough to suggest what we want to purchase next. Thus, what was once a tool will become increasingly and subtly prescriptive.

c) People seek to make a viral video, and thereby become famous (of a sort), but usually these videos end up leaving its participants subject to mass mockery and trolling. The trade off in media attention is not worth it.

d) Social media keeps trying to redefine privacy so that people willingly share most details of their private lives so that the platform owners can profit. You develop the "Facebook eye," where the recording of the life event is more important to you than the event itself. You learn to experience the world in order to publicize aspects of it. Your appreciation of a given moment becomes corrupted to provide content to enhance your ever-slipping identity on the social network. Social media keeps redefining your relationship to your experience (and other people) in all kinds of insidious ways.

e) The desire for attention changes journalism and other forms of media so that clickbait becomes an near-universal condition of postmodern life. I wonder how much people shape their identities to become a human form of clickbait. One also wonders how much attention people sacrifice for their phones (and by extension social media) at the expense of more human interactions. Noah Baumbach's excellent While We're Young betrays the distinct sense that the director was concerned with having his movie keep the attention of an increasingly distracted audience. For instance, in one scene, Ben Stiller's character unsuccessfully makes a pitch for a movie to an executive who can't stop himself from glancing at and then plunging back into interacting with his smartphone.

f) Likes, favorites, hearts and such guide the digital serfs to live in a world of pseudo-positive marketing for others. Disliking is divisive and does not suit the social media agenda. Social media encourages us to live in a consumerist paradise, always quick to point out to advertisers behind the scenes what kind of products we might want to buy in the future.

Meanwhile, Dr. B and I argued about all this (politely enough) over lunch just now. She says that she likes Facebook (with her 800 plus friends) because she enjoys keeping up with old friends and acquaintances. She gets much of her news from the service. In comparison to some, she does not post all that often, but when she does, she gets many likes and comments. And she doesn't mind liking other people's posts. When she pointed out that she was going back to Facebook after lunch before returning to a book on the iPad, I said "Aha! You must admit that that's addictive behavior, and you easily spend more than an hour a day, sometimes several hours a day on the network." To that, she replied, "You are always getting caught up in somebody's theories in some book. Have an original thought."  Then, she returned to her Facebook feed.