As I continue to head toward the full de-activation of one online account, I find myself suddenly having to ‘defend’ my use of another. With recent changes to its privacy policies, Google has somehow begun to flirt with ‘evil’, according to numerous online onlookers.
This post isn’t intended to praise everything Google does. Rather, I want to share some of the thinking that’s gone into (and continues to inform) my decisions with respect to social networking platforms. Privacy is, indeed, one of my major concerns. And I still think Google is the safer bet in the long run.
For starters, this isn’t an either/or game: many of us continue to use multiple networking platforms for a variety of reasons. I like the simplicity and perceived ephemerality of Twitter, for example. I find it a useful addition to the set of tools at my disposal for communicating with friends, family and colleagues.
My reaction to a late-night movie hardly merits an extended essay, nor do I care to present such thoughts in a way that might ‘actively encourage’ feedback. If you reply to me on Twitter, it’s because you choose to engage in a short back-and-forth. Simply ‘Liking’ or “+1ing’ has a different connotation in my mind.
The stakes get a little higher when we consider a service like Google+ to be ‘competition’ for Facebook. Many Facebook users took a quick look at Google+, didn’t see any real advantages, and stayed with the site that has now become familiar. This is a perfectly valid reaction: many of these same people took a look at Twitter, saw something different, and opted to use both.
As both Google+ and Facebook continue to evolve, however, a closer comparison shows a growing gap between two visions of the Internet. Simply put, I don’t really like the Facebook version, as it doesn’t match my own experiences and interests.
For starters… Algorithms don’t write stories.
This started as a nagging irritant with the launch of Facebook’s “Timeline” model, but I think I can now put my finger on the bigger issue that bothers me.
Both Google and Facebook provide services because they want to find creative (yet sustainable) sources of revenue. Simple as that. Anyone who gets angry at the advertisements on Google is delusional beyond all belief. Google doesn’t run on pixie dust and warm wishes. The company builds massive server farms, powered by a tremendous amount of (mostly ‘dirty’) energy. It employs extraordinarily bright minds to design and maintain cutting edge services for users/customers all over the world. So yeah… if you see a banner for American Apparel, stop taking it so personally. They need to pay the bills, and they probably assumed from your search history that you love skinny jeans.
In order to build and secure these revenue sources, Google and Facebook have to find value in their most important resource: information that WE provide every day at no direct cost. Every time you use Google as a search engine, or post a link on Facebook, you are providing these companies with ‘data’. If they can find a way to use this data in a profitable way, they will do so.
It’s here that I find an important distinction between two seemingly similar services.
Facebook seems to believe that there is great ‘meaning’ in this endless data stream. It therefore treats algorithms as a kind of meaning-making device, finding patterns and narrative threads where they might not exist.
Take the last song that you posted to a social media site. Now add a song that you posted one year ago. Repeat this process as far back as possible. Put them all together and you have a playlist, right?
But here’s the question: is it YOUR playlist, or is it Facebook’s playlist?
I’m not even quibbling over copyright and ownership concerns. I’m actually interested in authorship and ‘meaning’. If I assemble a playlist, I make any number of choices for any number of reasons. My mix tape might have some deeper meaning (“I’m 17 and incapable of expressing emotion in any real way”), or maybe I just gathered together 10 songs that I really think you might like. There is some kind of ‘meaning’ to the playlist, because I created it for you. Even if I’d just picked the first track off of the first 10 albums that I found on my shelf, the curatorial decision was still MINE, and reflects something about ME.
Algorithms generated by large companies don’t create meaning. Simply tossing together all of the songs that I posted online in the past 6 months doesn’t ‘add up’ to anything significant. The decision to include material has nothing to do with me.
There’s nothing particularly interesting in seeing a large company assemble artifacts from your life in some kind of order. The sum total of information very rarely yields deeper meaning.
Try this little exercise: For the next 12 months, save every receipt from the grocery store. Every time you buy food, keep a record of what you bought. At the end of the year, place all of these receipts into a scrapbook, and give it to your friend. Tell them it is ‘the story of your year’. Watch the look on their face as they flip through this nonsensical mess of misguided intent…
Algorithms alone don’t tell stories. Facebook is a great place to post updates and links, and maybe that’s ALL it needs to do. This desperate attempt to make the site something ‘bigger’ just baffles me. It’s like those companies that will collect all of your Tweets and print them in a book. Who on earth wants to read that all at once?
With Google, you might think that the use of data-mining algorithms is somehow more cynical: given enough information about your online browsing habits, they can target ads more specifically to you. Ads! Capitalism! Marketing! EVIL!
But you know what? That’s actually more USEFUL to me.
Let’s say I meet some folks around Vancouver who share a random interest with me – the baritone ukulele, for example. These fellow uke-enthusiasts use Google to search the web, and they use Gmail for day-to-day communication.
I set up a Circle on Google+ for my Uke Friends. We can chat in real time, or send messages to the group, or post links to one another.
A year later, You, as a friend of mine but an outsider to this cult, decide to pick up a ukulele. When you go to search Google for tips on how to play the thing (too embarrassed to talk to me, because you’re ashamed of yourself), would it NOT be useful to choose between two sets of results: the standard Google-ranked results, or the ‘Social’ results, which would prioritize any links that I have shared with my uke Circle? It’s a simple toggle when you see your results: Regular, or Social? No extra add-ons or apps needed.
To many, this is somehow an egregious abuse of privacy, and the death of the Internet. To me, this is simply added functionality to a resource (Google’s search engine) that most of us use on a daily basis. I might not THINK that what I’m doing in a particular moment is ‘social networking’ – I just want to know more about a silly instrument I bought on a whim. But if one of my friends used to have a great interest in the ukulele, and has shared links with others to see, Google is actually being HELPFUL in retrieving this information for me. (‘Hey! Looks like you’re learning to play the ukulele… one of your friends once posted 3 links about this topic. Want to see those links?’)
In the Facebook universe, I imagine a totally different experience:
Hey! It looks like you’re learning to play the Ukulele! Click here to install the Social Uke Player App, so you can share your uke information with friends! The Standard version is free, but we’ll pester the everloving hell out of you every day until you upgrade to the Premium Social Uke Player App – now only $5.99!
Facebook and similar sites continue to break the Internet itself, by segregating information into tiny little app-fiefdoms. Want to read news? Add a different social reader app for each newspaper. Want to listen to music? Add a social music app so your friends can know how shitty your tastes are. Want to share photographs? Add several different apps that de-saturate colour and add a cute Polaroid-style frame. Love gambling? Just you wait until Facebook is allowed to offer legal gambling apps! (They’re working on it, folks…)
It’s not the individual apps that bother me… it’s the idea that our entire web experience should be conducted through apps in the first place.
I want to choose my own damn web browser, and visit any damn site I want to. I want to listen to music on my own terms. Trust me: I will share a whole lot of this information with my friends. The easier to use that a networking site becomes, the more kinds of information I will share. The more steps you add (logging in to various apps, for example), the less likely I am to share at all.
If a large company wants to keep track of this activity and look for patterns that could be profitable to them, I guess I’m fairly complicit in that. If that company finds ways to make my daily experience of the web EASIER, I will thank them by continuing to use their services. If a company insists on adding more steps between me and web content, they can go die in a fire.
As a final note, I’d like to address the ‘privacy’ question. (Many thanks to Prairie Hippo for patiently explaining many key ideas to me… if I get them wrong, it’s because I’m stupid. He probably explained it right, and I just didn’t understand.)
Open a browser. Log in to either Google or Facebook. Now… open another tab in that browser, and browse a semi-smutty website. There’s a chance that you just added to someone’s data profile of you. ‘Mr. Rennie has an email account with us, he searches for ‘Vancouver Restaurants & Delivery’ once a month, and he also looks at semi-smutty websites’…
If you don’t think about how the web works, you aren’t thinking about your privacy. Two solutions seem evident:
1) Create multiple online identities. Log in to social networking sites as your ‘professional’ self, and conduct yourself accordingly online. Later, log out of everything, then log back in as your ‘after hours’ self, and go to town. I would recommend owning two computers, and using different web browsers on each.
2) Recognize that just about everything you do online might end up in some kind of data profile, and own up to it. I work in academia, and I teach. I have a blog and a Twitter account with my name on them. And guess what: I use words like ‘goddam’ and ‘shitty’. I do so in real life, too. Rather than sanitize my entire online presence, I’ve opted to take ownership of how I act online. I realize that there may be consequences to this, but I’d rather be open about this than try to hide behind semi-anonymous accounts that will STILL be traced back to me at some point.
I recognize that taking the second option is a great luxury, and that many around the world don’t get to make such a choice. There are many, many reasons why you would have to navigate the web through multiple identities.
But when Google notices that you visited a particular website WHILE YOU ARE LOGGED INTO GMAIL, don’t act like the secret police are putting cameras in your bathroom.
The long and the short of it… In the course of my normal online activity, I generate an awful lot of ‘information’ about myself. Some of it I actively choose to share with others, some of it is simply the inevitable footprint of communicating, reading, shopping, gaming, etc. Rather than using one site (Facebook) to do most of this, I’d like to be free to browse and share on my own terms as much as possible. Google lets me send email, it lets me chat by text or voice, it lets me post links to things I like, and it is still my preferred search engine. In the course of an ordinary day, it will show me a few ads that it thinks I might like. It’s almost never right, but at least it doesn’t get in my way at every goddam step the way Facebook does.
Very soon, I will de-activate my Facebook page.
I still have a Twitter account. And this blog. And multiple email addresses. And a Google+ account.
And a phone number. And a phone that can send and receive text messages.
And a mailing address.
And a physical body that moves around Vancouver a lot.
Many, many ways to get a hold of me. And I promise I’ll never make you install a ‘Jamie app’.