Friday, July 29, 2011

Fear of Sharing (13 Aug 2009)

Sharing once seemed to me a simple, straightforward thing, but the way tech and social media companies have co-opted it recently have made me increasingly suspicious of it. In the usage that is starting to become prevalent, sharing isn't a matter of giving over a portion of a desirable thing to others. Instead it is a code word for what is in fact a mode of online production, for labor that we perform ostensibly for the benefit of friends we explicitly connect ourselves with in networks but ultimately for the benefit of the companies who hold the fruits of our effort on their servers. When we "share" via upload, we aren't sharing at all, we are working to move information and data into digital space where it can be manipulated and harvested for profit.

Facebook's recent acquisition of FriendFeed, a service that turns everything you upload to various sites into a single RSS stream, threatens to make the cant about sharing even worse. In this piece for The Big Money, Chadwick Matlin argues that the acquisition is Facebook's effort to corner the market in "social aggregation" -- that is, to evolve into a kind of Google Reader in which instead of subscribing to blogs, you subscribe to people. Matlin likens the effort to the Huffington Post, which aggregates and filters content to make it all managable, only with FreindFeed and Facebook, your friends will filter what you read, not strangers.

Take the devilishly popular HuffPo, for example. For better or worse, the site's mashup of news from disparate sources has struck a cord among its 7 million monthly visitors. Its homepage is a mix of links to blog posts from HuffPo contributors and links to outside stories from the news media. Rather than hunt and peck through all these other sites, people go to HuffPo to be delivered a smattering of links. Aggregators work because they do all the hard work for you.

So now imagine a social aggregator with the size and sway of Facebook. Users would love it because it would make their lives simpler and more streamlined. The other social media sites stand to gain as well, since Facebook would be pointing more users to content offsite. News sites will get more traffic because people will be clicking through on more links. Facebook, of course, would be the biggest victor: It would be able to get people to check in more often and stay longer. Ad rates can then go up, which helps the company's bottom line.

That seems logical enough. But don't we want actual editors filtering content for us rather than our friends? And also, the FriendFeed would become merely another performative medium, like status updates, only with links and photos and other Tumblr-like flotsam and jetsam. This wouldn't make my life more streamlined -- it would mean I would be inundated with more information to process about my friends' efforts to signal who they want to be. And I would have my own performance to worry about as well.

Because what these sorts of services do -- when we passively reveal what music is playing on our computers, or when we update what book we are reading, or update Twitter of a Facebook status update -- is send the message to the world that it is okay to assume that we are always, always performing. And that is an oppressive, sick feeling, for me anyway. That sort of claustrophobic suffocation precludes the possibility of a true public space, as in not private. Everything that once might have delineated the private is now being compulsively shared or extracted and brought into view. (Even if we close our networks to permit only our "friends", we still must admit the company who polices the border into our circle, and their terms of service give little comfort that they won't abuse the friendship.) I miss the old sharing, spontaneous gifts to specific people, a willingness to show up somewhere and spend time in their company. The new sharing seems only to force me into a narcissistic posture; the new sharing is always on the verge of boasting.

But obviously not everyone is so troubled by the new sharing. Otherwise "real-time search" -- search Twitter for up-to-the-minute information about something happening in the moment -- wouldn't work at all. I had my first experience with real-time search last weekend, when the Netflix Watch Instantly service wasn't working and I wanted to know if the whole system was down, or if it was something about my computer or account that was messed up. It occurred to me to search Twitter, which quickly revealed that it was the system. I was momentarily delighted by the ingenuity of this and was grateful that other people bothered to update this mundane stuff, share it, but then I felt guilty about not doing likewise. I couldn't imagine making it my responsibility, of making the leap to believing that everything I am experiencing is relevant to the world. I don't accept that I have an infinite responsibility to share potentially useful information with other people. Would Levinas chastise me?

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