Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Mandatory Social Networking (30 April 2010)

Is this true: Not having a Facebook page or an active Twitter account proves you have something to hide? Apparently having a social-network presence is a necessity not for personal reasons of keeping in touch and "sharing", but for institutional purposes of identity verification -- you need to simulate an active online social life of sharing to convince others to believe you are what you claim to be.

Thanks, everybody, for making confessing everything on Facebook seem so normal. Despite "connecting" us more securely with others online, social networking has made our real-life, non-online identities more insecure than ever. With a new tool to investigate what we don't immediately disclose up front, there is less reason for anyone to take us at face value. I guess people just Google us while nodding along and ignoring what we say. This long excursus at n+1 makes a similar point about targeted ads pinpointing our place on what Facebook calls the social graph: "Today we Google ourselves to see what the world knows about us; tomorrow we’ll just watch the ads." And to take the idea to its logical conclusion: we will eventually Google ourselves to find out who we are.

It figures that the online identity supplants the real-life presence, because it is more amenable to how we are used to getting our information these days -- as indexable, searchable data. We may be more comfortable dealing with one another's profiles than with one another. It is certainly more convenient and requires less of our precious attention. Obviously this ties in with my complaints about the "data-driven self" yesterday, but this has long seemed the thrust of social networking as a business. These companies want to become the intermediaries of friendship and ultimately replace unmediated interactions between people. In other words, they intend to make friendship more convenient, to automate it and make it so that we seem to conduct it on our terms rather than on reciprocal ones. (Though really it is on the terms of those who want to put the data about our social relations to various uses -- be they commercial or juridical.) Soon we will be totally isolated, cocooned in data, altogether indifferent to any forms of reciprocity that can't be measured and adjudicated and put to work in networks. Instead we will only know attention-oriented quid pro quos. Not that we will mind -- the incoming stream of data will make us feel more "connected" than ever, with "connection" replacing "warmth" in the future of intimacy.

Making a social-network presence mandatory for a person to be credible is a necessary first step toward the goal of perfecting social isolation for commercial expediency: If institutions demand we be on Facebook and track our usage on it to ascertain whether it is "normal" (and that we can be trusted), we are well on our way to the dystopia. Facebook and its social graphs becomes the Stasi infrastructure for the "free" world.

This terrifying post at O'Reilly Radar by Alistair Croll about job screening through social networks gives a glimpse of the future: it makes the point that opting out of having an online profile on Facebook, etc., is likely to make a person seem inherently suspicious to employers, the state, juries, etc. If one presents an identity without Facebook substantiation, employers and other verifiers (i.e. the contractors/skip tracers/private-investigation firms that employers and the state hire to do background checks) must presume it is fake. (I really, really hope I am old enough to be exempt from this presupposition.)

Peer-reviewed identity in the era of open social graphs is a game changer. Consider, for example, the work involved in creating a false identity today: Photoshopping childhood pictures, friending complete strangers, maintaining multiple distinct Twitter feeds, and checking in from several cities. It's enough to make Bond retire.

The implicit idea is that everyone should have a Facebook presence that is internally consistent with itself and reveals no dangerous tendencies. The absence of such a presence -- now that it is considered normal to have one -- could signal to employers a potential risk. Croll notes that "If employers rely on social networks, they may be creating processes that disadvantage the part of the population that isn't using social media." So failing to confess everything in advance to Facebook may cause everyone to wonder what you are hiding. Privacy becomes a reason for suspicion.
in a recorded, shared world, the absence of records may be enough to sway a jury reared on Facebook or to throw suspicion on someone. In the court of public opinion, we're increasingly expected to live our lives in public, and being too private is a slippery slope toward an admission of guilt.
How is this not like East Germany? I feel as though I'd better start working on my Potemkin profile. Yes, of course I love the flag! Apple pie! The local sports team! Please enjoy these photos of my college-educated, middle-class friends and my healthy, white family. I love to share!

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