Leaving Facebook: You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide

I first quit Facebook in 2010, in response to a talk Eben Moglen gave at NYU about Facebook’s privacy-destroying ways; one of his most memorable lines was:

The East German Stasi used to have to deploy a fleet of undercover agents and wiretaps to find out what people did, who they met, what they ate, which books they read; now we just have a bunch of Like buttons and people tell a data monetizing corporation the same information for free.

That talk–in which Moglen referred to Mark Zuckerberg as a ‘thug’–also inspired a couple of young folk, then in attendance, to start Diaspora, an alternative social network in which users would own their data. I signed up for Diaspora soon after kicked off; I also signed up for Google+. I returned to Facebook in 2012, a few months after starting my blog, because it was the only way I could see to distribute my posts. Diaspora and Google+ never ‘took off’; a certain kind of ‘first-mover status, and its associated network effects had made sure there was little social networking on those alternative platforms.

Since then, I’ve stayed on Facebook, sharing photos, bragging about my daughter and my various published writings, and so on. I use the word ‘bragging’ advisedly; no matter how much you dress it up, that’s what I’ve been doing. But it has been a horrible experience in many ways: distraction, lowered self-esteem, envy, have been but its most prominent residues. Moreover, to have substantive discussions  on Facebook, you must write. A lot. I’d rather write somewhere else, like here, or work on my books and essays. So, I desperately want to leave, to work on my writing. But, ironically, as a writer, I feel I have to stay on. Folks who have already accomplished a great deal offline, can afford to stay off; those of us struggling to make a mark, to be noticed, have to stay here. (Consider that literary agents now want non-fiction writers to demonstrate that they have a ‘social media presence’; that they have a flourishing Facebook and Twitter presence, which will make the marketing of their writings easier.) I know, I know; as a writer, I should work on my craft, produce my work, and not worry about anything else. I know the wisdom of that claim and reconciling it to the practical demands of this life is an ongoing challenge.

So, let’s say, ‘we,’ the user ‘community’ on Facebook decide to leave; and we find an alternative social network platform. I’m afraid little will have changed unless the rest of the world also changes; the one in which data is monetized for profit, coupled with a social and moral and economic principle that places all values subservient to the making of profit. The problem isn’t Facebook. We could migrate to another platform; sure. They need to survive in this world, the one run by capital and cash; right. So they need to monetize data; ours. They will. Money has commodified all relationships; including the ones with social network platforms. So long as data is monetizable, we will face the ‘Facebook problem.’

Report On Brooklyn College Teach-In On ‘Web Surveillance And Security’

Yesterday, as part of ‘The Brooklyn College Teach-In & Workshop Series on Resistance to the Trump Agenda,’ I facilitated a teach-in on the topic of ‘web surveillance and security.’ During my session I made note of some of the technical and legal issues that are play in these domains, and how technology and law have conspired to ensure that: a) we live in a regime of constant, pervasive surveillance; b) current legal protections–including the disastrous ‘third-party doctrine‘ and the rubber-stamping of governmental surveillance ‘requests’ by FISA courts–are simply inadequate to safeguard our informational and decisional privacy; c) there is no daylight between the government and large corporations in their use and abuse of our personal information. (I also pointed my audience to James Grimmelmann‘s excellent series of posts on protecting digital privacy, which began the day after Donald Trump was elected and continued right up to inauguration. In that post, Grimmelmann links to ‘self-defense’ resources provided by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Ars Technica.)

I began my talk by describing how the level of surveillance desired by secret police organizations of the past–like the East German Stasi, for instance–was now available to the NSA, CIA, and FBI, because of social networking systems; our voluntary provision of every detail of our lives to these systems is a spook’s delight. For instance, the photographs we upload to Facebook will, eventually, make their way into the gigantic corpus of learning data used by law enforcement agencies’ facial recognition software.

During the ensuing discussion I remarked that traditional activism directed at increasing privacy protections–or the enacting of ‘self-defense’ measures–should be part of a broader strategy aimed at reversing the so-called ‘asymmetric panopticon‘: citizens need to demand ‘surveillance’ in the other direction, back at government and corporations. For the former, this would mean pushing back against the current classification craze, which sees an increasing number of documents marked ‘Secret’ ‘Top Secret’ or some other risible security level–and which results in absurd sentences being levied on those who, like Chelsea Manning, violate such constraints; for the latter, this entails demanding that corporations offer greater transparency about their data collection, usage, and analysis–and are not able to easily rely on the protection of trade secret law in claiming that these techniques are ‘proprietary.’ This ‘push back,’ of course, relies on changing the nature of the discourse surrounding governmental and corporate secrecy, which is all too often able to offer facile arguments that link secrecy and security or secrecy and business strategy. In many ways, this might be the  most onerous challenge of all; all too many citizens are still persuaded by the ludicrous ‘if you’ve done nothing illegal you’ve got nothing to hide’ and ‘knowing everything about you is essential for us to keep you safe (or sell you goods’ arguments.

Note: After I finished my talk and returned to my office, I received an email from one of the attendees who wrote:


My First Phone Number

I grew up–till the age of eleven–without a telephone in my household. A phone line was a rarity–expensive, hard to obtain with a long waiting line–even for the Indian middle-class, and in any case my family lived for the most part on air force stations. But even when we lived in the city, we made do without a phone. If you wanted to talk to someone, you visited them. Without calling. Sometimes they were at home, sometimes they weren’t. It was an acceptable uncertainty of sorts. If you just had to make a phone call–on the occasion of an emergency for instance–you relied on a neighbor’s generosity to share their phone line with you.  A phone was a big deal; only the select few had one.

Shortly after my father retired from the air force and started a small business, he ‘applied’ for a phone line (these applications were processed by the governmental telecommunications authority, which ‘awarded’ lines on the basis of need); his application specified that the phone would be a necessary accessory to his business, thus hopefully placing it higher in the prioritized queue of potential owners. News of the success of this application–a few months later–was greeted with some incredulity at home; was it really going to be the case that we were going to have that magical instrument at home, one that would let us simply pick up the receiver, dial a few numbers, and talk to friends and family?

Apparently so. Soon enough, a technician showed up to install our phone; cables were run along walls, a phone jack mysteriously appeared, and then, incredibly enough, a phone set itself, complete with black handset–the kind I had seen people cradling up against their ears–and a rotary dial. The moment of truth was here. Our family, our household, would now have a new address, a new association: our phone number.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, I still remember it: 61-69-42. I break it up that way because that’s how I remembered it: Six One, Six Nine, Four Two. My mother was the first user of the phone; she called her mother to let her know the news. My father went next, calling an old friend. My brother and I had no one to call; we had never bothered to ask anyone’s phone numbers at school. We didn’t call our friends; why did we need their numbers? Indeed, I did not even know who among my friends owned a phone.

But the next day at school, I came to know who did. I told my classmates I had a new phone number, proudly rattling off its magical digits–there had been no need for me to write them down, they were instantly memorable–even as I asked for theirs and encouraged them to call me. Some did; conversations on the phone–some of which ran over an hour–now suddenly emerged as a magical new form of interaction with folks I had previously only known in the flesh.

Some thirty-eight years later, I hardly ever talk on the phone. Email and text messages rule the roost; when I do talk on the phone, I’m a model of efficiency. A quick exchange of information, and I’m done. Just like the phone displaced older forms of communication, it has been impolitely shoved aside by newer ones. No one’s grieving; we’re too busy being socially networked.

Nietzsche On The Interpersonal Dynamics Of Social Networks

This afternoon, I sat down to read through the portions of HumanAll Too Human (Section VI – ‘Man in Society’ or ‘In Relations with Others’) that I had assigned to my Social Philosophy class, and once again, was struck by how acute and perspicuous so many of its aphorisms are–especially when it comes to anticipating the awkwardness and gaucherie and pretensions of our online social networks.

For instance, on the business of avatars, Nietzsche offers the following:

294 Copies. Not infrequently, one encounters copies of important people; and, as with paintings, most people prefer the copy to the original.

On the burdens of the kind of ‘friendships’ that are now increasingly common on social media:

296 Lack of intimacy. Lack of intimacy among friends is a mistake that cannot be censured without becoming irreparable.

On the kinds of knowledge and posturing that social networks encourage and facilitate:

302 Preference for certain virtues. We lay no special value on the possession of a virtue until we perceive its complete absence in our opponent.

305 Balance of friendship. Sometimes in our relationship to another person, the right balance of friendship is restored when we put a few grains of injustice on our own side of the scale.

On the ways and manner in which we express ourselves in meeting spaces online:

303 Why one contradicts. We often contradict an opinion, while actually it is only the tone with which it was advanced that we find disagreeable.

307 When paradoxes are appropriate. At times, one can win clever people over to a principle merely by presenting it in the form of an outrageous paradox.

On kinds of humble bragging:

313  Vanity of the tongue. Whether a man hides his bad qualities and vices or confesses them openly, his vanity wants to gain an advantage by it in both cases: just note how subtly he distinguishes between those he will hide his bad qualities from and those he will face honestly and candidly.

On being embroiled in pointless disputation and flame wars:

315 Required for debate. Whoever does not know how to put his thoughts on ice should not engage in the heat of argument.

317 Motive for attack. We attack not only to hurt a person, to conquer him, but also, perhaps, simply to become aware of our own strength.

326 Silence. For both parties, the most disagreeable way of responding to a polemic is to be angry and keep silent: for the aggressor usually takes the silence as a sign of disdain.

On the provision of a performance space by social networks:

325 Presence of witnesses. One is twice as happy to dive after a man who has fallen into the water if people are present who do not dare to.

And its associated lack of privacy:

327 The friend’s secret. There will be but few people who, when at a loss for topics of conversation, will not reveal the more secret affairs of their friends.

We should not be too surprised; we import, into our online meeting spaces, the dynamics of ‘offline’ interactions that have always been visible to the acute observer of the social scene. As Nietzsche undoubtedly was.

Are There No Ethically Uncompromised Lunches In The Universe?

Once upon a time a farmer told his neighbors that they could use his land for ‘free’–as a kind of community recreational space. His neighbors were told they could set up little stalls. where they could play music, show off their handicrafts, display family photo albums, and of course, walk over to their friends’ spaces and chat with them. A large sign in small print that hung outside the entrance to the field informed the farmer’s neighbors how they should behave when they were on the premises. Most families stopped briefly to read the sign but intimidated by the number of the words on the sign, and the twisted prose, which appeared to have been composed by committee, they moved on, trusting their neighbor to do well by them.

The community meeting and recreational space soon bloomed; the number of stalls grew rapidly. The local residents got to know each other much better and many enjoyed the opportunity to inspect the personal details of their neighbors’ homes and lives. Indeed, a visit to the ‘meeting space’ became an integral part of most people’s routines; stop in for a bit, ‘check in,’ say hi to a few folk, show off your new baby, brag about your car, your vacation, and so on.

The local folk often wondered why the farmer had been so ‘generous.’ What was he getting in exchange for this ‘gift’? Cynics talked about the impossibility of free lunches, and sure enough, it was becoming clear there wasn’t one to be had in this ‘community space.’ For the benevolent farmer was indeed exacting a price of sorts.

The farmer had many business associates who wanted to sell the locals their goods–fertilizer for their fields, goods that could be gifted to their children on their birthdays, clothes to be worn at their weddings, and so on. To find out what the locals’ tastes were would have required conducting expensive, tedious market surveys; the farmer’s business associates would have had to go from door to door, asking people to fill out forms. But in this space, the farmers neighbors happily gave this information away without being asked. And the reason this information was ‘given away’ was that it was ‘being taken’ as well.

Hidden cameras and microphones recorded their comings and goings and sundry activities: who they met, what they ate at their friends’ stalls, and indeed, what they ate at home, because the locals proudly showed photos of their food at their stalls (you could build some walls around your stall but most people, finding the construction of these to be too onerous, just went in for a wall-less design), what clothes they wore, who their ‘best friends’ were, who they talked to for medical advice, who they asked for help when the going was tough, what kind of music they listened to (and played for their neighbors by way of demonstration.)

When news of the hidden cameras and microphones broke, some of the locals were irate. They didn’t like the idea of being ‘spied on’ and worried that the local potentate, always eager to exert his control over the land just a little more efficiently, would find this sort of information very useful. Yet others thought that the local robber barons, who controlled the potentate in any case, would grow more powerful as a result of knowing so much about them. And some complained that the hidden microphones sometimes reported their conversations and displays to the farmer, who cracked down on them if he didn’t like what they said or what they showed off.

But others hushed their concerns, using that ancient piece of wisdom, which the robber barons themselves had promulgated: How can you look a ‘free’ gift horse in the mouth? You got to use this space for ‘free,’ didn’t you? When the locals said that they hadn’t signed on for this surveillance, yet others told them to read the sign on the entrance carefully, and if they didn’t like it, to leave, and to take their stalls with them. So some did even as they said the sign on the entrance was vague and unspecific. Yet others, finding that the space had become an indispensable arena for communication for matters pertaining to the local village and shire, stayed on.

But many continued to ask themselves: Was it a fair ‘deal’? Indeed, was it a deal at all? Had the farmer really behaved like a neighbor in spying on his neighbors after he had invited them to use his land for ‘free’? Did the non-existence of free lunches in the universe entail that those lunches had to be ethically compromised too?

Reflections On ‘Imagined Communities’ – II: Newspaper Reading As Modern Prayer

In Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, New York, 2006, pp. 34-35), Benedict Anderson writes:

[T]he newspaper is merely an ‘extreme form’ of the book, a book sold on a colossal scale, but of ephemeral popularity. Might we say: one-day best-sellers? The obsolescence of the newspaper on the morrow of its printing….creates this extraordinary mass ceremony: the almost precisely simultaneous consumption (‘imagining’) of the newspaper-as-fiction. We know that particular morning and evening editions will overwhelmingly be consumed between this hour and that, only this day, not that. The significance of this mass ceremony–Hegel observed that newspapers serve modern man as a substitute for morning prayers–is paradoxical. It is performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by…others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion….the newspaper reader, observing exact replicas of his own paper being consumed by his subway, barbershop or residential neighbours, is continually reassured that the imagined world is visibly rooted in everyday life.

The modern version of ‘mass ceremony’ that Hegel terms a ‘substitute for morning prayer’ is–I suspect, from my vantage, privileged viewpoint–the morning email/social media check-in. Coffee mug in hand, we head over to our desktops, our laptops, our smartphones, hit space bars or tap screens, and get to reattaching the umbilical cord. (Some folks have no time and energy for this ritual and never have had, even in the times that Anderson is referring to above; reading newspapers has always been a luxury of sorts.) The sense of shared community is similar to those of newspapers: as I read shared links, I’m aware that many others have done the same. I sense, of course, that there are many overlapping communities here, just because each of our social media ‘contacts’ is a node in many other social networks besides ours. (This makes for an interesting contrast from the readership of a newspaper.)

Still, my sense of participating in a common, widely dispersed ritual as I interact with my social media feed grows: interactions and notifications are soon forthcoming, informing me that my social media ‘community’ is attentive and engaged. And if a variety of links on some topic of interest soon becomes visible, presenting the varied facets and dimensions of a hotly debated issue, this feeling becomes ever more entrenched. Indeed, I might want to participate in this ‘conversation’ – a possibility not available in the older model of readers reading their newspapers in their personal spaces. Through these interactions, I am reassured my ‘imagined community’ does not just exist and participate in the ritual of the modern morning prayer like I do, but it also engages with itself, with its constituents, about the meaning and significance of the liturgies performed and the prayers chanted.

Social media interactions such as the ones I describe are often not quite as local, provincial, or national, as in Anderson’s formulation of the shared newspaper experience: my ‘imagined communities’ straddle nations.  And yet, no global community, no ‘global village,’ despite the feverish imaginings and speculations of the early net-enthusiasts has emerged; news and issues on social media still bear a distinct national imprint and are still intended, primarily, for ‘local’ consumption. The nation still reigns supreme.

What My Facebook Like Means

Facebook users often express dissatisfaction over the limited range of options available to them for responding to posts made on their newsfeed by their ‘friends.’ (I wish there was a ‘dislike’ button! I wish I could like this a thousand times! I wish I could tell you how much I liked this!) My sympathies are with the complainers. My ‘Like’ button is terribly overworked; it does double, triple, quadruple duty; there isn’t enough granularity of expression in that atomic expression. It does not capture the range and variety of social interactions it facilitates.

This is what my Faceook ‘Like’ means:

I approve of the content of the link you have just provided. I disapprove of the content of the link you have just provided. This photograph is adorable. You said something funny. Just saying hi. Just saying bye. I am appalled. I am sorry for you. I hear you. You go girl. You go dude. Interesting; I’ll get back to you. Who cares; but you clearly do. A grunt. A guffaw. A chortle. A snicker. A snort. Thanks for the ‘Like’; here is yours.  Too Long; Didn’t Read; but here is a ‘Like’ anyway. Can I look forward to a ‘Like’ from you sometime soon? I have no idea what you are talking about but you clearly seem to be fishing for attention and this is the best I can do for the moment. Consider this a goodbye present; you will soon be dropped from my newsfeed. This was a rather transparent attempt to be clever and you do this way too often, but still, you are family, so here is a ‘Like’ for you. I haven’t dropped you from my newsfeed yet? Consider this a thank you for the ‘Like’ you sent me the other day. Just chiming in; everyone else is giving this a ‘Like.’  You ‘Liked’ my baby; I’ll ‘Like’ yours. Why wasn’t I invited to this dinner party? Why wasn’t I invited to this barbecue? You have friends besides me? Who is this person you are posing with? Our friendship has been reduced to the exchange of these electronic waves which people call ‘Like’ and which I am sending your way. I hope you will ‘Like’ some of the content I post; this is the third ‘Like’ I have given you in the past week. I hope my ‘Like’ will encourage you to keep posting this bizarre shit that has so many of us so entertained, if mystified. Your kid isn’t that cute, but you are an awfully sensitive person, so here is a ‘Like.’  Hi; haven’t seen you in a while; do you come here often? This could be the first of many ‘Likes’ if you play it right. Just trying to get you over the hundred mark here. Oh, it’s you again, telling us all how much you have accomplished while we struggle to get through the day; here is your gold star. Hi; you might not know me, but we just became friends on Facebook.