Current Affairs digital rhetoric

exposure and facebook as public utility

danah boyd makes this argument in a recent post, suggesting

Your gut reaction might be to tell me that Facebook is not a utility. You’re wrong. People’s language reflects that people are depending on Facebook just like they depended on the Internet a decade ago. Facebook may not be at the scale of the Internet (or the Internet at the scale of electricity), but that doesn’t mean that it’s not angling to be a utility or quickly becoming one. Don’t forget: we spent how many years being told that the Internet wasn’t a utility, wasn’t a necessity… now we’re spending what kind of money trying to get universal broadband out there without pissing off the monopolistic beasts because we like to pretend that choice and utility can sit easily together. And because we’re afraid to regulate.

All of this comes out of the reaction to Fb's continuing push to make user information public. I understand boyd's point, but I suppose I wonder what it is exactly that "we" want Fb to be. I've been on Fb for a number of years, but not as long as I've been blogging here. I guess I've always thought of the web as a public space. On facebook I do post things of a more quotidian and personal nature than I tend to on Twitter. And here I don't really post personal things at all. But none of it is really personal. My Fb "friends" include something like 25% people I have never met but are in my field, 50% professional colleagues who I've met at conferences, 20% people I haven't seen in 15 years, and 5% other. Basically I wouldn't share anything on Facebook that I wouldn't share with students in a class. Indeed, I have students who have friended me. So in my Fb account there really isn't anything that isn't otherwise accessible on the web; it just offers one more way for people to find me.

Of course, I don't mean to suggest that everyone needs to be like me! I can understand that some people want to use Fb to communicate in a semi-private way with a narrow group of friends.

That said, the privacy issue is really just a slice of the problem. What is more annoying here is the way that Fb wants to monetize users' immaterial labor by selling information to commercial interests. If Fb wants to use my status updates about jogging to sell me exercise gear or my age and education to target me demographically then that starts to get on my nerves. As long as it's just on my Fb page, like ads in gmail, I can live with it. But if it starts to get pervasive, following me around the web, then my inclination would be to shut up.

Personally I am skeptical of the utility metaphor. Maybe people are dependent on Fb, but that dependency reads more like an addiction or habit. If Fb is as indispensable as boyd suggests, then why can't they get users to pay for the service? People are willing to pay for electricity, cable, internet service, etc. If users aren't willing to pay for Fb then how important can it really be?

Underlying this all is the problematic concept of "private communication." To begin with, privacy is a legal fiction. Among bees, as I remember reading in Kittler, one bee can communicate via its dance the location of a flower to another bee, but that second bee is not able to pass the message along. Only that first bee can communicate the message. That's essentially private communication. It can only be shared by its author.

But human communication doesn't work that way. Anything that you communicate can be recommunicated. In fact, anything that you can know about yourself, even if you keep it in your head and never speak of it, can be known by others and recommunicated. Communication is not private, but it is not public either. Public is just the other side of the legal fictional coin here. Now when I say legal fiction I don't mean to suggest that it is unimportant but only that we shouldn't mistake the social mechanisms we create to try to manage communication with the actual mechanisms of communication.

As I often discuss here, if thought and communication fundamentally occur through exposure to others, then any methods to limit exposure, from encryption to contracts, operate only by limiting the value and potential of thought. When Zuckerberg argues that our values regarding privacy are changing, he's probably right. After all, they are always changing. That doesn't mean we want radical transparency today though. Exposure is critical to our cultural development, but at the same time over-exposure can be crippling. In some sense, this is what Fb is already facing as it deals with the exorbitant costs of maintaining all this user data.