"Facebook’s power is to sort what people see and to screen information. That’s basically what Google does, too"

Savvy tech critic talks outrage culture, surveillance and the power we give Google & Facebook to moderate our lives

Published April 5, 2015 5:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/Seth Wenig/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Lucy Nicholson)
(AP/Seth Wenig/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Lucy Nicholson)

“Terms of Service,” the first book from the young cultural critic Jacob Silverman, is less an argument than a tour. Its subject is the Internet—or, more accurately, what Silverman calls “the social web,” which could be loosely defined as either a) an Internet experienced tailored to YOU!, or b) a surveillance system that comes equipped with some nice photo-saving and message-sharing tools.

Silverman leans toward interpretation b. “Communication,” he writes, “has become synonymous with surveillance.” “Terms of Service” offers a tour of a digital world that, under Silverman’s guiding skepticism, comes to look like a cross between the reality show “Big Brother” and a shopping mall. Or, to adapt one of Silverman’s better analogies, it’s a digital sphere in which we are all, essentially, the world’s saddest tourists: isolated and gullible; self-conscious and secretly watched; sampling everything but lingering nowhere; and taking many, many photos.

Over a phone connection that may or may not have been monitored by the NSA (it certainly wouldn’t have been hard), Silverman spoke with Salon about privacy, Tumblr’s hypocrisy, and whether the Internet is sometimes too nice.

Your book makes two arguments that often appear together in social media critiques. One is that social media companies are invading our privacy. The other is that social media is making us shallow—even narcissistic. How are these two arguments connected?

Social media companies want you to present as much of yourself as possible. The privacy standpoint is to say that they want you to fork over personal data, things about yourself that are true. The way that plays out on a cultural level is that we’re constantly engaged in these acts of performance and identity play, and presenting our ideal digital selves.

Even the idea of constant connectivity—platform owners want that, because it means we are constantly generating more data, being more engaged, looking at more ads, and being a good user for them. On a socio-cultural level, what that means in practice is being visible. To be visible you have to be posting often. It helps to be personal and confessional, and to expose yourself.

Many critics argue that we perform and cultivate our personalities more on social media. But don’t people perform roles all the time, in the real world as well as the virtual? How is this any different?

Well, yes, I think we’re always engaging in identity play. We’re always performing, in one sense. Identity is a reflexive, complicated thing, and we can often be acting out a role while also being aware, and perhaps even insecure, that we’re acting out that role. I think the big distinguishing factor in social media is that it’s very much public. And it’s permanent, in a sense. This kind of identity play that we’re talking about, it’s always archived somewhere. It can always be brought back and used against you in some way.

Still, people try out multiple identities online, too. You can be one person on "World of Warcraft," a different person on Facebook, and someone else entirely in an email exchange. Does social media somehow compress these identities?  

I think the big change in the last few years is the influence of advertising. Everyone knows that social networks earn money through advertising. Even so, with that kind of awareness, I still think we underplay the role that advertising is having, and the way it’s shaping our experiences and our ability to operate in these worlds.

We browse websites, we talk, we upload images and we play games. All of that information is relevant and representative of who we are, and various interested parties are collecting it and watching it, processing it, and feeding it back to us in the form of advertising, sponsored posts, and promoted tweets. If you’re a Facebook user, Facebook basically decides who you are going to be friends with, and what your relationships are with them, and what you’re interested in, and what your background says about what you might be interested in. There’s a way in which the everyday experience becomes more attuned to the logic of quantification and advertising.

How is this different from a regular economic exchange, in which I offer something I have of value—which is data—and Twitter, for example, gives what it has of value—which is Twitter?

The difference is that it’s really opaque. We just don’t have a good sense of what’s being collected, where it’s being stored, why, for how long, who it’s being sold to. Once you fork over, you really have no control over how long [the data] is going to stay in their system. Right now you have loans being given based on social media data. Anyone who is in the business of risk management or hedging risk thinks that they can shave a little bit off their expenses by being able to have a better sense of who you are. That creates a real power disjunction where these companies know a lot more about us, and have a lot more possibilities, than we do.

This might be a vague question, but what kind of power is this? I feel like we don’t have any real-world analogue for the sort of power that these companies possess.

That’s something we are all figuring out. Facebook’s power is to sort what people see and to screen information. That’s basically what Google does, too. They filter information for large amounts of people.

The larger trend with all these tech companies is that they really have a large, holistic and monopolistic view toward the world, which is that they want to shape your experience—your experience digitized throughout the whole world. I mean, the Oculus Rift system is a literal example of that. They want you to stare right into the alternate reality that they create. You see Facebook getting very deep into messaging and into Internet connectivity. And for a lot of people in the developing world now, Facebook is their experience of the Internet, because that is how they connect through these cheap phones, to this low-bandwidth version of Facebook. That really cuts down, potentially, on their possibility to experience an open, unfiltered Internet.

How do these innovations affect the socially powerful differently than the more socially marginalized?

I don’t think there’s one single answer to that. There’s a sense in which these notions of empowerment or disempowerment will always cut several ways, I think. You can’t discount that Twitter has, in that sense, made an opening for activists or for people who are marginalized, to let them have some kind of voice. On the other hand, traditional media powers—celebrities and politicians and intelligence agencies in the United States— they’re all also far more powerful and have far more of a reach on Twitter than any of us, even the most well-liked activists.

So even as we praise opportunities that open up for people to express themselves, we still have to acknowledge that behind all these things are very large companies partnering with other huge corporations—often very traditionally American corporations—and with government.

You’re probably one of the only living people who has described the Internet as being too nice. Could you explain that argument a little bit?

Well, I don’t think that that’s a description of the entire Internet. I think that described that subculture at the time. I still think it exists in some ways to a degree, but you can’t ignore the tremendous amount of outrage, abuse and harassment that happens. There are two major poles of the social web. There’s the politically cheery, advertising-driven social web. And then there’s the social web of perpetual outrage, and also abuse and harassment. I try to write about both in the book.

Does the social web favor extreme emotions?

I think that’s true, in part because we’re all fighting to be seen. In all likelihood, your social networks are very busy places, and more dramatic postings play better. In terms of the interactions that we’re afforded, that we’re allowed, those are also very limited. We kind of take it for granted that there’s a Like button or a Favorite or a heart. There is something very limiting and even infantilizing about that.

You even have things like the people from Tumblr, who said, "we don’t want anyone to get their feelings hurt on Tumblr." Tumblr’s users themselves are a much more diverse lot. That’s why I wrote about Tumblr ignoring the sheer amounts of pornography on its site—something they don’t want to acknowledge, because it cuts against this image of Tumblr as a very cheery, advertiser-friendly place.

In the book, you quote Tumblr’s CEO, who in 2010 proclaimed, “No advertising ever!” By 2013 he was openly courting advertisers.

This may ultimately be the problem with having all these current companies being venture-backed, which is that you then you have venture capitalists expecting huge returns. So these companies have to scale-up really big, and the main way to do that is to be free and to collect lots of user data. And even the most idealistic of them, and Tumblr was idealistic in its own way, they eventually say, “Well now, we have to satisfy our investors, and we have to make money, so advertising it is.”

Imagine if Tumblr weren’t so huge, but still were a similar kind of space, with similar capabilities, and a similar sort of culture—and people paid ten buck a year. It wouldn’t be this massive company that we all talk about. But it would have a much better chance to preserve its identity, and really just to be more true and more open to its users.

You described the web today as a “clutch of corporate fiefdoms.” What would it look like to have a truly public space online?

Well, I think it wouldn’t collect so much personal data. It certainly wouldn’t sell people’s personal data, or its companies wouldn’t. As far as surveillance, all communications would be encrypted. We do have a great example of a nonprofit, huge website that has imperfections but still does a lot of good, and that’s Wikipedia.

Should social media be understood as a public utility?

No, I don’t think so. I think that’s premature. I do like the idea of the Internet as a public utility because of both the regulatory advantages, and because it’s more compatible with net neutrality. But social media is still a very diverse space, an often changing space. I don’t think it’s something that anyone really needs, in the sense that we tend to think of utilities.

Europe has been much stricter with privacy regulations than the United States. Certainly, we’ve seen very little serious legislation designed to protect social media users. Is there a particular piece of legislation that you would want to see? Why do you think government has dropped the ball here?

I think there are a few reasons. One is just the conventional right-wing view that any regulation stifles innovation. Also, Silicon Valley has emerged as pretty potent lobby in its own right. Google spends more money on lobbying than almost any other company. There’s also a conflict of interest between the tech industry and the government, which is that they’re essentially both involved in bulk data collection and in mass surveillance.

As for a piece of legislation, I want to see privacy and legislation brought up-to-date. I want the Fourth Amendment brought to the 21st century, where the government can’t mass dragnet surveillance—but also if they want to know something about you, and they want to read your email, they have to get a warrant. People should have a right to know what information companies are collecting on them, and to have it deleted. I think it’s as simple as that. We’ve adopted this view pushed on us by these companies that think that we don’t have any rights, that we can’t ask for anything because we should feel grateful that we are getting services.

You have a smartphone, a Gmail address and a Twitter account. Like most critics of social media, you’re enmeshed in the very system you’re analyzing. How do you launch a critique from that position of entanglement?

Frankly, I think it’s a very cheap irony to say, like, “Oh, you’re complaining about Twitter, but you use it.” That’s like people who say, “If you don’t like the U.S. government policies, why don’t you move?”

We all are entangled within capitalism. We can still complain about it, even as we have to take part in certain aspects of it, or feel compelled [to do so]. I feel very conflicted about a lot of social media. I still use it, in part because I want to be a good critic of it. I want to know how it works. But there are also aspects of it that I do like. I think there’s nothing wrong with saying, “Look, we’re engaging with it on all these levels.”

By Michael Schulson

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