Sunday, May 23, 2010

Responses to comments on my earlier post

I posted a link to my last post on Facebook and Diaspora to Facebook (IRONY!) and some folks there raised some concerns in comments. I'd like to respond to their concerns here:

1. The name "Diaspora" is offensive because it trivializes the real human suffering of actual, historical Diasporas.

Ok, you might have a point here. See my suggestion #1 in the previous post where I urge Diaspora developers to take input from as wide a public as possible. I think this is important advice for the Geek community, which can be insular and misunderstand the needs of the larger culture. If they had followed this advice at the name stage, they might have chosen something else. Then again, they might not have. A project like this, I think, needs a name with historical and political implications bigger than itself, and by definition, any such name will connect it to historical events far more immediately dire than Facebook. As such, it risks trivializing said events. In any case, the name is set and abandoning it now would mean a massive loss of publicity and social capital. I hope that, if this is your only problem with this project, you will be able to set this aside and not, as George Lipsitz would say keep "waiting for the perfect bus." As I hope my next couple of paragraphs will explain, this is an important moment when something like Diaspora is very much needed.

2. I'm not concerned because Facebook is only interested in mining data for marketing and advertising, not censorship.

I have two responses to this one. First, a system without any oversight or accountability, like Facebook, really can't be trusted to keep behaving in a benign way. Now, with the recent implosion of Myspace etc. looming over them, Facebook clearly has some reasons to use a relatively light hand on their users. However, as time goes by and people commit more and more of their data to Facebook, the system may well become much harder to leave, and thus, Facebook may feel like they can get away with more active interventions in site content. Like, say, if BP decides it doesn't like its ads popping up next to commentary on the (next) oil gusher. Lets not forget the compromises that a variety of supposedly libertarian tech companies (Google included) made in exchange for entry in to the Chinese market.

Second, I can't believe that I'm hearing people who I know have read Raymond Williams argue that just collecting data for advertising and marketing purposes is harmless. The feedback loop that couples lives lived in increasingly private spaces subject to increasing levels of corporate surveillance to an economy of systematic over-consumption is incredibly destructive. They get us to buy too much as it is, how much worse will that get when they can glean our anxieties and our desires from the traces we leave in our digital lives? Yes, advertising and over-consumption is much older than Facebook, but Facebook is a recent and particularly egregious example of a space of corporate surveillance. For those who want this argument made in more detail, see Mark Andrejevic's excellent iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era

3. I'm not concerned because I don't really use Facebook all that much

Again, I have several points of rebuttal. First, the place where this discussion started WAS ON FACEBOOK. You could have commented on my blog itself. You could have sent me an email. But clearly you thought the public space afforded by a Facebook comment thread was the best place to discuss this issue. That's fine! That's actually one of the great things about Facebook, it provides a space where debate can happen in the open, among friends, where people can jump in and out of the conversation. That's a valuable resource, which is exactly why I think we need to make sure that resource isn't wholly owned by an unaccountable corporation with a business model that requires that it carry out constant surveillance of all of us. Second, the use of social networking to contact people and organize events is, in my anecdotal experience, already becoming the norm for many people. That tends to make the use of Facebook much less optional, unless you don't want to get invited to any social events or hear from any of your friends. Additionally, you give away more data than you are aware of on a network like Facebook. Some data points are obvious, like what you "like" or become a "fan" of. Others are less obvious, like your clicks on profiles, pages, etc (all of which, testimony by Facebook employees has indicated, Facebook records). Still others are totally out of your control, like actions that your friends might take that data miners could use to derive information about you (statistically, for example, they might be able to guess that someone who has a larger number of friends "liking" Barack Obama is a Democrat).

Finally, and most crucially, this is a key moment if we want to insure that we retain control over the software we use to keep in touch with people and share information via the internet. Facebook is only part of a much larger trend that seeks to "close" the once "open" architecture of the web and subject it to control by large corporations. Think of the Apple iPad, which is no longer a general purpose computer, able to run any software you want, but rather a sort of tethered device, only able to run applications pre-approved by Apple. If we don't build a Free social network now, we may lose the ability to do so at all.

I hope this has spoken to everyone's concerns! It is good to talk about and think about these issues, and I'm happy to continue this debate here, on Facebook, Twitter, wherever...


Me said...

Leaving a comment here is unlikely to generate as much discussion as the comments on FB because people are less likely to continue through to the webpage and dedicate their time to a comment response. If I'm wrong, others should leave comments here rather than on FB.

Thomas Nephew said...

Nice post. I don't think the "Diaspora" name is such a problem, in fact I think it's quite expressive of what would be going on. I think over time "diaspora" has come to mainly just imply expats abroad; it's not "Diaspora"'s fault that the word has become generic like that. But maybe I'm insensitive. == I'm pro-blog myself, so I'll try to leave a comment here when there's a choice, maybe at the FB place as well.