Just a few days ago, Facebook announced a number of significant changes, the most important of which is the morphing of personal profiles into "timelines," where each update, tagging, event, and photo is now a "story" of one’s life. The social network will now serve for each person who uses it as a chronological catalogue of events on a line, leading inevitably to death. This is the feature which has gotten the most attention, and I have much to say about it — such as the fact that I find it truly odd to encourage what I can only describe as "instantaneous" nostalgia about events which have just happened. But, in truth, Facebook has long been heading toward this use, and though I don’t really see the attraction personally, I understand that the need to document one’s life in detail has always been an alluring prospect for the human race. The fact that the Timeline is a dumbed down version of scrapbooking — usually the domain of retired people — is also odd to me, but I won't pretend I don't understand the draw.
The feature that I find most unsettling, however, is the connection which Facebook now has to applications such as Rdio, a streaming music service which already served as a type of social network: you can have friends and followers, and share your listening habits in a closed off network. Rdio is a tiny service compared to Facebook, but was already connected with it, and had the ability to share a song with the click of a button whenever you wished.
I have a close relationship with music, and a very strained one with Facebook. In fact, I’ve only been using it for a few weeks again after a long break, brought on by this article in Wired’s UK magazine. However, in the weeks since my return, the one way I actually enjoyed using Facebook was to share, via Rdio’s little sharing button, a song or two a day, posted to my wall. To be clear, sharing that song was always a conscious choice, based on numerous other little choices I made within the blink of an eye: what time of day is it? How am I feeling? Have I shared this same song before? In effect, I was "saying something" with my click.
The new relationship between Rdio and Facebook — based on the nefariously named Open Graph which debuted last year — is one of "frictionless sharing." What this means is that the same act of connecting my Facebook and Rdio accounts now presents me with only one real option: I will now share every song I listen to, automatically, via the news ticker on the right column of the Facebook dashboard, with every single one of my friends (or customized groups). There is a convoluted and complicated way to duplicate my previous use of the services, but it's clear that almost no one will do so, and that Facebook doesn't want them to. And while I still have the option to "share" a song on my wall, one would assume I’ll probably be much less inclined to do so, since anyone who cares to have a peek at my timeline or the ticker will already be able to see what I’ve been listening to all day. What was once an action is now passively taken care of for me.
In part, my annoyance with this is personal: I liked the feature the way it was, and now Facebook has broken that for me. It’s an "all or nothing" proposition, and, on the internet (and honestly in life), I’m not one for all or nothings. Sometimes I say what I’m thinking, and sometimes, I keep it to myself. Sometimes, I might tell you I’m listening to Pavement when I’m actually listening to the Spice Girls (as if). Is that a lie? Well, if it is, it’s one that’s wholly beside the point.
I have a larger concern beyond my personal dissatisfaction with the behavior of two services which are admittedly minor parts of my existence, and it goes back to that Wired article. People have been calling Facebook a digital panopticon for some time now, but if you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s very simple. The panopticon was a building design dreamed up by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and in its most basic form, it’s a prison scheme which allows observers (i.e., prison guards) to have a constant view of the inmates if they so desire, without the inmates knowing for sure if they are being watched. The effect, of course, is feeling that one is always being watched, resulting in altered (more "normal," acceptable) behavior. Bentham’s idea was, he said, applicable to poor houses, hospitals, schools, and mad houses — though he ultimately devoted his time to designing for prisons. The express purpose of the panopticon is behavior modification, what Bentham described as "a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example." No such prison was ever built to Bentham’s specifications.
It doesn’t take much thought to see why people concerned about things such as privacy would begin to make the association between Bentham’s panopticon and the encouraged over-sharing of modern social networks: the mind adjusts to a way of feeling watched over in perpetuity. However, I think the connection between applications such as Rdio and Facebook are the first concerted steps by Facebook to actively implement the digital panopticon. You see, "frictionless" sharing is code for sharing constantly, without editing or choice beyond that initial click which creates the first, most important connection. What I find unsettling about it is the mental change that must come with the knowledge that, as I sit at my computer, day in day out, listening to music (which I do all day, every day), someone is likely aware of what it is I’m listening to. It’s this knowledge, both alluring and disconcerting, that I am watched (and in many ways not alone) when I am, in fact alone. Facebook's intentions are not at issue here: the action (and the result) is what matters.
Social networks like Twitter have nudged us in this direction — anyone who uses the service as much as I do has surely noticed the odd phenomenon of watching people at an event or watching an awards show, and feeling as if the people Tweeting as they experience are not experiencing in the traditional sense: they are sharing as they experience the experience, which in turn alters the experience. If you always see yourself through the eyes of a perceived crowd, your experience is altered, as is your behavior. The changes Facebook is on the cusp of making push us over that cliff, so that you don’t even need to Tweet the experience: you’re just along for the ride, with other people watching as you go. The experience isn't yours, not fully.
Will you not listen to Britney Spears now because you know your friends might make fun of you? Or, if you’re a contrarian like me, will you listen to the worst music imaginable simply to troll your "viewers"? Should you have viewers all the time? Most importantly, does it matter? Are we willingly giving up something important, or not?
We need to be alone, and we need to share. But those things — sharing and being alone — can almost never happen simultaneously. Nor should they.
Before you call me a Luddite (so easy to do!) or an alarmist, keep in mind that of course I know Facebook isn’t replacing real life over night, and I know that every choice we make to share or not share is initially dependent upon us. Facebook Executive Elliot Schrage famously described the network as opt-in, since "participating in the service is a choice," which is true, but disingenuous all the same. Facebook is now turning the concept of sharing into an "all or nothing" proposition, which is a silly and terrible idea. Giving users the option to connect apps to their Facebook account shouldn't mean having to relinquish other types of control. I know that in the grand scheme of the world’s problems, this is probably not even a blip on the radar — but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth considering or talking about. Just wanted to share that.
Further Reading: Scripting News