Beyond Terrordome

It’s obvious that Facebook wants to be the ultimate ad-targeting mechanism: It collects information on self-generated demographic networks and is developing ways to sell those micro-demos to marketers looking to maximize the effectiveness of their messaging. Facebook assembles audiences for ad broadcasters; the intramural sharing among users is in some respects a sideshow to this line of business, except insofar as that data can be used to refine the narrowcasting. It’s not clear whether the “creepiness” of targeting inhibits or augments ads’ impact, but this initiative is proceeding apace. The data on how users respond to the ads are also being collected, and the ads will be adjusted accordingly.

And users themselves will be able to conceive their discourse as explicit advertising by paying for “promoted posts,” which will guarantee that the information shared will be featured prominently to the user’s friends and will not be subject to suppression by the site’s opaque algorithms. Even if users don’t avail themselves en masse of this patently douchy capability, its mere existence as an option belies the idea that everything being shared on Facebook isn’t already at some level advertisements for the self. Everything could be a promoted post; everything takes that standard form within the network. Some posts are promoted “organically” through the traditional methods of gaming Facebook’s algorithm; others are promoted more overtly, in a betrayal of the sprezzatura code by which our social calculations read as uncalculated. 

Regardless of how using Facebook may feel subjectively to users in any given instance, the cumulative effect of Facebook use is to speak in marketing discourse at friends who are becoming demographics to us. It is also to become objectively more susceptible to measurement and classification in terms that reflect marketers’ interests. Facebook fixes us as an individual within a social field for precisely this purpose. Our efforts to escape any demographic can be tracked in our “social graph.” We can’t disappear as easily within an imperfectly delineated, unleavened collectivity that has been clumsily assembled to receive mass-media messages; instead, the individuation gets more intense, with higher stakes for the user. Everything a user does signifies, no matter how generic it might have been regarded outside the data-collection engine. Within Facebook, there is no generic behavior that is just typical of human beings or some particular community in general, no behavior that is innocent and unremarkable. It all gets assigned to you as an individual. You can’t just disappear into the expected behavior of the group you are socializing with while maintaining an uninterpellated interiority; the network is always atomizing you.

Nothing you do within Facebook can be “just what people do” — it’s always available to being reprocessed in an effort to reprocess you. This is the paranoid flip side to the feeling of autonomy that comes with being constantly hailed as an individual. You have the illusion that you can pilot your way through social life however you please from behind the personalized dashboard of Facebook, but then of course you realize that the screen is also the window of your zoo cage.

So the way Facebook pursues its advertising business makes us conscious of having been individuated, not only in the way it tailors the environment in which we operate on the site to suit the data-collection and display needs of marketing but also in the ways it compels us to speak to register within its domain. Social media sites put us to work constructing our identities while capturing that labor and putting it to ends that actively undermine the integrity of the identity we try to build. What makes this tolerable, even appealing, is that self-broadcasting always feels like agency, even if it only builds the walls of our own personal terrordome.

We put up with the assault of advertising and the way its discourse individuates us because it flatters us as it makes us insecure; it insists on our potential as it reminds us that it is unfulfilled. But reputation management, the other line of Facebook’s business is much harder to swallow, because it is purely objectifying and makes explicit how our performances on the site make us vulnerable rather than empowered. It puts us in a position to be continually justifying our right to exist, having to constantly prove that we are worthy of social inclusion instead ever having it granted unconditionally by some stable community. It disenchants the fantasy of unique individuality as some empowering condition. Facebook may be the architect, but identity itself is revealed as the terrordome.

As its real-name policy implies, Facebook wants to be the ubiquitous reputation-management bureau, the go-to source for surveillance data on any individual’s social performance. What Facebook facilitates is not merely spying to detect evidence of someone’s bad behavior but also their ideological conformity: how hard they are playing the game to fit in, what their strategies are to “connect,” what their self-concept seems to revolve around, what sort of people they are sidling up to with likes and attention, what sort of people they connect with out of obligation, and so on. One can analyze the presentation of self over time for its implications, the gestalt of a person’s social strategy, regardless of the implications of any individual piece of information that might be specific ploys at claiming social or cultural capital.

Here’s one example of how this might play out. At Forbes, Kashmir Hill reports on how college admissions officers have begun to consult Facebook to research applicants, drawing on survey data collected by Kaplan, the test-prep company. Hill pulled this passage from Kaplan’s findings:

While the percentage of admissions officers who took to Google (27%) and checked Facebook (26%) as part of the applicant review process increased slightly (20% for Google and 26% for Facebook in 2011) from last year, the percentage that said they discovered something that negatively impacted an applicant’s chances of getting into the school nearly tripled – from 12% last year to 35% this year. Offenses cited included essay plagiarism, vulgarities in blogs, alcohol consumption in photos, things that made them “wonder,” and “illegal activities.”

From a conspiratorial perspective, this kind of self-reported data is pretty useless. If admissions officers were snooping (which some schools forbid) what incentive do they have to be frank about it? If admissions officers’ hope to use social media performance as admission criteria, as a glimpse at how the student “really is” in everyday life, then publicizing what they are looking for would just allow students to game their social-media presence by setting up Potemkin profiles (as more teenagers are apparently doing, despite Facebook’s policy against it) that foreground their gregarious studiousness. But the problem is the performance of the Potemkin profile, in the positive portrait it seeks to present and the practices that requires over time, may be more damning or self-defeating than a profile full of isolated examples of “bad” behavior.

The Kaplan data seems to suggest that when college admissions officers decide to look at an applicant’s social media presence, they are looking for disqualifiers, and that spike in “offenses” may indicate that they are more likely to look when they expect to find something. Where’s there’s smoke, etc. But it makes it seem as though Facebook merely discloses examples of behavior that may be evaluated as good or bad, admission worthy or not. You simply look at the list Kaplan provides and purge your profile of curse words and partying pics. Never mind whether their absence will become as telling as their presence.

Reputation is not just a matter of what you are not doing, of avoiding certain mistakes. That is a comforting, disinhibiting delusion that makes us more likely to participate more fully in social media. Reputation is more a matter of what can be inferred from ongoing practices of sharing, which convey the degree to which a user is an obedient, responsive social subject. That’s the whole point of a panopticon: continual implied surveillance. Facebook generates a behavioral record for all its users such that they can be surveilled on demand. The isolated details in this record aren’t nearly as important as the patterns they expose and the self-justifying efforts they trace. And naturally, the absence of this record is ultimately more damning than anything the record might contain. Nothing is more antisocial than claiming privacy as a abstract prerogative. This suggests not just that you’ve got something to hide; worse, it suggests you are ashamed of your entire way of being socially. Otherwise you would seize the opportunity Facebook provides to wear it proudly.

Looking at someone’s profile is not like looking at a list of that person’s actions (though Facebook’s activity log may convey that impression). The Kaplan survey makes it sounds as though admissions officers scan over a profile looking for objectionable items in a list, but that seems like a smokescreen to inspire students with a false confidence about how they can control the impression their profile might create. If I just delete all the yolo material, I’ll be fine. But the real problem is not the officers’ search for disqualifiers, but for things that would make a student more qualified, gleaned from the  impression left by a potential student’s social striving, the evidence of which is all over a Facebook profile.

Constant surveillance compels us to eschew or conceal certain “bad behavior,” but that is not the real problem. More troubling is the ideologically driven posturing that being under surveillance provokes. (Think of apparatchiks in the USSR praising the Party loudly in their apartments so neighbors would hear, to cope with a climate universal ideological suspicion.) This is the paranoid terrordome of having to plead your case constantly before unseen judges and unknown accusers from the past, present, and future. And their verdict is doled out to us only in dribs and drabs of microaffirmations within the social media environment that puts us on perpetual trial. But it is not as if we can opt out; participation in social media  is increasingly the admission process to social life.

As bad as that is, there comes a point when the strategies of social belonging cease to be a means to an end, a mode of self-protection, and are accepted as the end in itself, the essence and purpose of selfhood. That we could ever truly belong becomes a utopian dream, that we could accomplish more with ourselves than being recognized becomes unthinkable. What am I making of myself to make myself into myself? Self-actualization is unveiled as both a tautology and an unsolvable equation. We go on Facebook to be seen trying to solve it, which provides an object lesson to the rest of us to keep trying ourselves lest we end up like that, having to try too hard.