On the the shift to an algorithmically organized culture
Just because we live with Facebook’s algorithm doesn’t mean we fully understand it. And even for those who know that Facebook curates our News Feeds algorithmically, it’s difficult as a culture to get beyond some very old and deeply sedimented ways to think about how information gets to us.
The public reaction to this research is proof of these persistent beliefs — a collective groan from our society as it adjusts to a culture that is algorithmically organized. Because social media, and Facebook most of all, truly violates a century-old distinction we know very well, between what were two, distinct kinds of information services.
On the one hand, we had “trusted interpersonal information conduits” — the telephone companies, the post office. Users gave them information aimed for others and the service was entrusted to deliver that information. We expected them not to curate or even monitor that content, in fact we made it illegal to do otherwise; we expected that our communication would be delivered, for a fee, and we understood the service as the commodity, not the information it conveyed.
On the other hand, we had “media content producers” — radio, film, magazines, newspapers, television, video games — where the entertainment they made for us felt like the commodity we paid for (sometimes with money, sometimes with our attention to ads), and it was designed to be as gripping as possible. We knew that producers made careful selections based on appealing to us as audiences, and deliberately played on our emotions as part of their design. We were not surprised that a sitcom was designed to be funny, even that the network might conduct focus group research to decide which ending was funnier (A/B testing?). But we would be surprised, outraged, to find out that the post office delivered only some of the letters addressed to us, in order to give us the most emotionally engaging mail experience.
In the past few months, there’s been a lot of media attention to girls who’ve died by suicide after being raped in public settings (eg. at parties) by multiple assailants, shamed and humiliated by peers, and failed by the adults in schools and justice departments who should have supported them. Audrie Pott was 15 when she took her own life and Rehtaeh Parsons was 17 years old. Parsons’ father wrote in a public statement:
My daughter wasn’t bullied to death, she was disappointed to death. Disappointed in people she thought she could trust, her school, and the police.
Some of the media coverage makes these tragedies seem like technology problems, and in all these cases digital photographs and distribution indeed heightened the slut-shaming both girls experienced. When tragedies like this happen in other parts of the world, people often blame a misogynistic culture that is supposedly uniquely terrible “over there.” When it happens here, it’s much easier to blame technology.
These are not the first, nor will they be the last girls to commit suicide after being raped and then slut-shamed for it. It’s well established in the literature that suicide attempts are strongly correlated with child sexual abuse. These particular cases get so much attention because of the heightened shaming these girls experienced through social media. What’s genuinely new in these cases is not the slut-shaming from peers but the fact that the rest of us can see it. The evidence that is left behind when people socialize online makes once-private locker-room talk and whispers in the hallway public and visible to adults.
My hope is that youth educators and parents who are shocked by what Pott and Parsons’ peers said about them online can understand that what these girls experienced was not an exception but merely a highly visible (and, I hope, extreme?) version of what happens to survivors of rape all the time. Social media lets us see slut-shaming and rape culture in the light of day, but when we talk about these cases we have to recognize that these attitudes are not unique to teens or to a few bad people–they are absolutely endemic in (adult) mainstream culture.
update: Beth Lyons has a great post at Shameless about how the media have been reporting Parsons as a victim of “bullying”–which is really, really the wrong word for what happened to her.
Lambda Legal addresses the real problem behind gay teen suicides: not technology, but homophobia.
Stories of teens driven to suicide by antigay taunting are all over the news. … Should we clamp down on the Internet and social media because they can be used to harass?
Unfortunately, the truth is that this problem is old; it’s the splash of attention that’s new. The media–Internet and otherwise–are mere instruments, usable for good or for evil.
We need to make protections against discrimination and harassment real. Where we have laws, we need them enforced. Where we have policies, officials need to step up to the plate.
An in-progress article from Terri Senft analyzing youth online practices as a part of a marketplace of “attention.”
She argues that teens using myspace and the like to document their lives is part of:
a larger cultural preoccupation with what self-help gurus are calling “Brand You.” Many wonder why a teen would build an image-shrine to himself on the net. They might as well wonder why he wouldn’t, given the cultural messages teens routinely receive, given the near-daily demand for them to ‘look good on paper.’
She goes on to suggest that generating such online fame and identity is already a part of existing circuits of capital–users work as content generators, which generates profit for the owners of social network sites.
But, she points out, pursuing celebrity can also be a way to seek self-determination, especially since adolescents have few other avenues to pursue it:
Stars don’t accumulate capital because they get attention; they accumulate capital because they have managed to turn themselves from citizens to corporations. This morphing is crucial when we consider the lure of celebrity for teens who feel themselves limited in their sense of agency. Even a cursory examination of the news displays that the only kids who count as people, rather than property, are those who have managed to somehow establish themselves as corporate entities: child celebrities, athletes, and so on. Why wouldn’t someone want to emulate that model, which seems (on the surface at least) to generate just capital, but self-determination?
She warns that economies of attention can be “just as volatile, corrupt, sexist, ageist and counter-democratic as old-fashioned capitalism.”
I think Senft’s analysis of attention and celebrity is useful, but I still wonder: How does this differ from the desire for popularity and social capital?
She starts off the piece with an anecdote about some teenage girls who were punished after their sleepover photos were leaked. Is she saying that they made the photos in the first place because of the demands of this “attention economy”? Since the girls did not intend to share the photos with the rest of the school, it might make more sense to argue instead that the unknown person who nonconsensually distributed photos did so to gain capital, and that such gains were unethical and misbegotten.