A MarkZist Manifesto. Or Not.

7 November 2010, 1413 EST

Me: “Look, here’s ‘me and Rob Farley’.”

Stu: “Who’s Rob Farley?”

Me: “Dude. My co-blogger; also, he’s coming to dinner next Wednesday after his guest lecture on battleships in my human security class. That’s not the point. Look, look this is ‘our’ Facebook page.”

Stu: “You mean the Lawyers, Guns and Money page? I’ve visited it once or twice.”

Me: “Not the LGM page. See? Look.”

Stu: “Whoa. How did you do that?”

Me: “I didn’t do that; Facebook did it automatically.”

Stu: “How did you find out about it?”

Me: “Kid Number One told me. Her friends at high school are all over this.”

Stu: “I bet. Wow, this means you can easily research exactly what every pair of your friends has ever said to one another on Facebook? That’s pretty sweet.”

Me: “Sweet, yep. You can find out exactly how strong or weak your ties to your different friends are, relative to your other friends, much more easily now. And you can be sure that everyone else can see that too. I can imagine high-schoolers are going to have new ways to stigmatize each other now.”

Stu: “Oh, you’re always so down on Facebook. I happen to like Mr. Zuckerberg.”

Me: “I worry about cyber-bullying.”

Stu: “But come on, admit this is cool. I wonder what the algorithm is like they use to choose the profile picture they use for your page. Let’s see what we look like.”

Me: “OK, here you go…. Aww. Look at us. It’s Kid Number Two’s birthday party.”

Stu: “I look really bad in that picture. Oh look, it appears we attended the Rally for Sanity together.”

Me: “Looks like FB pledges were a pretty good indicator of the crowd size after all. Huh.”

Stu: “Hey, I want to see what ‘You and your buddy Alex’ look like. Don’t roll your eyes.”

Me: (typing) “That was a twitch, not a roll. Hmm. Now this is interesting. Alex must know some privacy settings I don’t.”

Stu: “Inconceivable.”

Me: (dryly) “I see his and my Lexulous games don’t appear here; that’s good since that’s where all the excitement actually goes on.”

Stu: “Ha, ha.”

Me: “You know, this is really invasive.”

Stu: “Why? Are you saying you have something to hide?”

Me: “No, but it shouldn’t matter. The depth and nature of my relationships with my online friends shouldn’t be easier to find now than they were when I was choosing to present them online.”

Stu: “What difference does that make?”

Me: “All the difference. Everything people put on a site like FB is a carefully chosen representation of who they are and how they are connected to others, and one’s judgment about those representations is based on who you think you’re presenting it to – your understanding of who can see it – and how they can see it. This new architecture changes that, not only going forward but apparently going back, yet had this architecture been in place previously people might have chosen to present themselves online differently, more strategically.”

Stu: “I don’t think most people are as ‘strategic’ as you IR theorists are. And I don’t see how that’s Facebook’s responsibility anyway. Mark Zuckerberg and his talented crew of developers have created a cool new idea that will make it easier, among other things, to study those FB relationships. Network scholars like you should be estatic; one less thing you need to build. Perhaps Facebook will give estimates of error and validity, unlike some folks I hear about.”

Me: “It’s true that now we have precise data on ties within FB as well as on nodes. Alex will like that.”

Stu: (feigning knowingly-ness) “I’m sure he will.”

Me: “Don’t deflect my argument with your sideways comments. The purpose of Facebook isn’t, or shouldn’t be, to provide an open book for social scientists about citizens’ online behavior. It’s to connect people, but it’s to allow them to control those connections.”

Stu: “I suppose you could say the purpose of politics is not to provide an open book for studying as well, but as political scientists that might get us in some trouble with APSA.”

Me: “Facebook isn’t politics. People on Facebook aren’t public figures, they’re private citizens.”

Stu: “Isn’t the personal political?”

Me: “I do not think that means what you think it means.”

Stu: “Anyway it’s not just citizens on Facebook now. It’s everything: it’s corporations, civic groups, politicians. Facebook is basically the new internet. You aren’t uncomfortable with the Internet being open, are you?”

Me: “It may be morphing into the new Internet, but that’s not the function it was built for and it’s not what individuals signed up for when they created their accounts. They signed up for exclusivity, for the ability to create walls around their communities of friends and choose who to let in. And here’s what gets me: Zuckerberg knew that exclusivity is what would make Facebook popular. Yet over time he’s trying to undermine that with all these little maneuvers. The news feed. The ‘we own your data’ announcement. Making profile pictures public. The ‘Everyone’ default setting. And now the ‘You and X’ tool.”

Stu: “But you know what else is interesting. People who didn’t like the news feed used the news feed to argue against it. People protesting Facebook policies benefit from those policies in forming their protest.”

Me: “Just because you’re exercising voice instead of exit doesn’t mean you have to be loyal.”

Stu: “Fine, but I also don’t buy the argument that there is a “purpose” (singular) for Facebook. It stopped being for one purpose (if it ever was) a long time ago and since its graduation to a platform, the idea of The Real Purpose is even more preposterous. Facebook is a wildly popular platform for thousands of purposes. I find it interesting and worthy of study precisely for this reason.”

Me: That’s because you’re a MarkZist.

Stu: (laughing) “It’s true! I am a MarkZist. I was trained to study Karl Marx by old school Marxists. Now I study the machinations of an online world envisioned by Mark Z. To me, being a MarkZist means embracing, honoring and yes studying the distributed means of content production defined by the Internet and perfected by Facebook.”

Me: “I mean more than that. I mean that Zuckerberg subscribes to an entire hacktivist information-freedom-fighting culture that values truth and transparency for its own sake. But it’s not enough for him to hold and promote that ideology by striking against the powers that be in any way he can, like Julian Assange; Zuckerberg’s means are more nefarious. He imposes his ideology on users, seductively, through the architecture of his tool itself. People who like this ideology and are happy to see it inflicted on others through the tyranny of architecture are MarkZists.”

Stu: “I always struggle with the word ‘inflict’ in this context. There is no requirement to have a Facebook page. I do like that Facebook embraces architecture as a means for social change. It is hard to know in the moment what effect their ‘ideology’ will have on us ten years from now. After all, you’re not a Marxist are you?”

Me: “No, apparently just a socialist.”

Stu: (continuing) “And I wouldn’t say he’s fighting for information to be freed as an end in itself. I would say he imagines that freedom of information sobers people’s behavior.”

Me: “Who wants sobriety? People want the freedom to be human, to have secrets and different masks for different social contexts. And they don’t want information to be free, except about others in power over them; they want the freedom to control information about themselves.”

Stu: “Then they shouldn’t be on the Internet.”

Me: “I see. Anyone who doesn’t get in line behind MarkZism should be excluded from the information economy and the modern age. Sounds like totalitarianism to me.”

Stu: “It’s not totalitarianism. It’s capitalism.”

Me: “This isn’t about profit for Zuckerberg. He’s got a social agenda that he promotes through his company.”

Stu: “So does the entire green business community.”

Me: “But Zuckerberg’s agenda isn’t to save the planet or promote the common good. It’s to undermine our liberties. He has come out and said that he believes the age of privacy is over, all our identities should be public and he is planning to teach us these new social norms through his tools. And I for one think there is something rather frightening about that agenda.”

Stu: “Not everyone is as hung up on that as you. And just because someone’s frightened of something doesn’t mean it’s bad. No one should be punished simply for openly subscribing to MarkZism.”

Me: “Don’t dismiss me as some fear-industrial-complex mouthpiece. Yu know who else is ‘hung up’ on this? Congress is. Henry Farrell is.

Stu: “Who’s Henry Farrell?”

Me: “A blogger who might be very concerned about the software you’re building to allow people to study Facebook and Twitter feeds.”

Stu: “Tell him 30 days free trial is normal, but for him, 45. (chuckling) Anyway, that’s a perfect example. Our software only captures public information on Facebook feeds, whatever users share with “Everyone” using the API Open Graph. It can’t see anything that’s actually private. Folks could change their settings, after all.”

Me: “Fine, but my whole argument is that Facebook has made it so difficult to maintain your privacy that most people don’t even realize how public their information is. And now not only can anyone in the world see it who’s looking for it, but people like you are incentivizing the looking by making it easy and interesting to capture, archive and study those social relations.”

Stu: “But people have the responsibility to inform themselves. I mean, it’s true that some people will say, are you building tools to spy on folks? Of course not, I say. People are using other tools and platforms like Facebook and Youtube to spy on themselves and we just make it a bit easier.”

Me: “Spoken like a true MarkZist.”

Stu: “If they don’t like it, they can leave Facebook.”

Me: “It’s not that easy to commit a Facebook Suicide. That’s like saying, ‘America: Love it or Leave it.'”

Stu: “Please. You’re honestly comparing relocation out of one’s country to the choice of whether or not to switch software applications?”

Me: “Absolutely. In fact, I think leaving one’s physical country is actually easier than leaving one’s online social network, because so much of our social activity now is based on the Internet rather than on face-to-face interactions within our country. Thanks to Facebook, you can emigrate without losing your social network whom you rarely see anyway, but you can’t kill your Facebook page and keep your friendships intact because they’re so embedded now in social media.”

Stu: “That’s a tough sell.”

Me: “Well, maybe if you read some of my blog posts, you would understand why you’re wrong about that.”

Stu: “It’s cute how shocked you are that I don’t read all your posts. Look, I’ll prove how specious this argument is. I’ll delete my FB account right now. It’s not hard.”

Me: “Go for it. Delete your account. It’s harder than you think, and if you succeed, you’ll no longer be able to promote your software or your research articles through your FB page to your network; you’ll no longer have any idea what my ten brothers and sisters are saying about you; you won’t receive “hi cutie-pie” notes from me anymore; and most important you’ll have no way to keep track of what my friendship with Alex looks like on Facebook. Are you really going to give all that up?”

Stu: (pause) “OK, I’m going to think about it first, then delete my page. (thinking) OK, OK you have a point. But I’m making a choice to stay. And so I need to be prepared to accept whatever the Mark has in store for me.”

Me: “Ah, yes. Facebook: the opiate of the masses.”

Stu: “You’re one of those masses. When you write up your thoughts from this conversation on your blog and post the link to Facebook, won’t you be glad it goes viral precisely because of the architecture they’ve created? It’s like you’re saying that Facebook should never innovate.”

Me: “No, I’m saying that companies should innovate in a way that lets consumers opt in to the new features. What they should not do is significantly change the architecture unbidden, and along with it the meaning of people’s previous speech acts online. For example, FB could have announced the You and X feature, and made it possible to activate it for certain friends and not others, or made it possible to change the settings so I could see my relationships with certain friends (and they would have to agree) but others could only see those relationships if both I and my friend want them to.”

Stu: “But look at it from the point of view of Zuckerberg. He needs to make money somehow. He makes money by innovating.”

Me: “But he makes money with ads, and by selling those silly little FB credits in Walmart. And you don’t have to be evil to make money. Even Google thinks Facebook is hypocritical. Google, Stu. Do you remember when that GoogleZon video first came out on YouTube? You were the first person to be scared of the idea that one company would dominate digital information on the web. And now Facebook is trying to turn itself into the new web, only with a very different architecture deliberately sculpted to mold society in line with one man’s vision, a vision that over-writes centuries of Enlightenment norms.”

Stu: “But his vision isn’t about information domination. It’s about a new kind of transparency. It is a belief that everyone gets to have their fifteen minutes of fame and the fifteen people who think they are the bees knees. MarkZists think you can have this everyday and that their innovations make it happen more often for more people than ever before. It’s about letting people create and use data in nifty ways we cannot predict. As far as the history of capitalism goes, they are the fastest growing company ever. Those are marketplace votes; validation of a vision.”

Kid Number Two: “Can you guys stop arguing?”

Me: “Oh, we’re not arguing; we’re just having a spirited and very reasonable discussion.”

Kid Number One: “Whatever. What are we having for dinner?”

Stu: “More to the point, what are we having for dinner when this Rob guy comes to visit?”

Me: “Um, I think he’s a fan of potions.”

EPILOGUE: Kid Number Two: (later, at dinner) “So. What were you two arguing about anyway?”

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]