The elementary ideological effect
It has always perplexed me that Venmo — an app that facilitates splitting restaurant bills or making cashless purchases from vendors who don’t take credit — was ever touted as a kind of social media. The fact that it had a “social” feed displaying a list of users’ transactions never made much sense as anything but an advertisement for the service itself, a kind of proof of its popularity and presumable reliability: All these other people you know (and all these other vendors) trust us with their commerce. It was the network-era equivalent of constructing a bank building out of marble.
Yet when the app first gained traction in the mid 2010s, its feed was typically touted as proof of how casual, if not eager, people had become about sharing personal information. The eradication of privacy norms — which mainly benefits technology companies — was often presented in the press as though it were driven by consumer demand, as though people wouldn’t use a payment app unless it told everyone in the world and especially those in their social circle when they were spending and what they were spending on. Usually this description was accompanied by a nannying tone — “these phone-crazy millennials really should be more careful about their privacy” — which both let the tech companies off the hook for instituting data vulnerability by default and normalized the idea that tech users were vain and irrational about publicity risks.
A weirdly anachronistic piece by Brian X. Chen in today’s New York Times has some of this tenor: It reminds readers to check their privacy settings on apps like Venmo, claiming that they were launched when “social norms” about privacy were different.
At the time, social networking was novel, and posting your thoughts, movements and achievements for everyone to know about was cutting edge, not sinister. Since then, we have learned the hard way that sharing such seemingly innocuous information can be hazardous. Stalkers, employers or data brokers can use the data to study our whereabouts and activities to target us.
This proposition — that the novelty of social media made everyone excited to expose themselves — sometimes passes for a commonsense history of the recent past, glossing over not only the many critics who warned of the hazards at the time but the effort tech companies have put in to make the surveillance that’s intrinsic to their products and business models seem more palatable, reshaping the social norms they pretend to cater to. The opposition proposed here between “sinister” and “cutting edge” is a false construct that obscures the fundamental ambivalence of surveillance, how it always unites control with care, exposure with opportunity, and renders them inseparable. It echoes how suspicion toward social media, when they were first introduced, was widely treated as deviant, as a form of being against society itself rather than its commercial subsumption.
There is nothing new, of course, about being surveilled or being told that it is the price of social inclusion. How “cutting edge,” really, was the compulsion to confess — to convert one’s life into data in exchange for the illusion of possessing a soul, or a unique individual subjectivity, or proof of one’s “authenticity”? Foucault located it somewhere in the 18th century, if not earlier. But the advent of a personal tracking device (the cell phone) made new degrees and dimensions of control possible, warranting a more vigorous campaign to rationalize surveillance as it became more intrusive. More of everyday life was to be reshaped to accommodate and valorize ubiquitous exposure.
Why not allow people to pretend to have volunteered for what they are going to be made to do anyway? Why not let them “share” what will already be taken from them? “Transform your desire, your every desire, into discourse” (as Foucault describes Christian confession in The History of Sexuality Vol. 1); that way sharing becomes equivalent to desiring, and processing that data just becomes a prerequisite to having that desire fulfilled, not a means of being manipulated.
“Sharing” — i.e. relinquishing control over one’s data, or being compelled to provide more data than necessary for a particular service to be preformed, or being forced to consent to one’s data being repurposed in anyway data collectors decide is profitable — is in nearly every case driven from the top down by coercion, which is why privacy settings are invariably confusing to navigate or alter, are frequently changed by tech companies without consulting users, and almost always default to conditions that are not in consumers’ interests. It is almost never driven by a consumer’s desire to surrender their privacy or trade it away for some service in a rigged market in which they have no leverage over the terms. But over time it becomes akin to what Foucault calls a “perverse implantation”: It is invested with pleasure by manifest power relations. Or to put that in a different theoretical register: “Sharing” on tech companies’ terms has become part of our imaginary relation to the real conditions of our existence; the practice itself is ritualized ideology.
Chen’s article, which presents itself as a “reminder” to readers to check their privacy settings and highlights the risks they run, still shies away from offering an account of why Venmo users have been rendered so vulnerable by default in the first place. It essentially blames those users for being subject to a predatory corporate policy. So it is that the article can cite a claim that “the app relied on people’s public oversharing as a marketing mechanism” even as it details how that “oversharing” was induced by the app itself. “Oversharing” is an incoherent term that compounds the ideological use of “sharing,” proposing that there could be a correct amount of user exploitation that would be reasonable.
Rather than challenge the narrative that consumers were predisposed to have their data exploited, the article falls back instead on the idea that “social apps” were just magically popular and didn’t seem to need marketing. “Venmo rode the coattails of companies like Facebook and Twitter, which brought the concept of a public timeline into the mainstream,” Chen writes, which is accurate but also insufficient when presented as a self-explanatory fact. How the apps accomplished that mainstreaming is ultimately what is at issue. Social media companies certainly mainstreamed the idea that people’s privacy should not be respected and should be unilaterally trespassed upon until they adapted to the new “norms.”
Even this otherwise useful Markup piece about how to read privacy policies accepts a framing where the burden is on overmatched individuals to try to protect themselves from corporations, and less time is spent exploring why privacy policies are allowed to be so opaque and adversarial. The article emphasizes how to interpret the policies, even as one of cited experts notes they are so vague that they “are not meaningful.” Simply understanding what the companies are doing is presented as a kind of victory, although it’s a Pyrrhic one, since often users have no recourse but to accept them or be deprived of a service altogether.
I know, whatever. Social media are ideological apparatuses and panopticons. Pleasure is brought in to rationalize power or powerlessness. You can’t dispel ideology simply by identifying it. You can’t modulate your individual relation to “social norms” by tweaking an app’s settings. None of this is news. But decades into it, the game goes on where we pretend that social media platforms are about allowing ordinary people to express themselves, that they mean to accommodate rather than administrate the lives of their users, that they aren’t user-friendly skins stretched atop the tracking devices we are more or less compelled to carry.
As social media companies gravitated to mobile apps, they discovered their most profitable purpose, to mainstream individualized tracking for the advertising industry, with “public timelines” to distract users from the far more consequential and thorough data streams being exchanged and exploited behind their backs. In short, social media are not about “sharing” but about tracking. If such platforms are losing their luster or impact — as these kinds of pieces propose — this is not because people don’t want to share anymore; it’s because the platforms have accomplished their mission of normalizing surveillance to the degree where it no longer requires an alibi.
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