Two weeks ago I got some pushback on my Twitbook post, from a party who identified herself as “Toots.” (I can confirm without consulting social media of any kind that this pseudonym was being used in the Three Stooges sense of the word, connoting “broad” or “dame,” and not the Blazing Saddles sense, though I guess my ignorance of the contents of her Facebook feed makes that pure speculation at this point.) I won’t repeat our arguments here, but I refer you to this comment thread if you have not read them.
Conveniently, last week The Atlantic published a piece about new research that buttresses a couple of my central points. The author of the research, Benjamin Grosser, told the Atlantic’s Shirley Li that he started the research in 2012 after noticing his own Facebook behavior. “There were times when I was more focused on the numbers than the content itself,” he said. “I was more interested in how many likes I had instead of who liked it. I realized every time I logged in I looked at those numbers. Why was I caring? Why do I care so much?”
Grosser’s paper is brilliant (he created a software extension called “Demetricator” that removes those numbers from Facebook, and compared users’ results), and I think I best do it justice by quoting its contents directly. But the upshot is the precise conclusion of my previous post: that Facebook is “a technology of control,” not just a benign tool that improves human communication.
So without further ado, here are some excerpts from from Benjamin Grosser’s article in Computational Culture:
Despite a common belief that network and computational systems are neutral actors, enabling human communication and creativity, these systems enact a series of constraints on those who use them, directing their actions, limiting their options, and overall, constructing them as users.
In the case of Facebook, the company states that its mission is to “make the world more open and connected.” Given that software is Facebook’s primary asset—its deliverable product—we must examine both code and interface to understand the efficacy of this claim. Is Facebook’s interface design solely working to enable social connection, or does it work in other ways? Are the site’s data structures simply holding information in a convenient format, or does the design of those structures create other effects?
When a user first joins Facebook, he or she starts with zero friends. At this point the site is what Robert Gehl refers to as a “dehumanized network,” a site that appears as a “lifeless shell” without user-generated content. The primary consequence of this is an empty news feed. Without any connections the feed is inactive, and there is nothing to see. When the user adds one new friend or “likes” one new Page, the feed comes to life—but only at a trickle. When another is added its output increases. From there, the more friends/Pages a user adds or likes, the more active the feed becomes. In other words, this feed, which is the primary spectacle of Facebook, is only usable and/or useful with a significant friend network driving it. Its design teaches the user that more is necessary.
When users examine their profiles, they find that the system shows them how many friends they have. At the same time, every visit to someone else’s profile reveals how many friends that person has. These publicly viewable friend metrics play into our desire for more. When we are constantly being told how many friends we have, we are encouraged to add another, to make that number go higher, to exceed our current metrics. This is further reinforced by the interface, which places a “+1” in front of the “Add Friend” button. The system makes it appear as if adding a friend increments one’s social capital by one.
While the news feed teaches users to keep adding friends, the “like” button most heavily activates the desire for more. Clicking “like” is the central expression of agency on Facebook, the site’s signature feature and its most visible symbol. Facebook users “like” a friend’s “status,” “like” a “Page” for their favorite band, or “like” an ad for their local pizza place. The site tallies these “likes,” aggregates the “likers,” and foregrounds the resulting quantification. This happens everywhere: underneath every post on the news feed, aside every photo, and under every ad in the right-hand column.
The ever-increasing list of friends leads the “like” to function as an instrument of social capital. A larger network of connections enables a larger audience for “likes,” and the “likes” themselves serve as indicators of connection. More “likes” suggest more popularity. Less “likes” suggest something that didn’t connect, that didn’t warrant this essential action.
The “like” also functions as a form of symbolic capital, as a unit of trade in the recognition and prestige within one’s social group. This is because Facebook is becoming a new space of social visibility at a time when our ability to display more traditional markers of success (cars, houses, etc.) is under attack by everything from health care costs to public sector defunding. Facebook appears to be a more equalizing space, a place where an accumulation of likes becomes an “ideal weapon in [the] strategies of distinction,” a method of separation that distinguishes the popular from the unpopular. Specifically, this accumulation comes in the form of likes received and likes given. Likes given demonstrate our taste and culture to others, while likes received suggest that our statements and collections are worthy of recognition. When this need for esteem intersects with the desire for more, the accumulation of social and symbolic capital becomes the primary objective of the metricated social self.
Given the relationships between these metrics and the prestige, esteem, and various forms of capital I described earlier, this graphoptic potential manifests as an internalized need to excel in metric terms—to exceed in whatever areas are easily seen and, most importantly, measured by others (e.g. “likes,” friends, and all other metric presentations of self within Facebook). While one Facebook user can’t know if their friend count is being observed at any one moment, they know that any number of users could be looking at any moment. Their Timeline is open to all of their friends, and in many cases to all of the world. Therefore, users need to maintain a high-performing metric presentation at all times, complete with as many friends as they can make, or as many likes as they can accrue, if they are to appear to be doing well whenever they might be observed.
This need for high metric performance is further influenced by the workings of Facebook’s News Feed algorithm. The more a user interacts with likes, comments, and other similar objects throughout the site, the more the algorithm favors that user’s posts and thus shows them on the news feeds of their friends. More interaction leads to more visibility, while less interaction can leave a user unseen by others.
These examples illustrate my argument that metrics employ strategies to push us into “pre-existing flows”—wanting more, “liking” more, and sharing more—all in the service of increased user engagement. And through its quantifications of social interaction, Facebook thus becomes a technology of control that pushes for continuous consumption within its system of metrics. More is the thing that metrics want.
Facebook Demetricator and the Easing of Prescribed Sociality
So, if Facebook, through its metrics, prescribes certain kinds of social interactions, what would a social network without quantifications be like? How would the absence of metrics change our interactions within networked space? As an artist, one of the ways I ask questions like these is to intervene within a system in order to examine how that system changes who we are and what we do. Toward that end, I created a work I call Facebook Demetricator.
Facebook Demetricator (Demetricator) is a free and open source web browser extension that removes all metrics from the Facebook interface. Friend counts disappear. “Like” quantifications vanish. Shares are no longer enumerated.
The upshot? Well, perhaps Toots will chime in (no pun intended!!) with a rebuttal, but here are a few comments from people who used Grosser’s Demetricator:
“[Facebook is] so much more enjoyable without constant (subconscious) pressure to compare when numbers are involved.”
“Now it doesn’t matter to me how many likes something has. My opinion is based on the quality of the post and its discussion. It’s not a competition! I enjoy it so much more.”
“Facebook … has become a massive number glut, so much so that the notifications become like meth, you just can’t stop checking and rechecking. It simply became a nervous addiction for me, inadvertently. But, that all changed when I downloaded the add-on. No more ridiculous liking stats, no more mounds of notifications or the number of comments on other’s statuses. It added a Zen element to the entire format, and I finally feel at ease. It takes out that crucial element that makes Facebook addictive to myself and so many other people.”