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Grifting, Garbage and Graph Search

Money is much beloved by tech companies and major websites, yet it is hardly the most important thing for them. What glitters most brightly is not gold, but information. Granted, unlike in the case of love (forgive the joke), money can actually buy a great deal of information – as the acquisition of smaller social network sites (and the like) by larger companies illustrates. When Yahoo! bought Tumblr the former company bought a lot of information (and cat pictures) likewise when Facebook bought Instagram it bought a lot of information (and self portraits taken with smart phones), and when Amazon bought Goodreads it got a  lot of, well, you see where this is going.

As tech/web companies battle for more control of the Internet and what people do on the Internet one of the main things they compete for is more information (and increasingly many are tech and web companies [see: Google {who knows, one day it might even be a country}]). After all, the more information they have than the more “value” they can claim to have for the purposes of selling space to advertisers (which gives them more money with which to buy more information and the cycle continues). The Internet may be a limitless frontier, but the resource in demand is information, and these companies are competing to control its harvesting and flow.

Yet, beyond boasting of these informational holdings to advertisers, one of the questions that remains for many people is what is being done with this information? In order to continually prove worthy of being entrusted with large amounts of information these companies must occasionally trot out new products and services that demonstrate why it is wonderful that we have given these companies so much information. One can legitimately wonder how much value is truly to be found in all this information, as was commented upon by Neil Postman (in his book Technopoly) where he wrote:

“Information has become a form of garbage, not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions but barely useful in providing coherent directions to the solution of even mundane problems.” (Postman, 69/70)

It is into this fray that Facebook is not so much dipping its digital toe as shoving its users into a wave pool with a flimsy life-preserver on which the word “privacy” is faded almost to the point of illegibility. After all, Postman may invoke “garbage” but we all know the adage about “one person’s trash, will be rooted through and sold off by somebody else” (that’s how it goes [right?]). The wave pool is called Graph Search.

Having the word “search” in its title makes it fairly clear what the service is, yet it enters the search game in an interesting fashion. Facebook may know that it can’t truly compete with Google when it comes to a straight up search, and thus it is using all of the information it has gathered for a different way to search. Facebook may not be able to answer the “fundamental human questions” that Postman alludes to, but they’re willing to take a shot at the “mundane problems;” like where to get a slice of pizza. Instead of querying the vast abyss of the Internet, graph search allows users to target queries around friends, or friends of friends. So, instead of searching for “Pizza in New York” you could search through your “friends in New York who like Pizza” and see what pizzerias they’ve “liked.”

Though this new service has been in the works for quite some time, it has only recently been unleashed, though the occurrence has been done with relatively muted fanfare. Possibly due to the fact that the unveiling occurred at a somewhat unfortunate time – coinciding as it did during a period of renewed concern about privacy brought on by the revelations about the NSA. Granted, Facebook’s Graph Search is part of a longer strategy, one that counts on people being convinced that privacy is not too serious a concern. After all, for Graph Search to thrive it does not just need people to keep sharing, it needs them to share more. Some of the early reviews (from tech sites) have looked at Graph Search and praised it for its future potential, and to meet that Facebook needs your cooperation.

This quandary is in evidence in Vindu Goel’s New York Times article about the unveiling of Graph Search with the amusingly propagandistic title “A New Tool Aims to Help Facebook Users Dig Deep.” It is an article which could have easily been titled “A New Tool Aims to Help Facebook Dig Deeper” without requiring changing a word of content in the actual article, but that’s beside the point. For Graph Search to be appealing it must make its appeal to the users not those who use the users. Goel explains that part of the way Graph Search functions is that Facebook:

“analyzes the virtual check boxes that people fill out on the site, like movie pages they have liked, restaurants they have checked into, the city they live in and their relationship status.”

Which makes it abundantly clear that if Facebook wants to improve Graph Search it has to get more people to click more of those “virtual check boxes” and it has to get them in the habit of clicking ever more “virtual check boxes” about more things, more often. Facebook has well over a billion users and boasts of an incoming data surge of millions of new informational items a minute, but that is still not quite sufficient to feed the hungry maw of Mammon. Big Data evidently has a big appetite and it requires feeding. Yet to Big Data we all get to be appealing targets – we are not all financially rich – but we are all rich in information. In The Fear of Freedom Erich Fromm wrote (in regards to the rise of capitalism):

“Man became a cog in the vast economic machine—an important one if he had much capital, an insignificant one if he had none—but always a cog to serve a purpose outside himself.” (Fromm, 95)

To Graph Search (and Big Data companies) we remain cogs, serving “a purpose outside,” but we all get to command “much capital” when our personal information becomes “capital.” The informational riches held by tech users were displayed recently by the NSA’s lust for the metadata of millions of ordinary people. And this may represent a challenge of sorts. People will continue to turn merrily as cogs unless they are forced to realize they are cogs, at which point they may balk. Therefore, in the wake of the NSA revelations (which are still ongoing [very much so]) there may be a resurgence in interest in privacy and this very well may make people skeptical of sharing more, of clicking more of those “like” buttons. Though a degree of added skepticism is a far cry from a wholesale boycott of Facebook (so far a cry that the echo is barely audible). Thus it is unsurprising that Facebook (according to Goel’s article):

“promises that Graph Search will show only information that the searcher would normally be allowed to see under the privacy settings defined by the person who posted the data.”

This is at best well intentioned rubbish (on the part of Facebook not Goel) and is more likely another example of the panoptic con (wherein all-seeing technological systems misleadingly promise to be trustworthy receptacles for personal information). Facebook has a fairly well established track record of changing its privacy policies quicker than users can respond (and frequently doing it in a way that doesn’t provide proper awareness). For Graph Search to be a success it requires access to as much information as it can scrape up, and a few thousand exoduses from Facebook is small price for the company to pay.

Yet what Facebook really needs to do is figure out how to encourage more clicks of the “like” button, more moments when people select “share on Facebook.” Facebook has proven quite canny at mutilating language, from “friend,” to “home” (more recently), to “like,” and one of the things that Graph Search alters further is community (insofar as we interact with our friends). After all, Graph Search removes the need for the basic personal communications entailed in even e-mailing, texting, or (heck) Facebook messaging another person. Now all that will be needed is to query Graph Search and it will ask your friends for you. Facebook already has a great deal of information, as do similar companies, but they need more, always more. As Postman observed (writing many years before Facebook [heck, his observations predate Friendster]):

“We are a culture consuming itself with information, and many of us do not even wonder how to control the process. We proceed under the assumption that information is our friend, believing that cultures may suffer grievously from a lack of information…It is only now beginning to be understood that cultures may also suffer grievously from information glut, information without meaning, information without control mechanisms.” (Postman, 70)

In the guise of creating an ever richer informational portrait of ourselves (through clicking all those “like” buttons), we are allowed to believe that we are making life easier for ourselves. But this is an ease which makes us ever more reliant on technology. By filling in the details of our avatars we may think we are overcoming alienation but our reward is further alienation from each other as technology turns our friendships into simple search functions. “Friend” was already warped by Facebook, but Graph Search further undermines the concept, as a friend ceases to be a person you ask a question of and becomes just a pile of data that a search queries on your behalf. We no longer even need to communicate with our friends. Or, to return to Fromm:

“Not only the economic, but also the personal relations between men have this character of alienation; instead of relations between human beings, they assume the character of relations between things…Man does not only sell commodities, he sells himself and feels himself to be a commodity.” (Fromm, 103)

Graph Search is nothing without your data, which is another way of saying that Graph Search is nothing without you. For whenever you consume the informational treats passed out by technological systems you may be consuming information but you are also being consumed. While privacy settings can be updated and Facebook accounts can be deactivated, paranoia is still not a sufficient response. Graph Search is a reminder of the fact that to the unblinking webcam eyes of Big Data all that we are and all that our relationships are is information to be fed into a system. In the scheme of search and social networks Graph Search is a gambit, an attempt to pull users away from other services (such as dating websites), but it is a game in which people’s participation was assumed even if they created their Facebook accounts long before Graph Search was even being considered.

One of the emerging strengths of Big Data systems is their effective counter to Postman’s (earlier in the post) quote about information, for big data can spin the informational garbage into passable answers for “mundane problems.” Yet Graph Search – and Big Data – still cannot answer the fundamental human questions; however, they can convince us that those aren’t questions worth pondering or redefine the “human” elements in such a way as to make us thing we’re getting answers.

It’s usually enjoyable to share your likes and dislikes with your friends, to make recommendations and so forth. But when you click the “like” button you aren’t telling your friends, you’re telling Facebook, and Facebook has shown repeatedly that it’s actually a pretty untrustworthy friend. At the very least one expects a friend to see you as a human, a real person, but regardless of what their advertisements might say to Big Data companies’ people are only things. There to be used and exploited.

Other Posts on Related topics:

The Panoptic Con

“More than Machinery, We need Humanity”

Paranoia is not  a Strategy

The Triumph of Technique

“The Machine is Ambivalent”

Big Data is coming to town!

Works Cited

Fromm, Erich. The Fear of Freedom. Routledge Classics, 2001.

Postman, Neil. Technopoly. Vintage Books, 1993.

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

6 comments on “Grifting, Garbage and Graph Search

  1. Dramonovich
    July 19, 2013

    Interesting analysis. One can see the truth in your words. The data mines cloaked in gold filigree are like the display of pastries in a bakery window. All appear tantalizing, tempting – yet we must bear in mind they are first businesses, now corporate giants that lack the sensitivity to be in touch with the customer (Aol) before big money pulled it into the nether regions of CEO’s and “smooshed” the common net user. As is life profit to become bigger is a must (sometimes sadly), remember Yahoo Mashable (a site offering friends, lines of communications and info sharing.
    Now its Myspace disappearing like the mists and morphed into a boardroom musical (results yet to be measured on Financial Times). Then we shall see.
    Right now even with change you can see oneself evolve. Is it too late to tame the electronic beasts within ourselves?
    Results are pending.

  2. TheOprimerVIII
    July 20, 2013

    Reblogged this on TheOprimer VIII.

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