“A quarter-century after the advent of the World Wide Web, communication has become synonymous with surveillance.” The opening sentence of Terms of Service tells you all you need to know about where Jacob Silverman stands on the digital booster, digital skeptic continuum. Through roughly 400 pages that range across the sharing economy, digital identity construction, the emotional life of social media, and the erosion of privacy, Silverman provides a convincing accounting of the “price of constant connection,” and it’s one that raises some deep and justifiable concerns. It’s not just a matter of luddite rejection of technology, but rather “much needed skepticism . . . against the parlous influence of those with money.” Terms of Service, Silverman writes, “offers a doubting perspective of Silicon Valley titans and a sympathetic treatment of those who find the new digital culture stultifying or overwhelming. That’s where the allegiances of this book lie — with those who don’t have power, who don’t have anything to sell.” In expanding the discourse out the “tech-only” trap set by most commentators on these issues, Terms of Service is an important, salutary, and of course very timely book. And lest you get the impression that it’s all doom and gloom, it’s also lively, nuanced, and at times darkly funny.
Over e-mail we asked Jacob how the book grew out of his previous work on online culture, how it was difficult to avoid the “solutionist” ethos that pervades writing on these topics, and the relationship between madness and digital life.
Alex Shephard: This book came out of an essay you published a few years ago in Slate. That essay was about social media, but it was primarily about how social media was used in the literary world. That essay was controversial — a number of people criticized it for paying more significant attention to women writers then to men. Terms of Service is thematically consistent with that essay, but only up to a point — they both share a sense that social media is degrading our cultural life, but that’s about it. (Or at least, that’s about it, as I read the book.) How did the book evolve out of that essay? And, did the criticism that essay received inform that evolution?
Jacob Silverman: That essay was supposed to be about social media’s culture of self-promotion, the effects of advertising, the pressures to brand oneself, and how all that intersects with the literary world. A lot of people seem to identify with it — I still get emails about it, and I can’t say that for most of my work. But I also took the criticisms the essay received seriously. I was probably careless and didn’t consider how my critique could have seemed gendered. I feel bad about that. Obviously, the Internet can be a very unkind place to women, and I have no desire to contribute to that. That’s one reason why, for the book, I looked at how viral media — at least in its cruder, more mocking manifestations — often targets women, minorities, and other marginalized people. I also tried to look at how the panoptic gaze of social media can be pretty frightening for people who associate it with harassment, vulnerability, or over-exposure.
As for how other ways it might have informed the book, I tried to think more deeply about these issues of self-promotion and branding and how it can seem as if we are all, to some extent, public figures now. This is not something limited to the literary community (if there even is such a thing anymore — I’m doubtful), though with a lot of marketing duties devolving onto writers, it is something many of us experience. Other creative types, who are increasingly contingent workers, have told me the same.
There is also a way in which social media encourages a kind of promotional attitude, no matter what we might be sharing. These platforms are very busy spaces, and if we want to be heard through the din (or picked up by the Newsfeed algorithm), we have to flog our material well. Often that provokes a kind of intensification of rhetoric, of excitement — see, for example, how often people on Twitter use “literally” or other superlatives (this is the best NYT correction ever, or the best penguin photo ever, and so on). I think there’s an implicit salesmanship that develops, especially when you are conditioned to receive immediate responses — likes, favorites, etc. — and perhaps have a sense of what “works” best to achieve that. In the same way that there are SEO best practices, there are sharing best practices, styles of expression that perform better on these platforms that often seem very market-driven in character. Luke-warm sentiments don’t play very well in this kind of environment, which is why I think we often see two polarities on the social web — advertising-style cheer and full-throated outrage.
Michael Schapira: One of the ironies of social media, meant to give more and more individuals a platform and create endless avenues for connection, is that it has wired depersonalization into our economy. You talk about the incoherencies in Internet advertising (metrics are notoriously unreliable, trying to quantify things like attention or engagement that are hard to quantify), as well as how irony and non-traditional phrasing get accidentally included or excluded from trending topics. A friend of mine runs a website that is now being squeezed by a method of advertising that is growing in popularity, where a bunch of sites are grouped together, submitted to analytics and segmented, and then ads are bought in the most rational sense, according to the data. This reduces ad buys that require judgment (on the part of the buyers), sales (in a negotiation between the sites and the buyers), and more importantly, levels of money that have been shaved off by the analytics and the waste it is supposed to cut. Do you think depersonalization was a natural consequence of social media, or do you have more conflicted thoughts on whether things had to develop this way?
I think one way of looking at it is that websites are just becoming delivery systems for advertising. Advertisers are also pretty powerful — after all, they’ve funding this whole shindig — so they have the power to coerce people like your friend into arrangements that might not be best for them. This is also why we’ve developed that great word to describe any writing online: “content.” It really doesn’t matter what’s in the content that a site is delivering; it’s more important that it can be categorized for advertising purposes and that it’s compatible with all the requisite analytics and data collection services.
Even the advertising itself is being automated and succumbing to a kind of depersonalization. Witness how Facebook and Google+ posts can be repackaged by advertisers and posted as ads on your friends’ feeds, so they might see your post about going to the latest Fast & Furious movie on Monday, and on Tuesday, it’ll appear as an ad, next to the Newsfeed, paid for by the studio. This is all part of a wider convergence between advertising and content, from sponsored content to liking brand pages to interacting with brands on Twitter or Tumblr. And as you mention, a lot of metrics are broken, while plenty of advertising is shown to bots or otherwise not visible to users (e.g. videos auto-playing down screen, out of view). There’s some irony to this, as users themselves are being turned into nodes in the advertising feedback loop, where they only matter insofar as they can express some personal preferences so that the next piece of targeted advertising might be more “relevant.”
Was this inevitable? Maybe, as long as advertising was allowed to be the sole underwriter of the web and social media. There’s that old maxim, in which some exec says, “I know half my advertising works; I just don’t know which half.” The problem with modern advertising is that it carries the promise to know which half works. And this is dangerous because it encourages ever more invasive surveillance, data mining, and optimization of this process. Ads can always be more “relevant” and consumer data ever more granular. The virtue of old advertising was that there wasn’t this possibility of quanitification. There was market research and focus groups and the like, but your magazine or TV wouldn’t monitor you to see how long you lingered on something or to track your eye movements. It could be crass or socially regressive — and often threatened or shaped editorial standards in a variety of media — but it wasn’t invasive in the sense that we have now.
That’s why I do agree with the notion, which I’ve seen mentioned elsewhere, that advertising is kind of the original sin of the social web. Still, to truly do that idea justice, you’d probably have to look at both the technical reasons for this (cookies and other such technologies) as well as the cultural ones (people are reluctant to pay for digital goods).
Michael: Indulge me with an incredibly pretentious question. After 300 plus pages of descriptive accounts of our ever growing culture of surveillance, the disruptive effects of social media on the economy and world of employment, and the potentially corrosive influence of online life on politics, you inevitably turn to the “what is to be done” question. Forgive me for the grandiose comparison, but I saw the prescriptive part of your account following two lines that emerged from the Left in response to the critiques of consumerism and the ascendency of global capitalism in the 1960s. The first line suggests a set of tactics, everyday acts of resistance (reminiscent of Michel de Certeau’s discussion of “la perruque” in The Practice of Everyday Life). These are small scale, but available to any user of social media. The second deals with more structural fixes — legislation like the ‘Digital Bill of Rights,’ and this harkens back to remnants of the Old Left that still wanted to insist on categories like class, ideology, and state power. Again, forgive the comparison, but in your final chapter did you see yourself as participating in this longer running tradition of responding to the totalizing features of capitalism, which is to say is your ultimate concern political-economy as opposed to the culture of digital media?
Oh, man, that’s great because I’m pretentious, too. I also like to talk about capitalism. My critical theory reading is pretty scattershot (I’m working on it), so I can’t exactly claim the influences you mention, but I know the history. And I think we have a lot to learn from the anti-consumerist critiques of the 1960s and onward. One-Dimensional Man seems relevant to me, especially with its idea of consumerism as social control. With online advertising helping to drive online surveillance, our consumption has become clearly linked to forces that seek, if not to control us, then to guide our behaviors, sometimes against our own self-interest.
So yes, I’m all in favor of Situationist stunts, old-fashioned culture-jamming, some types of vandalism, and other lefty throw-your-bodies-upon-the-wheels tactics that may have fallen cynically out of fashion. But I also see a lot of this type of stuff out there, so that’s why I celebrated some of its practitioners in the last chapter of my book. Just as we’re still learning the contours of this type of power (algorithmic, inscrutable, an automated bureaucracy of software), we’re still finding ways to “rebel” against these systems. What counts as subversive when you’re monitored all day, when we’re all so overwhelmed (consuming and consumed with) information that a kind of indifference sets in? Does it matter? Or is it worth exploring what kind of weird stunts and art projects and browser extensions and bots people come up with? Maybe it’s a novelty that’ll wear off, or maybe there’s a deeper critique in some of this stuff. The browser extension that de-metrifies Facebook, for example, is kind of remarkable. Suddenly, all the numbers, all the metrics, go away. What would it be like to be on a social network without metrics? It’d be a vastly different experience.
The other reason I cotton on to some of this stuff is that it might not serve a purpose. In this relentlessly optimized, instrumentalist world, I want stuff that isn’t useful, that isn’t easily categorized and mined for value. I want stuff that’s weird and unstable, that gets deleted. We live in a new age of positivism, with Big Data promising to offer us new social facts. One way to oppose this nonsense is through argument; another is through radical indifference, something performative that can easily be beautiful as it could be dumb.
[deep throat clearing] All that said, I’m not totally self-absorbed, and I think we can act pragmatically even while behaving radically in other ways. There’s something to be said for the altruism of lobbying for policies that, however imperfect, affect many people (more than just a small circle of intellectuals or avant-garde digital artists). It’s hard, necessary work, doing the kind of stuff that people at the ACLU do or at some of these small privacy watchdog organizations. Sure, I’d like to see the NSA dismantled, its halls moldering into ruins we walk through with our grandchildren, but I’d also like a bill that shrinks its budget or makes the FISA process more adversarial.
Still, I do find that much of what I’m writing about does get back to big structural features about capitalism, or digital capitalism if you’d like. Many of the people suffering from some form of information overload who decide to do a digital detox (these are crude, if not misleading, terms, but oh well) are actually dealing with issues related to capitalism — overwork; expectations from their job that they’ll be always online and on call; the erasure of the barrier between the personal and the professional; an explosion of unnecessary emails (each one a small piece of work), meetings, paperwork, and other trifles. And with so much of what we do and say, along with where we go, now being digitized, our entire lives are subject to the value extraction machine represented by data collection, surveillance, advertising, data brokers, and the like. That’s what it really comes down to: companies extracting value not just from your consumption, but from the raw materials of your life, the informationalized version of yourself. And all justified by the liberationist dogma of neoliberalism, which Silicon Valley heartily embraces.
But the discourse around some of these issues gets sidetracked by the technology. Health insurers offering real time insurance rates in exchange for Fitbit data is a phenomenon enabled by technology. But surge pricing, price-gouging insurance companies, and the marketization of health care predate fitness trackers. And they’re also the more important issues. (I think I’m echoing Morozov in some way here.) And this is where I’m not interested in pragmatism. The solution to the privacy concerns of Fitbit data is not to set up a careful regulatory regime that can make sure consumer interests are protected while insurers are still able to use and profit from real-time health data. No, it’s to institute universal health care.
The solutions to our problems are political, not technological.
Michael: Was the “what is to be done” chapter easy to write?
Frankly, I didn’t want to write it. It wasn’t that I was categorically opposed, but I get frustrated with that non-fiction convention that after diagnosing some problem(s), the writer offers some tidy solutions in the last chapter or two. But here I went and kind of did that. But also kind of not, I hope. And this is why I also allow some ambiguity to creep in, along with some celebrating of culture jammers, activists, and a few better not categorized. I’m tired of solutionism.
Michael: Indulge a reader of philosophy (yet more pretention). Towards the end of the book you are discussing online identity construction and the feeling of alienation from the flow of everyday experience that this can bring. After admitting that you have certainly felt this, you write that you “found some philosophical ballast in Heidegger, Husserl, and other thinkers who emphasize that there is no division between us and the world.” For a book that is so steeped in journalism and the social sciences, I found this surprising, and was wondering if you can say more about the way this project affected your reading of philosophy and literature.
I wasn’t sure about keeping that line. It seemed maybe like an affectation or gesturing at something that I should’ve done more with. But in that context, writing about digital detox (and trying to find a more expansive, complicated definition of it), I was writing about interpretive tools that people use, tools that also bring them comfort. The person I interviewed studied mindfulness and exercised. There’s a lot I like in phenomenology and its attitude (a Heideggerian term, I guess) toward the world. The transcendental ego, to me, resembles the Facebook Eye — both are kinds of internal commentary, an elevated, split perspective on what we are experiencing. And both lead, at least in my own view, to anxiety and neuroticism. There’s also something very deliberate about phenomenology that I like, its emphasis on describing the world as it is, as one encounters it.
But I worried about the book taking too philosophical a turn, ending up in the phenomenological weeds. Thomas de Zengotita, from whom I took grad classes in media studies and philosophy, does a nice job at doing what might be called phenomenological media criticism. Broadly speaking, he combines anthropology, philosophy, and media theory. I’ve gotten a lot out of his approach and his book, Mediated. I could see myself doing more writing in this vein, especially as I get farther in my reading, but I’m also somewhat of an intellectual magpie, taking what I can where I can. I don’t really feel attached to a school or discipline, and this book didn’t seem like the place to make such a claim. Maybe this is a byproduct of reading and writing the way we often do now — fragmented, scattered, everything shorn of context, stumbled upon, linked to.
Michael: This isn’t really a fully formed question — but something that comes up over and over again in your book are instances of mental illness. Often we find out that the subject of a viral story has suffered from mental illness, which may make us feel bad, but for the fact that “we” (the participants in the viral storm) have moved on to something new. I’m not sure if you came across any studies of mental illness and online life in your research for the book, but is the looming presence of mental illness something that you also noticed? (If you look at certain photos of Jeff Bezos, and consider the projects he is investing in like the 10,000 year clock, the tech barons of today might also be touched by mental illness.)
I wonder about this a lot and also why this idea doesn’t get more play. Not that it’s gone unnoticed. Relatedly, there’s been some great writing about class and race issues surrounding videos of poor black people colorfully recounting crimes in local newscasts. But I think most people would rather not think about the subjects of viral videos as people, much less as people who might be suffering, even as they do something awful. There’s a horrible phrase in digital media: snackable content. Viral videos, blog posts, and whole ersatz culture of sharing and shaming surrounding what is snackable content. Quick, fast, consumable, throwaway. There are periodic “where are they now?” pieces about particular viral stars, and that helps to inculcate a sense of curiosity, I think, and hopefully some empathy as well. But there’s still such an element of the freak show surrounding it; you can see that in documentaries like Winnebago Man.
Again, I may be overlooking some academic study about mental illness and viral media. But reality TV is also fairly well known for casting unstable, if not mentally ill types, and putting them in stressful situations. Provocation is built into the structure of the show (I’m sure the production companies are well insured). Something similar happens with viral media, or at least with anything premised on shaming, #fail, or some other can-you-fucking-believe-this-guy kind of content. Editors, perhaps forced by company policy, are looking for content that can be packaged into something quick/shocking/controversial/funny. The explosion of amateur video is of course essential in all this. But so is greater access to local news reports, public records, and arrest records. And we know that mentally ill people make up a great number of the people who are arrested (and more likely to be caught on CCTV or someone’s smartphone). Then they get mugshotted and the mugshot is posted online, where Gawker or The Smoking Gun can get it. That’s sort of the pipeline that often leads a mentally ill person to viral infamy. (And most likely, some sketchy mugshot site will scrape that sheriff’s database and post the accused’s mugshot and demand $500 to take it down.)
It’s also worth noting that so much of viral media is simply untrue, if not guilty of a thousand errors by omission. It’s a big game of telephone. Or maybe it’s a confidence game, because a lot of people — certainly those viral content editors — know that most of this stuff is bullshit, not even worthy of Snopes. We share it because we can, because we don’t have much better to do and some of it does seem funny and it’s easier to send a “check this out” link to a friend than to ask, or demand, something more. We’re all tired and pour enough work into these screens as it is. So if you start by acknowledging that viral media is basically a fiction, but a fiction that can wreck people’s lives, and that we consume it mostly as near-nihilistic fluff to get through the day, then the whole thing starts crumbling. And plenty of people will never bother with that kind of awareness or criticism.