Surveillance and the Social Layer

by Rob Horning

2 March 2011

As always with social media, the goal is to get you to invest enough of yourself in someone else's proprietary network so that you become trapped by it. Then the company can hold that part of yourself hostage if you object to the way they whore it out.

I didn’t listen to the interview with the founder of startup company Hashable described in this Silicon Alley Insider post, but a section of the recap caught my attention. It details the thinking process behind a serial entrepreneur’s approach to the “social layer”—the industry jargon for how immaterial labor can be captured in digital form through internet connectivity:

They thought about the gestures that business people and white collared professionals were conducting day after day that were not making it to the Internet.

They recognized that the acts of people meeting with and introducing other people were not making it in a structured way to the Internet. When you have breakfast/lunch/coffee/drinks with friends, that data would be valuable to users if a service would gather it and make it shareable. So, they decided it might be cool to build an application that was fun to use, social, and drives people to create that information and send it to Hashable. While the interface looks a lot like Foursquare, instead of saying “I’m at Starbucks”, you would say “I’m having coffee with Mark”. Hashable is saving very important information for its users and creating a multipurpose address book of the people its users interact with.

Notice how this exchange is structured. What is regarded as in inherently intolerable is that any sort of social behavior could escape digital capture, could slip through the net of commercial surveillance. Innovation has become a matter of perfecting that surveillance, allowing all our behavior to be mediated and translated into marketing data to fuel the engines of consumerism—perfect the management of demand.

The contemporary tech startup’s critical (“cool”) task is to somehow entice you to share your private information in a standardized digital form in as close to real time as possible by making it “fun” and “social” and more or less compulsive, if not compulsory. It should find ways to “drive” users to report on themselves without the burden becoming intolerable.

“Fun” and “social” in this sort of context tend to be undefinable; their meanings are presented as obvious common sense, and thus they can only be elaborated through tautology: what is fun is social, and what is social is fun. Behind that screen, gamification tactics are deployed to encourage users to regard the progressive surrender of privacy as individuating accomplishment, a kind of glory that can measured only insofar as we let ourselves be tracked. The surveillance apparatus disguises itself as a giant scoreboard.

The point of all this data collection is, of course, privatized profit.

To the question of how Hashable plans to monetize, Mike answered honestly that “we’re not sure”. Hashable is creating unique data sets. The relationships that users have with people, the strength of those relationships – Hashable may be able to monetize access to that information. Users gain points every time they use Hashable. A certain number of points could be required for certain access, so Hashable might offer an option to pay for points or charge for access if you don’t have points.

It’s interesting that though users supply the content, it is Hashable that “creates” the data sets—a subtle rhetorical move that allows social-media companies to justify the property rights they claim with regard the information they collect. And here we also see that the original purpose of the service—to “sae very important information for users” has shifted to “monetizing access to that information” by selling it to outside parties. It’s also interesting to see how using the service is convertible to currency from the company’s perspective—it extracts more value from users using the service than those users get from being ostensibly served by it. One would have to pay to not use it, presumably after one had invested just enough labor into building a personal network within Hashable’s proprietary clutches to not just give it up altogether.

As always with social media, the goal is to get you to invest enough of yourself in someone else’s proprietary network so that you become trapped by it. Then the company can hold that part of yourself hostage if you object to the way they whore it out.

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