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Facebook Updates and Disinformation

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Thursday, Jun 30, 2011
Social media confronts us with how little control we have over our public identity, which is put into play and reinterpreted and tossed around while we watch -- while all the distortions and gossip gets fed back to us by the automated feedback channels.

Sociologist Nathan Jurgenson has an interesting post about Facebook and his skepticism about proclamations of the end of privacy and anonymity. He deploys the postmodernist/poststructuralist insight that each piece of information shared raises more questions about what hasn’t been said, and thus strategic sharing can create different realms of personal privacy and public mystery.


We know that knowledge, including what we post on social media, indeed follows the logic of the fan dance: we always enact a game of reveal and conceal, never showing too much else we have given it all away. It is better to entice by strategically concealing the right “bits” at the right time. For every status update there is much that is not posted. And we know this. What is hidden entices us.


I think this is missing the point. I feel like I need to use all caps to stress this: LOTS OF PEOPLE DON’T WANT ATTENTION. They don’t want to be enticing. Privacy is not about hiding the truth. It’s about being able to avoid the spotlight.
  
The people who are freaked out by Facebook are the ones who aren’t trying to create an air of mystery about themselves. They are people who don’t want additional attention and don’t want to be snooped on, and don’t want to raise more questions and interest about themselves every time they are compelled to share something or inadvertently share something online. Something as simple as RSVPing for a Facebook event can set off a chain reaction of unwanted curiosity and accidental insult if one’s not careful. But social media mores force us to make such RSVPing a public matter, because it benefits the event thrower to pad out the expected crowd, etc. Sharing usually doesn’t serve a personal agenda, even one of self-promotion. Often sharing is default exposure that helps someone else sell your attention and presence (to advertisers, etc.)


The fact that every piece of information is incomplete is precisely why people feel overexposed, because it means that everything that gets shared (often against their will) invites more scrutiny into their lives. This is why they feel like they have lost their privacy. Not because perfect information about them is out there, but because the teasing bits of information circulating seems to orient the surveillance apparatus on them. And that surveillance apparatus is distributed so widely, it feels inescapable that speculative information will be produced about you and attached to your identity online for anyone to find. That is the problem, not oversharing. The end of anonymity is not about people knowing accurate things about you; it’s about enough people who know you being in the micro-gossip business to make you feel unfairly scrutinized and libeled.


Jurgenson points out correctly that “‘Publicity’ on social media needs to be understood fundamentally as an act rife also with its conceptual opposite: creativity and concealment.” It also needs to be understood that of course people who are comfortable with sharing are not exposing their authentic character—even if there were such a thing as an authentic self. The point is that they enjoy constructing that pseudo-celebrity self through social media and feel recognized when they are gossiped about and circulated. But the rest of us are being forced to play their game, on their terms, at an inherent disadvantage.


I don’t want to have to send out reams and reams of disinformation online to “protect” my privacy (which is one of the reasons I am not on Facebook anymore. I thought it was stupid that I only logged in to it to play defense). I don’t want to share only to bury things that have come to embarrass me or prompted responses I don’t like. I don’t believe I have the time or inclination to try to imagine what new creative interpretations and lacunae I can generate with my sharing so as to convey the right impression, cultivate the right sort of fascination with me. I don’t want to be “fascinating.” I don’t want to be “seductive” in the Baudrillardian sense and “create magical and enchanted interest” (to use Jurgenson’s phrase). Others may revel in that fantasy, but I don’t want to have to adopt their code if I can help it.


But it may not be tenable for me to avoid it for much longer. For instance, events I might want to go to will be publicized only through Facebook, and I will end up missing out on everything if I’m not trackable there. Everyone I know will be in the social-media circus tent, and I will have to join them.


Social media confronts us with how little control we have over our public identity, which is put into play and reinterpreted and tossed around while we watch—while all the distortions and gossip gets fed back to us by the automated feedback channels. Some people find this thrilling. Others find it terrible. It’s always been true that we don’t control how we are seen, but at least we could control how much we had to know about it. It’s harder now to be aloof, to be less aware of our inevitable performativity. We are forced instead to fight for the integrity of our manufactured personal brand.

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