The end of autonomous curiosity

[24 June 2009]

By Rob Horning

Reading this Wired article by Fred Vogelstein about the supposed war between Facebook and Google that’s coming, I found myself becoming increasingly irritated and skeptical. Though actually, truth be told, I turned against the article in the second paragraph:

Originally Google had considered acquiring Facebook—a prospect that held no interest for Facebook’s executives—but an investment was another enticing option, aligning the Internet’s two most important companies. Facebook was more than a fast-growing social network. It was, potentially, an enormous source of personal data. Internet users behaved differently on Facebook than anywhere else online: They used their real names, connected with their real friends, linked to their real email addresses, and shared their real thoughts, tastes, and news. Google, on the other hand, knew relatively little about most of its users other than their search histories and some browsing activity.


Never mind that the “a prospect that held no interest for Facebook’s executives” aside seems like a suck-up (like much of the article, in fact). I don’t see why you’d minimize the marketing significance of “search histories and some browsing activity” and act like that was nothing. That seems like a pretty good way to get at what a specific person is interested in, certainly more reliable than what one tells friends. Data can hardly get more personal and granular. On Facebook, users have every interest in lying or exaggerating about their preferences to signal various commitments and so on. They are hardly sharing their “real thoughts and tastes” in every instance. But when they do Google searches, they actually are interested in getting the information; there is not point of pretense. So having that record of what actually gets searched allows Google to spy much further into the individual user’s psyche. That seems for more “real,” for marketers’ purposes, than the fact that Facebook functions as a database for all that other “real” information. Facebook is a performative space; the Google search window is not.

And the idea that people want to rely entirely on their friends for information is a little strange too. Consider this insane statement: “For the last decade or so, the Web has been defined by Google’s algorithms—rigorous and efficient equations that parse practically every byte of online activity to build a dispassionate atlas of the online world. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg envisions a more personalized, humanized Web, where our network of friends, colleagues, peers, and family is our primary source of information, just as it is offline.” The nice thing about the internet is that it allows us to connect to a broader context than the little world of our friends. Why would anyone want to retract that? Yes, the need to filter information becomes more and more paramount, but Google’s algorithms are useful precisely because they are not parochial. I’ll take the “the cold mathematics of a Google search” over the limited scope of the people I know who are into time-killing on the internet. So I reject utterly the emotional logic of this: “Want to see what some anonymous schmuck thought about the Battlestar Galactica finale? Check out Google. Want to see what your friends had to say? Try Facebook Search.” If I care what my friends think, I’ll ask them; I won’t stalk them over it on the internet. And lots of people I don’t know who comment on culture are not “schmucks.” They are critics. “Why settle for articles about the Chrysler bankruptcy that the Google News algorithm recommends when you can read what your friends suggest?” Because lots of people out there are far more informed than my friends are about the subject, and my friends are likely to all share the same bias.

Built into this social-search idea as well is this annoying presumption that no one can generate an interest in something without a friend already being interested in it. Whatever happened to autonomous curiosity? Isn’t that the essence of “surfing” the web, anyway? Maybe I’m weird, but my “social graph,” as Zuckerberg likes to call his customers’ co-opted personal lives, is not my primary source of information. Often, the internet itself is, via a variety of blogs, news feeds, and yes, Google searches. The “social graph” is more a primary source for what is being gossiped about; it would be terrible if that constituted the horizons of what I learned about the world. But then, I’m a nitwit who can’t figure out the point of Twitter, so take my opinion for what it’s worth. I haven’t made the leap to making personal, private queries of my friends in a public commercial forum. I guess I am perhaps different from a lot of people in that I am generally less interested in the minutia of my friends lives than what is happening in the world at large. I spend next to no time on Facebook, but an absurd amount of time reading econoblogs. (This reflects my disdain for human-interest stories in the newspaper—as well as crime logs and such—and my preference for the Financial Times.)

Vogelstein acknowledges that Facebook’s business plan ultimately involves collecting personal data to sell targeted ads, and that its customers are intensely creeped out by this particular use of the “social graph.” Facebook promises users a safe place to conduct social business, but that safety feels violated when the information exchanged is sold to marketers. Google makes no such implied promise to its users, so it can seem less intrusive when it, say, mines people’s emails for keywords to serve ads. Ultimately, Facebook doesn’t really do anything but aggregate information; it’s only leverage on users is the data it has collected on them. Then it holds that data hostage and hopes users are too lazy to recreate the network elsewhere. Once a platform is devised that allows the contours of one’s social network to become portable, Facebook is finished. My money is on Google for that.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/the-end-of-autonomous-curiosity/