Blogging Synthesis – A Nuanced View of Technology

I confess to being an avid Internet user and enormous fan of technology.  I’ve been in Internet fan communities, for example, for literally half of my life, and I’ve found many gratifying relationships and experiences have been born out of these communities.  On a significantly less frivolous note, as someone with a chronic illness, I’ve been able to use online platforms to connect with other young people with illnesses, which has helped tremendously with the feelings of isolation and disconnection that often come with being young and sick.  Due to my personal relationship with online communities, I find myself often taking a staunchly pro-Internet stance.  Therefore, I was pleased to find that, in looking over my posts throughout the semester, my position was surprisingly nuanced, able to consider both the pros and cons of technology, but especially social media.

In two of my posts, I saw myself resisting what I find to be unfounded criticisms of online culture.  In “In Defense of Internet Slang,” for example, I resisted the typical dismissal of Internet Speak as being lazy, improper English, and instead argued for the Internet as a “huge generator of linguistic innovation.”  I stand by this claim, and am endlessly fascinated by and supportive of the potential for online dialects (because I truly do view them as dialects) to create community and convey tone.  Similarly, in “The Social Affordances of Facebook,” I wrote about the value of small, pleasant online interactions and online relationships.  Again, I think I was resisting the cultural message that online interaction is entirely worthless, and instead wrote about the ways small, everyday experiences on social media can strengthen existing relationships or form entirely new ones.

However, I’m pleased to see I didn’t take an uncritical, definitively pro-Internet stance.  Likely due to the 2016 election fresh in everyone’s mind, I found myself writing very frequently about the potential political implications of social media.  The ability to target political ads on Facebook and the tendency for divisive, shocking news stories to spread more quickly than moderate, non-inflammatory content were two of my primary concerns.  I really do think the 2016 election, and our readings on Facebook’s algorithms, encouraged me to think more critically about how social media can shape the world in dangerous ways.

I’m pleased with the degree of nuance I saw in my posts, especially given my own pro-Internet stance.  Personally, either moral extreme of opinions on the Internet, entirely uncritical or entirely unsupportive, strike me as oversimplified.  While I resist the idea that online interactions are worthless and a waste of time, I also acknowledge the real, concrete dangers social media poses to our society.  I think DIG 101 helped me to acknowledge more fully the sinister side to the Internet without universally condemning it.

The Extreme Specificity of Facebook Ads

Jose and Dr. Sample may remember a day I completely derailed our Gender and Technology class by showing everyone how to find your personalized ad preferences on Facebook.  It’s not on the front page, but it really only takes a few clicks to find what Facebook believes you to be interested in.  At times, this information is really funny, but coupled with the Vaidhyanathan reading, a more sinister side emerges.

Some of Facebook’s ad preferences for my account are spot on.  It’s right that I like Harry Potter, comics, cats, crafts, and Studio Ghibli films.  On the other hand, some of it is way off.  It claims I’m interested in a men’s designer underwear company, aging, fatherhood, and furry fandom.  No offense to furry communities, but I am decidedly not a part of them.

I have no idea how Facebook came to this conclusion… Source: my account

But these ad preferences are more than simply amusing.  Especially given today’s reading, it’s easy to see how these preferences could be used to target political ads.  My preferences under “Lifestyle and culture,” for example, contain “gay pride,” “LGBT community,” and “homosexuality” all on the first row.  The ability for Facebook to target ads, especially political ones, based on that level of personal information is somewhat alarming. Vaidhyanathan explains that while conventional ads that run in newspapers or on television cater to a very broad audience, advertisers can target with far more specificity on social media platforms.  If, for instance, the Russian trolls wanted to convince me not to vote for a candidate in an election, I’d likely be very susceptible to fake stories claiming that candidate opposing gay rights.  I’d like to think I interrogate my sources critically, but I’m not above being tricked into believing fake news like anyone else, especially ads handpicked to target issues I care about.

Clearly I’m not subtle on social media…. source: my account

Yes, Facebook’s using my ad preferences to sell me even more Marvel merchandise is certainly a concern, but given the chapter we read for class, the problems run far deeper than that.  Being able to target ads, especially ones containing fake claims, based on highly personal information is a dangerous weapon.  I don’t think Vaidhyanathan is exaggerating by claiming it “undermines democracy.”

Facebook, Polarization, and the Technological Imaginary

Of all of the shocking information packed into Rachel Thomas’s “When Data Science Destabilizes Democracy and Facilitates Genocide,” I was most intrigued by Facebook’s claim that its platform is value-neutral.  Of course, this claim brought me back to the first week of class, in which we discussed the technological imaginary, particularly the contrast between the assumption that technology is neutral versus the reality that it promotes certain values above others.

Thomas linked an enormous number of other sources in her article, so I read the one she linked when discussing Facebook’s claim of neutrality.  The article, “The False Dream of a Neutral Facebook,” was a very interesting read.  The author, Alexis C. Madrigal, discusses the way Facebook’s algorithm is designed solely to increase engagement, and explains that “The goals of News Feed have nothing to do with democracy.”  The goal of Facebook, of course, is to make money.  It is, after all, a business.  It makes money through advertising.  Users see  more advertisements the more time they spend engaging with the site, so Facebook is designed to promote engagement.  That structure is pretty widely known, but its implications for the way we share and consume news are pretty significant.

In thinking about the spread of news on Facebook, I was reminded of a YouTube video entitled “Some Good News; 16 Ways 2016 Is Not a Total Dumpster Fire.”  I recommend the video, as it contains some very encouraging information about the state of the world, but the first few lines are really of interest to me.  The vlogger, John Green, explains that we tend to hear more about bad news, because it usually happens very suddenly and dramatically, while we hear less about good news, which tends to happen gradually and therefore isn’t really front page material.

This idea led me to reflect on how we share news on Facebook.  Even more so than in conventional journalism, Facebook tends towards the most shocking, divisive stories, things that, as Green identifies, happen dramatically and suddenly.  A piece on, for example, ways to strengthen community health centers in developing nations and continue to prevent infant mortality, is not enraging, despite being important, and is therefore far less likely to be shared.  Anger and outrage make us more likely to share, which increases our engagement, which is exactly what Facebook wants.  Therefore, while I don’t believe Facebook has a political agenda that can neatly be identified as liberal or conservative, it does have the agenda to promote the most enraging, divisive stories.  Anger means sharing.  Sharing means engagement.  Engagement means money for Facebook.  I don’t work behind the scenes at Facebook, so I can’t say definitively that its algorithm is designed to spread this sort of news, but the incentive is certainly there.

I don’t mean to say that there aren’t many things in our current political landscape about which to be angry.  Anger proves again and again to be a powerful catalyst for change.  However, when we start thinking about how Russian trolls can contribute to a more divisive political climate or spread completely inaccurate information, we have to question Facebook’s alleged neutrality.  Facebook is far more concerned with its bottom line than improving political discourse, and it’s important not to lose sight of that, especially if we rely on it as a news source.

The Social Affordances of Facebook

In reading the excerpt Siva Vaidhyanathan’s Antisocial Media, I was particularly interested by Facebook’s statement as to the purposes of its own website, in which they said that they intended their platform to be a “place for meaningful interactions with your friends and family–enhancing your relationships offline, not detracting from them” (34).  Of this quote, two primary sentiments about Facebook’s opinion of online interactions stuck out to me: one, that online interactions are meant to be “meaningful,” and two, that Facebook is meant to enhance pre-existing offline relationships.  I wish to complicate both of these proclaimed intentions of social media, using myself as a case study.

First, I don’t think all interactions online are meaningful, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  Take the frequent practice of sharing a post with a friend or family member on Facebook.  Is that a deep, profound interaction?  No.  But it’s a small way of saying “hi, I’m thinking of you.”  Most social interactions offline aren’t profound either.  When I commiserate with a classmate over an impending deadline, we’re not connecting on a particularly deep level, but we are showing interest in interacting with one another and sharing a small experience together.  My mom, for instance, posts links on my wall with enormous regularity.  They’re usually small things, like cute animal videos or trailers for a movie she thinks I’ll like.  And every time she posts one, it makes me smile.  I don’t think my interaction with my mom should solely be superficial, but I don’t think it should solely be deep, soul-bearing conversations either.   That would be pretty overwhelming for the both of us. I think all interaction, online or not, needs to be balanced between the deep and the superficial.  Both are necessary components of a healthy relationship, and Facebook certainly makes the small, pleasant interactions much easier.

My mom posted the Marvel ugly Christmas sweater line on my Wall the other day. “Meaningful interaction?” Not really. But a small way of showing she’s thinking about me.

Secondly, I take issue with the notion that online interaction is only meaningful if it enhances offline relationships.  I think it overlooks the increasing regularity of Internet friendships.  Yes, older generations scoff at the idea of being friends with someone you’ve never met in real life, but I think online relationships can be fulfilling, rich experiences.  Over the past several months, I’ve become very close with an online friend.  We talk almost every day about all manner of things.  Yes, sometimes we simply discuss our shared favorite TV shows or tell silly stories, but he’s also someone I can turn to in a moment of real hardship.  We’ve never met offline, but he’s still very important to me.

I think Facebook’s press release about its intentions for its platform overlooks two of the biggest affordances of social media – the potential for small, frequent, pleasant interactions and the ability to foster relationships unhindered by distance.  Were I a Facebook executive, I think I would have phrased that press release a bit differently, instead focusing on these aspects.  Rather than Facebook pretending it’s nothing more than an extension of the offline world, I think it should promote the specific affordances of an online platform.  I agree with Vaidhyanathan that social media certainly damages our social landscape in some ways, but I think Facebook’s press release completely overlooks two of the biggest ways it enhances it.

Impending Doom Versus Consumerism in Feed and Real Life

Even when Titus and his friends aren’t “going mal,” they seem to be numbing their senses in another way – consumerism.  Feed highlights the almost anesthetizing effects of consumption rather explicitly when Titus orders the same pair of pants over and over again after the trauma of witnessing Violet on her death bed.  And of course, the relentless ads interspersed throughout the novel, although often comedic, emphasize how Titus’s world is saturated by consumerism.

In contrast to the placating effects of consumption, the novel made frequent, albeit passing, mentions of the horror and tragedy taking place in the broader global community.  Violet discusses the fifteen hundred people found dead in the Gulf of Mexico, or a news broadcast mentions “genocidal dictatorships,” but Titus pays far less attention to these tragedies than to Quendy’s lesions or the purchase of his new upcar (189).  The novel creates a sense of impending doom, the world seeming to grow bleaker and more violent with  each passing day, and yet the characters, excluding Violet, seem largely unbothered by it.

I wanted to believe that our world hasn’t yet reached this level of complacency and nonchalance concerning tragedy and injustice.  At the height of the Trump Administration’s family separation, I felt that every other post on my Facebook feed was some sort of petition or call for action.  Today, however, I had to scroll through for quite some time before I reached a story of any importance, and not simply cat videos and memes.  For what it’s worth, the story was posted by a politician.

Bernie Sanders posting about Super-PACs was the first story of substance I could find. Source

Large-scale tragedy and injustice are without a doubt currently taking place, but my news feed seemed more concerned with cute animals and funny gifs.  I like to think that my social circle and I are politically engaged, conscious citizens, but I wonder if we too are choosing to ignore growing threats, like climate change and mass incarceration, in favor of the numbing effects of consumerism and entertainment.  Feed certainly got me to thinking about how I respond to national and global crises, and, in that way, I found it to be a very thought-provoking and effective satire.

In Defense of Internet Slang

So far, I’m finding Feed to be an engaging read.  The first forty pages absolutely flew by and I’m looking forward to seeing where the story goes.  That being said, I have to admit that I’ve grown slightly weary of the constant bashing of Internet culture/slang.  This phenomenon is far from unique to Feed, but is tiring to encounter nonetheless.

I’ve read enough YA in my day to predict where Feed is headed.  Violet, according to the back blurb, is “a girl who has made a conscious decision to fight the feed.”  She’s going to be the rebel, the one who questions the prevailing cultural norms, and is, in the world of the novel, morally correct. And, in all likelihood, she and Titus are going to end up falling in love  And I couldn’t help but notice that Violet, the beacon of sense, morality, and independence in this world, doesn’t use the slang that Titus and his friends so frequently employ.

My little sister sent me the following text this week and I found it extremely amusing, but it also got me to thinking.

A text reading "2. I find internet langue a lot like Shakespeare. I can’t tell you the exact meaning of the phrases but I can understand what they’re saying overall"
My little sister sharing a thought about Internet slang

I agree with my sister that internet slang can often be totally incomprehensible, like Shakespeare to the untrained reader, but I find another similarity.  I think like Shakespeare, who invented over 1500 words currently in use today, that the Internet is a huge generator of linguistic innovation.  Potentially, the Internet is the largest single innovator since Shakespeare.

I am a huge proponent of neologisms & Internet speak.  I find that Internet linguistic conventions, such as capitalizing words in the middle of the sentence to indicate that it is to be read with That Important Tone and Inflection, is a great way to communicate tone in a text-based medium.  Or maybe…… when you’re a little unsure about something…… using excessive ellipses and question marks to indicate uncertainty???  Our communication is increasingly becoming text-based, and I love how our language evolves to compensate for that change in medium.

So I don’t see any problem with Titus and his friends describing their experiences as “meg null” or talking about getting “weasel-faced.”  I don’t think it indicates a lack of intelligence or linguistic sophistication.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  I think it represents the amazing ways in which language evolves as a result of cultural changes, and the ability of Titus and his friends to adapt to changing linguistic norms.  I find linguistic evolution to be a really exciting, positive thing, and I don’t think it matters whether that evolution is spearheaded by an Elizabethan playwright or young people online.

I don’t want to make a judgment about this book before I’m even fifty pages in, but I will say I get a little tired of un-nuanced views of technology.  Technological innovation is almost never entirely good or entirely bad.  I know it’s trendy to universally denigrate technology and the cultural and linguistic changes it brings, but I think there’s a little more to the story than that.

I’ll leave you with this rather sarcastic t-shirt that I think sums up my feelings quite succinctly.

A t-shirt reading "durr hburr technology is bad fire is scary and thomas edison was a witch"
This t-shirt sums up exactly what I hear when people start taking an un-nuanced negative view of technology. Source.

(And for whatever it’s worth, you can be fluent in Internet speak/modern slang and still turn around and use the word “suppuration.”  Code-switching is a skill, not a weakness.)