Anna Lauren Hoffmann Oakland, California
Tuesday 19 April 2016 12.00 BST
Its business model relies on users sharing personal data instead of cat videos, but that is happening less and less – and it’s a devil of Facebook’s own making
Facebook is worried that its more than one billion daily users are sharing less with one another.
It’s not that we are sharing less overall; we’re still sharing lots of links to news articles and commentary, cat pictures, and hilarious Vines. But instead, a dedicated team at Facebook is trying to work out why we are sharing less about ourselves.
After more than a decade of picking up “friends” – everyone from your BFF to your grandmother to that guy who lived down the hall in your dorm way back in your first year of college (what’s his name again?) – we’ve decided that maybe we’re not 100% comfortable sharing intimate details of our lives with such random and disparate groups of people. Or, maybe we’re just all on Snapchat now – another major anxiety of Facebook’s.
Facebook employees are blaming something called “context collapse”: where people, information or expectations from one context invade or encroach upon another. Despite its elegance as a term, it’s a complicated and nuanced phenomenon – one that evokes norms of behavior, communication, sharing and privacy all at once.
Facebook has long privileged the interests of companies and brands at the expense of individual users and their privacy
Context collapse has been around in scholarly discussions of broadcast media since the 1980s. Jenny Davis and Nathan Jurgenson wrote in a 2014 paper that all contexts are collapsed in some way, though some are more porous than others. Danah Boyd and others used the idea of “collapsed contexts” to describe our online lives, as social networks such as Facebook or Twitter pull our friends, families and co-workers together into one place.
But by blaming an amorphous concept like “context collapse” for the recent downward trend in personal sharing Facebook ignores the fact that the social network is itself a kind of context: one that has long privileged the interests of companies, celebrities and brands at the expense of individual users and their privacy.
For users confronting collapsed contexts on Facebook, the withholding of personal anecdotes and information isn’t a problem – it is a solution.
For years, Facebook’s strategy has caused regular controversies around user privacy and ethics – blunders that got people exposed, outed and emotionally manipulated along the way. Users seem to have combated the problem by taking Facebook’s own advice, as shared by Facebook’s president of communications and public policy, Elliot Schrage, in 2010: “If you’re not comfortable sharing, don’t.”
A situation where people aren’t sharing is anathema to Facebook’s business model, which uses our personal information to fuel its targeted advertising and marketing engines.
Facebook’s response to this problem has been to build new tools for sharing, such as the newly announced live video, instead of better tools for managing privacy – demonstrating Facebook’s prioritization of companies and brands at the expense of the needs and safety of individual users.
This privilege given to corporations over people is evident in the ways Mark Zuckerberg talks about individual users. In 2014, Zuckerberg noted that Facebook was “mostly focused on driving success for partners, whether they’re news organizations that are publishing content that people share or public figures and individuals who are engaging directly on Facebook”.
Consequently, in the last two years the processes of sharing links and importing content into Facebook has become more seamless and aesthetically pleasing; the new “save links” and “share quotes” features announced at F8 expand that further. And it’s only going to get easier for companies to interact with users, with Facebook introducing chatbots that will allow companies to chat with users directly through the site’s Messenger app.
Facebook’s response has been to build new tools for sharing instead of tools for managing privacy
In ongoing research with my colleagues Michael Zimmer and Nicholas Proferes, we’ve shown how Facebook’s commercial interests have also shifted Zuckerberg’s conception of users themselves. As Facebook worked to better accommodate businesses and celebrities on the site, its founder began to describe users as “building an image and identity for themselves, which in a sense is their brand. They’re connecting with the audience that they want to connect to … If you carry that thinking over from people to things like stores and brands you realize that everyone’s trying to do the same thing …”
Rather than account for the needs and interests of businesses as distinct in some ways from individuals, all user activities are instead filtered through context-flattening, corporate buzz-speak.
But now that we’ve stopped so actively cultivating our personal “brands”, Facebook is worried about the ways in which conflicting audiences in our friends lists might limit or constrain our self-expression.
As a transgender woman myself, I wonder where this concern for collapsed contexts was over the last few years, when some of Facebook’s most socially and politically vulnerable users were banned for using pseudonyms. Transgender folks or domestic abuse survivors use fake names to manage their own conflicting audiences by making themselves visible to those who may offer love and support, but invisible to those who may wish them harm. Facebook’s real name policy is a bold-faced effort to define Facebook’s own context as one that helps marketers and advertisers identify people – but at the expense of the wellbeing of its most vulnerable members.
It is telling that the problem of context collapse has taken on urgency for Facebook, and that under Facebook ideology the problem of context collapse is, like so many other problems, solved not by more and better privacy but by more sharing of personal information.
And users, by withholding or taking their personal insights elsewhere, are themselves refuting Facebook’s open and connected thesis