joe moon

Intimacy and Performance on Facebook

Facebook launched three interesting new features last Thursday: Timeline, Ticker, and Open Graph.

Timeline

Timeline is a replacement for the profile page that collects and displays your Facebook status updates, photos, links, etc. in a clean, easily perusable way. One of the first things I thought of after seeing the announcement, was this "Dear Sophie" ad from Google.

Superficially, they're very similar. Both showcase the use of technology to capture meaningful events and share them. Even the types of relationships and events are similar. But the different presentations betray an important distinction in purpose between the two sets of services.

The "Dear Sophie" ad shows technology in service of creating records and sharing moments in an intimate way, and ends with the sentiment: "The web is what you make of it." While the Timeline promotional video shows similar vignettes, Mark Zuckerberg's presentation closes the video with: "Timeline is the story of your life. It has three pieces: all your stories, your apps and a new way to express who you are."

In other words, while "Dear Sophie" is an expression of an intimate set of messages from one individual to another, the Timeline is an aggregated set of shared moments, collected in the service of public display, an artifact of self-expression and identity. And what I find jarring about this formulation is the same thing that bothers me about the alarming trend of weddings in which the photographers and videographers have free reign, even during the ceremony, in order to get the best, most cinematic record of the event, at the expense of the event itself and everyone participating. It's a conflation of the record of the event with the event itself, or even a privileging of the record over what gives the record its meaning and power. At the same time it (ingeniously) adds to the pressure to record all meaningful events on Facebook in order to make sure it becomes part of your identity.[^1]

Ticker and Open Graph

Open Graph adds a way for Facebook apps and Web sites to make updates for you in various ways. For example, if you give it the proper permissions, the newly integrated Spotify app will automatically share each new song you listen to. But these updates don't go into your main newsfeed, they go instead into the Ticker, a new area on your Facebook page that shows a running update of your friends' auto-shared activities online. Other examples of Ticker activity include: reading an article, watching a video, playing a game.

Zuckerberg refers to this as "frictionless sharing," a dream of a kind of meta-panopticon with which everyone can see what everyone else is doing in real time. There are parts of this that I actually find kind of compelling. The Ticker is a nod toward "ambient intimacy" the idea that you can approximate the low-level intimacy of occupying the same space as someone, in a digital way.

But, by being public, the Ticker fails at achieving intimacy. Because if being in the same room with someone creates intimacy, being in the same room as everyone creates the opposite. It turns all of your activity into performance. And what many have hinted at is that removing friction from sharing just displaces that friction. If everything I do on the web is under the public gaze, I have to reflect for a moment before I take any action -- before I listen to a song, watch a video, play a game, or click on a link. It simply moves the friction from sharing onto the activity, in the worst kind of self-censorial way.[^2][^3]

This is especially true in combination with the Timeline, which aggregates Ticker activity into "a new way to express who you are." Not only does the Open Graph and the Ticker turn your online activity into a performance, it then turns that performance into your very identity.

Intimacy vs. Performance

Both intimacy and performance are important parts of what makes social networks like Facebook compelling. Initially, the performance part was the profile, where you listed your biographical information, your likes and dislikes, your expressions of identity (in the narrow ways that Facebook allowed). The performance part was important for discovering new people and expanding your network, for actually forming the connections. The intimacy part was pretty much everything else: your status updates, messages, comments, photos, and videos. It consisted of the kind of stuff in the two videos above. It was what injected meaning into those connections that you'd made.

At every turn, Facebook seems to have subverted the intimacy of social experiences by turning them into public performances. Not only has the intimacy of what was once private slowly eroded into the public, but more and more of Facebook users' online activity is being drawn into the performative identity. If an anthropomorphized Facebook had a Facebook profile, its Timeline would show a clear progression of updates that moves from mostly private toward all public, all the time.

The worst part is that I don't think this has the effect that Facebook wants. I don't think a frog-boiling style of slow erosion of privacy means people just continue to share in the same way except in public. It means that the people who understand what's going on become wary, stop trusting, and eventually stop using the service. And people who don't understand what's happening will eventually hit situations in which something doesn't work the way they thought it did (often embarrassingly), and the uncertainty of their mental model will result in less usage and make that usage more tentative and more careful.

Ultimately, it just means less intimacy. Less signal. Less of exactly what this kind of technology is supposed to enable.

Further Reading

Not Sharing is Caring, Farhad Manjoo

It's the end of the web as we know it, Adrian Short

Notes

[^1]: There's a lot more to unpack about this, but that would be another essay, and I think others are saying it better than I can. For example: @boone: The idea that life narrative should be loosely joined out of small anecdotal pieces over long periods of time is a non-trivial thesis. (There's more good stuff in his tweet stream.)

[^2]: While it's true that you have to explicitly white-list apps that post to your Ticker, the uncertainty about whether the next click will be public or not that results from any sort of auto-sharing system is almost worse than everything being public.

[^3]: It seems pertinent to note that Google+ actually adds friction to sharing by making you explicitly think about which Circle to share to with every item. Which, I submit, is precisely where you want friction in a sharing interface that respects your privacy.