Facebook and the Legible Person

Jan 11, 2012

image0I've been re-reading parts of Scott's 'Seeing Like a State' for a class, and it occurred to me his basic frame is something that is useful for explaining various changes in Facebook. One of his recurring ideas is that the state as it develops homogenizes various features of the society to allow the 'center' to better gather information about its capacities and so more effectively govern and rule. This goes from grid cities eliminating the need for local knowledge and maps to navigate, to standardization on language to remove the need for local interpreters, the creation of fixed last names for the purpose of tax collection and so on - devices that are designed to undermine the importance of local knowledge and make the society more legible to outsiders.

To a certain extent we can see Facebook take similar paths as it develops, the most obvious example being when the open-ended 'About Me' text fields (for interests, sports, movies, music etc) were converted into a system of links to pages (for various interest, sports, movies, music, etc) where a user selects which links they want to connect to their profile.

The old system was very local, I can look at my friends' pages and see what their interests are and vice versa, it's a system for people who know each other to share information with each other. While it works well for one-on-one human interaction, it has a number of disadvantages for Facebook's position at the center - to find out if someone has 'X' as in interest, they have to search their database which is time and resource consuming as most of their lots of users probably don't mention 'X' at all. In addition to that, what if someone spells it wrong? Or uses a local label, or a variation on it? In those conditions, there is an awful lot of information inside Facebook that it effectively has no idea about, because it doesn't have cheap and reliable ways of accessing it.

If we imagine Facebook as a series of nodes (people, pages), links between nodes, and prongs (information associated with a single note) - it is prongs that cause this difficulty for Facebook. From their perspective it makes sense to try to convert prongs to links because links are nicely quantifiable and trackable - it's a much simple matter to find out how many users have linked to 'X', and also how many are linked to Y'.  But this process was a simplification of the range of expression available to users, done in the interest of making the information present within Facebook more legible to the center. Most tellingly, similar to how this development in the state is associated with improved tax collection, better knowledge of its users makes their knowledge base more valuable to outsiders, who pay Facebook for access to it. Making people legible is a way of converting them into money.

On a bit of a side-note from that, Facebook often claims that all information shared with it is entirely voluntary but something you see sometimes is them attempting to manipulate people to share certain information through UI design. In one of the re-designs last year, the employment and education fields jumped out of being hidden on a back page to being the first thing underneath your name, one of the most important places on the screen and something you'd be prompted to fill in everytime you visited your own page.  I suspect this is a result of their decision to switch away from networks as a means of organisation and privacy control - networks were also a source of information, if you're in the Durham network you're highly likely to be a current or recent Durham student (and there were briefly corporate networks for catching graduates and the general public). By removing the importance of networks, there's no incentive for people to join networks and share that information about their education or employment, hence the quality of their information degraded and they needed to encourage more people to give them back the information they'd lost through these other means. Now of course, you still choose if you fill it in or not - but I bet a lot more people did than who would have otherwise, Facebook isn't neutral or passive about which information it wants.

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