September 24, 2015

Tim Spalding on Social Media and The Circle

Fascinating to read of the comments of the founder of librarything.com about the dystopian novel The Circle by David Eggers (some spoilers apply):
Rating. I loved the part where Francis wanted Mae to give his sexual performance a number rating--and the denouement, where he insists that her final number was better than her attempt to nuance the topic with language.

As many here know, this is a particular bête noire of mine. I think ratings are mostly crap for deciding between books. Whether or not they are, however, I think they are broadly corrosive of deep conversation. LibraryThing represents an old model of social interaction around taste--that people want to review things, and reviews aren't a word or two. By and large we've moved to an online universe of five-star ratings, less-than-binary "likes," and contextless "shares."

I find this stifling and dystopic already. As my friend Josh Christie put it recently on Twitter, "Today, try and think critically about some media without giving it a letter grade, a number, or a star rating."

More and more, this isn't just books and movies. It's people. "Hot or Not" was an early example, but that was a stupid web trick compared to Lulu. Have you heard of Lulu—1 million users, including 1/3 of college-age women belong to a site where you rate men you've dated, with two million reviews already. Yes, you get a star rating. Oh, and your dates' estimation of your penis size is now online. ( See this TLDR review of it http://www.onthemedia.org/story/its-rating-men/ ) And, of course, it has what previous people-rating systems didn't--a hard tie into Facebook, so the integrity of the system is assured, with both raters and ratings tied to real people.

De-complexification of social interaction. Closely related to ratings are the reduction in conversational complexity inherent in "smile," "frown,"* "friend" and the various social ranking systems in the novel. With Jaron Lanier (You Are Not a Gadget), I do feel these user-interface conventions are dumbing down and flattening our social world. As Lanier writes, simplistic social categories like that are how you explain social life to an autistic person; now we live out a big part of our social life using tools that operate on autistic grounds. Sure, people find ways to subvert the system, but it trickles down and out.

Unification of online identity. I think this is the core thing going on with the circle. Facebook has shown the way. The world of "on the internet nobody knows you're a dog" is gone; now the world knows exactly who you are, tied to a Facebook identity you can hardly get rid of. Other services have glommed onto that assurance. You can't sign up for Spotify without a Facebook account. You can't even LOOK at some popular clothing sites without signing in via Facebook.

This rang the truest for me. This is coming. It's already here. All Facebook needs to do is wait, as the entire online world gloms onto the clear advantages of tracing everything you do to a single, table and largely trustable identity. It does or can solve so many problems--passwords, shopping carts, online rudeness, marketing channels, etc. And as with many social technologies, it gets stronger and better as it grows.

Also, as with many social technologies, the important thing is to get to scale. Once you have scale, you can turn the screws. I do see a day when we pay for most of our purchases with out Facebook account, or its equivalent, and, of course, Facebook owns, processes and sells the data accumulated in this way. In fact, this is already happening in a spit-and-chewing-gum way, as a whole industry has sprung up to connect Facebook accounts, emails, credit cards and other social data. The only real hope lies in the proliferation of systems--Amazon, Google and Apple all wanting you to use their systems. But identity is close to a natural monopoly; players will drop out.

Mandatory socialization. This is a big trend in technology companies, and it's spreading to other parts of the economy. Time was when your job was your job, your life your life. Startup life changes that. It's certainly true for LibraryThing--my life and my job are extensively merged, and our resume-calls ask people to tell us about their food preferences and outside interests. Mind you, I think this is a good thing. I think the work/life dichotomy is flawed and even bogus. But it has its protective value, and it's something that can go bad, for sure.

This theme is everywhere in the novel, of course. The Circle provides meals for everyone, and parties. Attendance at parties is "semi-mandatory." CE employees are encouraged to become part of their customers' social circles, answer their questionnaires and, in turn, are invited to stay at their houses, etc. This isn't that far from current reality. Google does a lot of this--keeping people on "campus" as much as possible and, well, LibraryThing staff are indeed encouraged to participate on the site.**

Transparency. The novel picked up on a general claim--that transparency makes everything better. This notion is everywhere in our culture now: that it doesn't matter how much money people spend on political causes so long as it's "transparent"; that legislatures and courtrooms need camera; that politicians need to tweet, etc. Much more to say, obviously.

No delete button. This one's obvious. I was almost disappointed that Mae's hand job video didn't pop up later in the story, as it threatened to. But the overall truth of this was clear. Moore's law (or perhaps "Kryder's Law"), Big Data, the unification of online identity and other factors have conspired to create a world without a delete key.

As a side note, a person we work with in another company recently wrote us that he couldn't find the origins of a particular business conversation because he had deleted the emails. Abby and I basically responded at the same time "Who fuck deletes emails!?!"

The gamification of shelter allotment. One of the few times I laughed out loud was, "Homelessness could be helped or fixed, she knew, once the gamification of shelter allotment and public housing in general was complete."

The Circle wasn't a ramification dystopia--that throw-away line goes more toward the techno-utopian idea that social problems are all amenable to a technological solution. But someone has made a gamification dystopia, called "Sight." You should see it now: http://vimeo.com/46304267

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* "Frown" is actually an improvement. There is no frown on Facebook, and indeed I find it a rather frown-free world. That, perhaps, has more to do with the general reality that most people don't like to disagree or question. The early internet was a wrestle of ideas, often veering into the belief that only ideas matter; that's been largely reduced to sharing some online piece with your friends, who all agreed with it already.
Also on librarything.com, a discussion on the Circle & whether there's a Catholic angle.

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