Privacy, Irony & ‘The Social Network’

Published on October 1st, 2010 by Mario Rodriguez. Filed under Film & Movies, Internet Privacy, Online Social Networks, Surveillance

The Social Network (dir. David Fincher, 2010) about the origins of the vastly popular social network site Facebook opens nationwide today. In this blog entry, I want to comment on the suggestions of sexism that the film brings to light surrounding Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his website, which I believe has a connection to his professed desire for greater revelation of personal data online. We also have to reckon with Mark Zuckerberg’s apparent failure to anticipate the public explosion of his own personal life, despite his philosophy of openness.

Photo by Merrick Morton – © 2010 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.Former friends Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), far left, and Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), second from right, share a happier moment in The Social Network (2010). Photo by Merrick Morton – © 2010 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Since I am launching a qualitative study of Facebook privacy among college seniors entering the job market as my dissertation, I will approach the movie from a privacy standpoint, and an employment standpoint. The New Yorker recently interviewed Zuckerberg in anticipation of the release of TSN (Vargas, 2010), giving him an opportunity to make a counter-point. Vargas noted that Zuckerberg is “an over-sharer in an age of over-sharing,” but this all ties in with his business model of information revelation for Facebook, which he hopes will one day replace Google as the primary way to perform searches online. Yet watchdog groups like the ACLU and EPIC have repeatedly raised objections to Facebook’s sweeping privacy changes.

All that hype surrounding Facebook is a response to “shifting notions of privacy,” writes Vargas, which conveniently align with Zuckerberg’s personal philosophy (as well as his business interests). The central irony of the film, then, is that (perhaps too obviously) Mark Zuckerberg has fallen victim to the same push for transparency that he championed. First, he has fallen prey to what social network researcher danah boyd from Microsoft Research in New England referred to as a “context collision” (2006) of formerly distinct social worlds. (Only in Mark Zuckerberg’s case this is a context collision of epic proportions!) He has also fallen prey to a kind of informal background check called “grassroots surveillance” or “peer-monitoring” (Tufekci, 2008) on a massive scale, but we will get to that.

For college seniors entering the job market, such collisions can be problematic. The authors of one study, for example, suggested university students and job applicants ask themselves the following about their social network behaviors: “Am I loading information that I want the world to see? Is this really a picture that shows me in the best light? What impression would another person have of me if he or she went through my site?” Essentially: heed the warnings of HR personnel and only post what will pass the “grandma test” (Roberts & Roach, 2009: 111-13).

There are scenes in this film (such as the one in which Mark Zuckerberg and co-founder and ex-friend Eduardo Saverin are having sex in consecutive bathroom stalls) that we can imagine Mark Zuckerberg would not want his grandmother seeing, let alone half a billion ‘friends.’ But Zuckerberg does not need to worry about this, except of course, like Tiger Woods, that it could possibly tarnish his schoolboy brand image. (Then again, a neo-noir depiction of him as a sympathetic anti-hero can’t hurt his value all that much.)

For the rest of us personal privacy online is on the line. To reiterate arguments made by watchdog groups and scholars, the blurring of personal and professional on Facebook is not exactly fair since peer-pressure requires people to participate and most people do not have the time to focus on the minutiae of privacy. Even New Yorker reporter Vargas had a bone to pick with Zuckerberg, confronting the Facebook CEO with the fact that he had his sexuality thrust into the public eye of family and friends when the NewsFeed launched 2006. Zuckerberg responded with a blank stare.

I am thinking of one scene in particular in TSN, though, that casts the accusations of sexism in high relief. Eduardo traces an “algorithm” on a dorm room window after Mark begs him for it. This will ostensibly allow the program Facemash (a predecessor of Facebook that got Mark Zuckerberg in trouble with the Harvard administration, gaining him notoriety on campus) to hierarchically rank women in terms of attractiveness. This image is juxtaposed with the shuttling of young women to a Harvard Final Club.

Author Ben Mezrich, upon whose book The Accidental Billionaires (2009) TSN is based, describes the “Fuck Truck” as “a vanlike bus that traveled between the Harvard campus and a half dozen of the nearby all-girl schools” mainly on weekends (Mezrich, 72). Keeping in mind that this is a fiction, an embellishment, the juxtaposition of the “algorithm” and the “Fuck Truck” is still perhaps the most luridly post-industrial scene in the film, exposing a technologically deterministic face of contemporary dating through social networking. That’s not all. As a critique (made all the more poignant by the ambient score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) it does bring to light two systemic problems (let’s call them biases) with Facebook which are, again, entangled with the personal gibes against anti-hero Mark Zuckerberg.

Point number one: payback for transparency is a bitch. The film critiques inherently sexist, perhaps even misogynistic elements of otherwise ‘neutral’ information architecture.

Cohen and Regan Shade (2008) analyzed the results of focus groups conducted with women in four Canadian cities in June 2007 with a total of 64 participants ages 14-24. The discussion focused on privacy and gender on Facebook. In particular they focused on some of the more troubling aspects of SNS for girls, “particularly gender-based commodification processes latent in Web 2.0 applications” that may limit girls’ use of SNS like Facebook because they have an awareness of proprietary issues of posted content. The focus groups revealed strategies for coping with privacy on Facebook, yet many trusted the site’s privacy settings, and viewed limiting these as the best way to deal with Facebook privacy.

Cohen and Reagan-Shade concluded it should not be surprising that the women in these groups feel disempowered to represent themselves in personally meaningful ways, considering that Facebook’s business model is based on aggregating large amounts of data and monetizing it by selling it to third parties. They also rightly point out that the new technologies of social media and the media scaremongering that they produce are, in some respects, founded in a fundamental imbalance in, on the one hand, largely male construction and ownership, and, on the other, hysteria over the bodies of young females (case in point: MySpace circa 2006). Considering all this, the ‘Fuck Truck’ scene is not only the creepiest sequence in the film, but an allusion to surveillance, biopower and the re-inscription of 20th century white male entitlement for the 21st. What would Donna Haraway (1989) conclude?

Second, and more broadly, according to Hill (2009), leaving FB is justified because it is not only voyeuristic (lends itself to lurking), but “inhuman” in the sense of Lyotard (2004). This is because it so efficiently commoditizes people, not only as potential mates or employees, but in the larger scale of things, rendering individuals as data for marketers. This is the other inherent bias, that of a consumer society. And, as numerous scholars have shown young people are not particularly well informed about how marketers can use their information obtained online. For example, Hoofnagle, et al. (2010) conclude that young people do in fact care about privacy even “while they participate in an online reality that is optimized to increase their revelation of personal data” (20).

Perhaps, similar to what Ridley Scott sought to render in a Blackhawk helicopter, Fincher (Fight Club 1999; Se7en, 1995) envisions the inception of Facebook as a technology of predation. According to Vargas, writer Aaron Sorkin (of “West Wing” fame) minced no words about disliking social media. In neo-luddite fashion, he told Vargas that he dislikes the blogosphere and social media. “I’ve heard of Facebook, in the same way I’ve heard of a carburetor,” he said. “But if I opened the hood of my car I wouldn’t know how to find it.” TSN is an ironic title because it is about the socially awkward creators. (Unfortunately, after his interview with Vargas, Zuckerberg, a big “West Wing” fan, dropped the program from his Facebook likes and interests.) Yet Zuckerberg remains a likeable anti-hero in the film (see the final line of the film: “You’re not an asshole Mark; you’re just trying so hard to be one.”), if only due to the excellent performance of Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland, 2009; Adventureland, 2009).

Here’s a final word of advice for any soon-to-be college grads: just because your profile is set to “UPENN only” or “friends of friends” does not guarantee the security of your information before potential employers. Your interviewer or potential employer may not have access to your profile, but perhaps one of their employees is a fellow alumnus and he or she can be obliged to surf onto your profile (Brandenberg, 2008). Tufekci (2008) also seemed to think that one of the more realistic (and potentially harmful) effects of social network services (SNS) for college grads would be pre-emptive filtering out of top positions before they even have a chance to be involved in some sort of ‘scandal.’

But the harmful effects of SNS go beyond filtering. “Grassroots surveillance” or “peer monitoring” (Tufekci, 2008) are what really got Mark Zuckerberg. Young people (always concerned with one another’s business) now have information on friendships and relationships at the click of a mouse. As students are compelled to publically articulate personal networks, SNS have a tendency to collapse the multiple identities promised by the early web into a uniform identity that panders to “multiple audiences, audiences that might have been separate in the past. As we leave behind the 20th century, it is almost as if we have come full circle back to the village where everyone potentially knows your business” (35). (Think the glitter graphics of MySpace versus the neat, blue-and-white interface of the standard Facebook page.)

Mark Zuckerberg could have considered the implications of his own “context collisions” and “peer-monitoring” more thoroughly, reading between the lines to perceive the possibility of inferences drawn outside the formal system of IT architectures. Thanks, Facebook, for new levels of paranoia.;)

References

boyd, d. (2006). Friends, Friendsters and Top 8: Writing Community into Being on Social Network Sites, First Monday 11(12), URL (consulted 25 September 2007): http://www.firstmonday.org/issue11_12/boyd/index.html

Brandenburg, C. (2008). The Newest Way to Screen Job Applicants: A Social Networker’s Nightmare. Federal Communications Law Journal, 60(3), 597-626. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.

Cohen, Nicole S. and Shade, Leslie Regan. (2008). Gendering Facebook: Privacy and commidification.Feminist Media Studies,8 (2),210-214.

Hoofnagle, C., King, J., Li, S. & Turow, J. (2010). “How different are young adults from older adults when it comes to information privacy attitudes & policies?” Berkeley Center for Law and Technology. Retrieved on 4/19/10 from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1589864  

Mezrich, B. (2009). The Accidental Billionaires. New York: Doubleday.

Roberts, S., & Roach, T. (2009). SOCIAL NETWORKING WEB SITES AND HUMAN RESOURCE PERSONNEL: SUGGESTIONS FOR JOB SEARCHES. Business Communication Quarterly, 72(1), 110-114. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.

Tufekci, Z. (2008). Can You See Me Now? Audience and Disclosure Regulation in Online Social Network Sites. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 28(1), 20-36. doi:10.1177/0270467607311484.

Vargas, J.A. (2010). “The Face of Facebook,” The New Yorker, September 20. Retrieved 10/1 from: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/09/20/100920fa_fact_vargas?currentPage=6#ixzz10kBbqyf7

About

Mario Rodriguez received his Ph.D. from Annenberg in 2011. He is currently an Assistant Professor in the Communication and Media Studies Department at Stetson University, in DeLand, Florida.

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