“If one reads a book claiming that lions are fierce and then encounters a fierce lion (I simplify, of course), the chances are that one will be encouraged to read more books by that same author, and believe them. But if, in addition, the lion book instructs one how to deal with a fierce lion, and the instructions work, then not only will the author be greatly believed, he will also be impelled to try his hand at other kinds of written performance. There is a rather complex dialectic of reinforcement by which the experiences of readers in reality are determined by what they have read, and this in turn influences writers to take up subjects defined in advance by readers’ experiences.”
– Said, Orientalism (1978, p. 93-94)
By now I’m sure you’ve heard of the recent attacks in Paris. And perhaps you’ve heard of the recent attacks in Beirut, and Baghdad, and Afghanistan. This post is not about the attacks, it’s not about the selective grief that has emerged and how the divergent responses by Facebook reveal underlying structural racism.
Instead, these are my preliminary thoughts on something that I find concerning. Of what Said has called “the seductive degradation of knowledge, of any knowledge, anywhere, at any time” (Said, 1978, p. 328). This piece draws on Said’s Orientalism, taking as a jumping off point the creation of the Orient in the most general way*. I would like to bring attention to the role that all media – in this case, specifically Facebook – plays in creating, maintaining, in Said’s words ‘structuring and restructuring’ particular understandings of the world.
The medium selects what is relevant to us
This is true both in theory and in practice. Theoretically, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media have the ability to selectively curate what we see in our social media feeds. This is not a particularly controversial observation – newspaper editors have always had the same power. However, while we are aware that newspapers have editors, I believe that we rarely think that what we see in our social media news feeds might be selected for us.
But of course it is selected for us. Facebook’s normal setting displays only the ‘Top Stories‘ – which necessitates a filtering out of ‘not top stories.’ If you run a Facebook page, you cannot reach all your followers without paying extra. Facebook has even been found experimenting on users by manipulating their feeds.
If Facebook decides (through whatever reason, payment, or algorithm) that something is important, it will get a disproportionate amount of attention on your news feed.
This is precisely what happened when Facebook provided a safety check in function for the Paris attacks, but not for other recent attacks. Again, with intent or not, Facebook curated the world for us, determining that Paris would be an issue worth caring about. Not providing a safety check in for other emergencies becomes action on the part of Facebook when juxtaposed against Paris.
When Facebook allows a user to check in that they are safe in Paris, but not in Beirut – and even if they do provide a safety check in for Beirut – it is because, for on reason or another, it is good for Facebook to do so.
What is especially important is that the medium is not a public service – these are private for-profit corporations. Their actions must ultimately benefit themselves and their shareholders, and they have no real obligation or responsibility to the public interest. Any claims to acting in the public good must be seen through the lens of corporate interest and profit. When Facebook allows a user to check in that they are safe in Paris, but not in Beirut – and even if they do provide a safety check in for Beirut – it is because , for on reason or another, it is good for Facebook to do so.
The medium shapes how we respond to what is relevant to us
After first shaping what is publicly relevant, the medium then shapes how we react to it.
By selectively highlighting relevant articles that you can share with your friends, NGOs that you can donate to with a click, or providing an easy way to show solidarity by changing your profile picture, Facebook exploits our emotional labour into doing work for them.
When we ‘check in’ in Paris, we create value for Facebook. Facebook becomes the place to go in an emergency to publicly announce your safety, and it becomes the place to go to verify the safety of your friends and family. It becomes necessary.
By limiting and encouraging a particular type of interaction with events of this kind, the interaction can be measured, monetized, and used. Facebook has found a new way to extract labour from our feelings.
When we change our profile photographs to a Facebook-decided image – in this case the French flag superimposed over your current photo – we do work for Facebook. How we express our grief, solidarity, or fear, is determined by the medium in service of the medium. By limiting and encouraging a particular type of interaction with events of this kind, the interaction can be measured, monetized, and used (again, see Scott’s Seeing Like a State). Facebook has found a new way to extract labour from our feelings.
We feel something and we don’t know what to do with that, but Facebook makes it easy. Not only can we broadcast our feelings, but in doing so we encourage others to do so. Importantly, we all broadcast our feelings in the same general way. A flag over a face is abstract, removed from specific feelings, so we all feel the same thing, and we all collectively feel better when the wave of French flag faces disappear.
And they will disappear, in a wave at the same time. Because Facebook has rolled out a temporary Facebook profile picture function which automatically reverts back to your old profile picture after a certain amount of time**.
It is so easy now to feel something and to do something about it. And Facebook makes it even easier by telling you when it is okay to stop feeling.
Neo-Orientalism and Facebook
Which brings me back, finally, to Said and the quote from the beginning of this post.
Part of Said’s argument is not just that the other is constructed, but that it is structured and restructured dialectically. One first defines the Orient, and then subsequent understandings of the Orient depend on that first understanding, ad infinitum. The knowledge produced in this manner has little relation to reality, and has everything to do with the power exercised by the producers of knowledge. In the case of Orientalism, the knowledge was created in the service of Empire. In the case examined here, the knowledge is created in the service of private capital.
By defining what is important, and by providing us with the tools to interact with it, Facebook structures our understanding of the world. And that understanding serves Facebook’s interests. Paris matters and Beirut does not because, for Facebook there is more to be leveraged from public expressions of solidarity about Paris than there would be about Beirut. Importantly, the dialectic continues. Paris – and how we interacted with that event – become a fact, a referent for future events. Beirut does not. Other ways of interacting do not. Our understanding of the world is circumscribed to that which serves the interest of the medium.
How does this work in Facebook’s interest? Beyond entrenching Facebook as a necessary social tool in emergencies, there are many opportunities for profit, most notably the exploitation of the information they are gathering through nurturing our philanthropic impulses. A good example comes from Facebook’s new donation feature for selected charities.
When it comes to these donations, Facebook will retain your payment information for future purchases and encourage you to share the fact that you have given. But what they will never do is share your information with the charity that you are donating to.
By inserting themselves as an intermediary between a Facebook-selected charity, and an online population that they are encouraging to become engaged, Facebook becomes invaluable to charities and NGOs. And I repeat, “non-profits will not have access to donor contact information when someone makes a donation on their Facebook Page.” Facebook also handles all of the payments.
When Facebook first launched their Pages feature, they were free and operated without restrictions. Once they became indispensable for businesses, they changed the way the Pages worked, requiring owners of pages to pay in order to fully access their followers.
While I do not think that Facebook will start to charge users to use the check in feature, I doubt it will be long before Facebook starts allowing charities – or other interested parties – to pay to access the list of people who donated in the past.
What is particularly interesting and insidious about this, is that Facebook creates this new opportunity for profit by manipulating the way in which we see and interact with the world. They create the lion, they decide that it is fierce, and they show us how to deal with it. And through this sequence, they extract labour and value from our grief, our solidarity, and our fear.
* I’m not positioned to do the intellectual labour necessary to situate this within a broader orientalist discourse, but would be eager to read any work that has done this.
** I believe you can set how long this is, but most people opt for the default option for most things, so the likely outcome is the default.