I just finished reading this paper, “The Like Economy: Social Buttons and the Data-intensive Web” by Carolin Gerlitz and Anne Helmond. The main thrust of it is to describe how Facebook, under the guise of making Internet activity more “social,” has planted Like buttons across the Internet to instigate flows of proprietary, centralized data on internet users. “The increasing presence of Facebook features on the web contributes to generating connections between websites beyond the traditional hyperlink,” generating a new standardized data form that Facebook basically controls to capture various user interactions. Gerlitz and Helmond argue that Like buttons have the “capacity to instantly metrify and intensify user affects – turning them into numbers on the Like counter – while fostering further user engagement to multiply and scale up user data.” The existence of the counters seems to compel that we use them, and this changes the affect of our interaction with what we consume online. To make that less jargony: simply being able to Like some particular article or page or online object makes our ability to Like it at least as important to us as the ability to learn from it.
Affect and social proximity are not valuable per se, because they are intensive, hard to measure and to compare. It is the medium-specific infrastructure of the Like economy that allows their transformation into quantified likes, which can then enter multiple forms of exchange: from producing data for user mining and patterning, to creating recommendation traffic from Facebook, providing access to Like button statistics or moving behind the Likewall.
Thus, qualities become exchangeable quantities, and processable data. That processing then returns to shape the possibilities of what qualitative experience that people who are caught up within the quantifying network can have. Not surprisingly, the Like economy’s formatting restricts our experiences to affirmation of consumer culture: “the Like economy is facilitating a web of positive sentiment in which users are constantly prompted to like, enjoy, recommend and buy as opposed to discuss or critique – making all forms of engagement more comparable but also more sellable to webmasters, brands and advertisers.”
The Like economy is driven by Facebook’s rationalization of older linking and syndication processes. Rather than setting up our own links between a page we control and something on the internet we are interested in, we have started to let Facebook manage the registration of affinity, in a data medium they can repurpose to suit the interests of other parties. “Facebook’s efforts to make each and every web experience more social, that is connecting all web experience to its platform, indicates a simultaneous rewiring of the web. Social buttons open up sharing possibilities, yet the connections created by users instantly direct back to the platform as opposed to the reciprocal linking practices of webmasters.” Basically, Facebook’s expansion into the open Web is fuelled by the assumption that most internet users prefer to share what they like online to everyone in their social networks in preformatted fashion rather than handcraft the sharing. (I, for one, prefer artisanal sharing through Twitter rather than clicking on a “social button.”)
Facebook’s platform and integration on various sites constitutes a shadow network that gathers data about users’ online activities whether or not they actually click the buttons. But if you do click, as the authors point out, that “Liking” creates a data object that the liker has virtually no control over, though it circulates in her name:
Numerous actors are contributing to the creation of the infrastructure of the Like economy, but not all are given full access to the data they produce themselves. In the case of external Likes, data flows are first of all directed to Facebook and are then fed back in a highly controlled way to other actors involved. Users cannot systematically access their own likes, which are turned into ephemeral objects in the News Feed and on their Timeline. While the successor of the Facebook profile wall, the Timeline, introduced the clustering of activities in relation to different topics and temporal intervals, this only applies to liked Facebook Pages and not to other liked objects. As a consequence, users cannot directly search and use their Likes as a bookmarking system, as external Likes retain their status as fleeting objects for spontaneous engagement.
That seems like a good reminder of just how peculiar “liking” things through Facebook is. It has a slot-machine-like element to it — you press the button and you don’t really know what is going to happen as a result. Maybe it will show up in friends’ feeds and impress them, maybe it will just show up in a data tracker and direct some targeted ads at you in some corner of your browser. Why do this? Why voluntarily create a piece of data about yourself that you can’t control or retract? It seems insane to me — why would you want Facebook reformatting your internet for you on the basis of decisions you can’t retract, for the ultimate benefit of its advertising clients? The authors seem to imply that people click Like merely because humans have an irresistible desire to be counted. It’s metrifyin’!
They also cite Richard Grusin’s idea of premediation to help explain this desire:
Engaging with social media, to draw on Grusin (2010), presumes or premediates ongoing interactivity and such an anticipatory climate is facilitated through notification systems highlighting any responses a user has received: “Social networks exist for the purpose of premediating connectivity, by promoting an anticipation that a connection will be made – that somebody will comment on your blog or your Facebook profile or respond to your Tweet.”
This seems a bit more plausible to me than an inherent human desire to +1. Affective intensity increases at the prospect of circulating affect within a network’s feedback loops. With this, metrification meets intensification. Along these lines, the authors cite a somewhat gnomic line of Simondon’s: “Beyond information as quantity and information as quality, there is what one could call information as intensity.” I take that to mean that information has a component beyond just its meaning — an urgency, a need to be circulating that simply receiving the information makes one feel. (No idea if that’s right.)
The idea of premediation can be usefully combined with Nathan Jurgenson’s notion of “documentary vision” in social media: We are not merely interpreting our present moment in space and time through the ways we can conceive of sharing it online, and that sharing is driven by the existence of a preformatted space that we expect will facilitate responses from the people we’re connected to in the network. We inhabit these spaces simultaneously; both mediate our experience of the present. Our documentary vision is shaped by the capacities of social media, the standardized formats they demand, and they reorient the purpose of any moment toward receiving equally standardized responses to it. No moment we experience can be so unique that it can escape homogenization by the like buttons we carry around in our heads.
The forms of connection we can make, too, are already established; it become difficult to “connect” with other people spontaneously outside of the predetermined ways established by social media. The protocol for human interaction is already laid down, “premediated.” To have an experience with another person or other people that goes beyond anticipated acknowledgement within social media’s metrics requires us to suspend the documentary vision and the predictable satisfactions supplied by premediation. But that seems to be getting harder. At least, I feel like getting a new phone has made that harder for me. It makes me understand the impulse to blame the devices and believe that one can “unplug” and escape the Like economy. Premediation can’t affect you if you deprive yourself of the capacity to reach the mediation stage.