The Social Network


“If you use an online social network,” reads a recent lede in Wired magazine, “you give up a serious slice of your privacy thanks to the omnivorous way companies like Google and Facebook gather your personal data.” The sentence reflects an assumption that is now widespread: that the problem of online privacy has to do with the vulnerability of our personal information to technology conglomerates. So conventional has this way of thinking become, at least among left-leaning intellectuals, that Dave Eggers has written a novel about it.

Whether or not warnings about what Evgeny Morozov calls the “growing commodification of our personal data” turn out to have been warranted, recent history suggests we will continue to ignore them. As a society we seem to have made a decision—and not one we can claim was uninformed—to continue using Google, Facebook and Amazon, regardless of the uses they might be making of our personal emails, web searches and shopping histories. As has been often pointed out, recent revelations about the unprecedented (and sometimes illegal) information-gathering capabilities of internet companies, not to mention the U.S. government, have inspired a series of localized and academic protests, rather than (what might be expected, given the tenor of those protests) any kind of mass egress from the online portals where most of the spying is presumed to be taking place. Whatever the long-term risks of such activities, they have not struck most of us as severe enough to sacrifice, or even to seriously consider sacrificing, the conveniences of online commerce and communication.

That does not mean that we do not grapple every day with urgent privacy-related problems on the internet; we do. But the question we actually face in our daily lives is not how much personal or “private” information to share with Google, Facebook or Amazon—it is rather, and much more stressfully, how much of it to share with our friends.

The conventional framing of the online privacy problem assumes that our relationship with internet companies is based on a contract. “Since the rise of what was called Internet 2.0 about a decade ago,” writes Reed Hundt for a recent forum on privacy in the Boston Review, “nearly all Americans have shared their beliefs, values, social and commercial proclivities, and patterns of behavior with a handful of Web-based companies. In return, the companies—most prominently, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Amazon—have shared with everyone and profited fantastically from user-generated content provided both consciously (such as emails or Instagram photos) and unwittingly (such as location information tracked via cell phones).”

The contract model seems appropriate because it corresponds to the way we are accustomed to thinking of the individual’s relationship with liberal society more generally. The most compelling accounts of how that contract is supposed to work were given by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. According to their social contract theories, all of which begin with a human being alone in a “state of nature,” the individual sacrifices her natural privacy or freedom in return for security and a catalogue of material conveniences (property, nourishment, Netflix). The best society, on this model, is the one that offers us the most benefits and security while infringing the least on our independence. But even in the best society the contract has to be vigilantly policed; it is always possible for instance that the State, in the name of security, could violate the terms of the contract, as is often claimed to have happened in the case of the NSA wiretapping program.

Those who argue that Facebook and Google infringe unacceptably on our online privacy implicitly contend that the contracts we have entered into with social media companies, like the contract we enter into with our societies at large, can become either unfavorable or unfair. The contracts become unfavorable to the degree that any benefit we receive from using the networks is outweighed by what we have given up to become a part of them, and unfair to the degree that the companies themselves make it hard for us to understand what it is we have given up. This type of argument assumes that our relationship with online companies involves us in such subtle forms of exposure (we “unwittingly” divulge location information, says Hundt) that it is virtually impossible for us to take into account all the ways our privacy will eventually be violated.

Yet there is a problem with the extension of social contract theory to social media. The traditional social contract theorists always had a plausible explanation for why an individual would sacrifice her privacy or freedom—she was scared to death, for example, or hungry—in order to join society. But the same logic does not explain why contemporary individuals join online social networks. Looking for an equivalent, some have insisted that social networks confer essential economic benefits, or that social life is now impossible without them. Such claims are unconvincing. Many people conduct perfectly successful social and professional lives without joining social networks (you probably even know some of them); meanwhile, a flood of studies and books on the topic have confirmed what many of us already suspected from personal experience: that social networks do at least as much to erode our sense of well-being as to promote it.

So why, notwithstanding all the grave warnings, do informed people (more and more of them all the time) continue to join social networks and then to stay on them? Perhaps the growth of social networks demonstrates the importance of a desire the social contract theorists tended not to make much of—and which, more often than not, seems to supersede our desire for privacy or independence: the desire, that is, to be social.

Writing a little later than the classic social contract theorists, Hegel offered a starkly different account of man’s relationship with society. If the social contract theorists conjured an image of a self-sufficient individual seeking security and various practical advantages from society, Hegel imagined “natural” man as craven and slavish, largely indistinguishable from the other animals. For Hegel, we can only speak properly of “man” when we consider him already enmeshed in social relations, which enable him to address his craving for recognition.

Recognition is a key term in Hegel’s political philosophy. Instead of imagining a bargain being struck between society and an individual bearing various “rights” (like the right to privacy), Hegel emphasizes that the concept of rights is empty until we consider the individual in a context where there exist people and institutions capable of recognizing those rights, as well as the full humanity of the person bearing them. This is the deepest reason why Hegel does not share Marx’s or Rousseau’s view that modern history is a story of decline, much less (as Stephen Dedalus puts it in Ulysses) a “nightmare.” History for Hegel is intrinsically progressive, insofar as it is driven by a continuous negotiation between our self-understanding as individuals and the image we see reflected back to us by the people and institutions we look to for recognition. If the gap between my self-understanding and my society’s understanding of me grows too wide (if I know I am an artist, but my society does not recognize me as one), this is a cause of dissatisfaction, and therefore a stimulus either to change society or to adjust my idea of myself.

This process of negotiation and adjustment can be seen at the heart of the most successful form of progressive politics in the previous half-century: identity politics. The ambition of identity politics has often been to bring society’s view of a certain group into harmony with that group’s view of itself. This includes lobbying to change laws—but also attitudes, conventions and popular opinion. It is important to note, however, something Hegel emphasized but which we often ignore today: that recognition is a two-way street. In attempting to bring society closer to their self-understanding, an individual or group might also be compelled, in light of their engagement with other individuals or groups, to revise that self-understanding. Society’s view of me can be mistaken, but so too can my view of myself (if no one recognizes me as an artist, perhaps I am not in fact an artist).

That social networks require the exposure of personal information merely marks them as forums for social life—meaning places we go to engage in the “struggle” (as Hegel liked to put it) to achieve recognition. No matter where it is joined, that struggle always requires us to consider what we are willing to make public about ourselves, and to whom. From a Hegelian perspective, however, the first question about a social institution is not whether it compromises some preexisting “right to privacy.” What determines the institution’s value is how well it mediates between our image of ourselves and the image that is held of us by our society—or, in the case of social networks, by our “followers” or “friends.”

On the surface, Facebook appears to provide ideal conditions for securing social recognition. It is convenient, easy to use, and everyone we know is always on it. Like any social platform, it discourages us from making certain choices, and incentivizes some types of exposure over others. Yet it grants us a wide freedom. Facebook asks us to pick which information to share; it gives us several options about how to share it; and it is perfectly satisfied if we decide to share nothing at all.

Indeed this freedom is the most difficult thing about Facebook: What to do with it? The weight of the responsibility can be hinted at by the fact that celebrities turn the task over to teams of professionals. But celebrities, thanks to Facebook, are no longer the only ones who are expected to become experts in public relations or what is sometimes called “image crafting.” There are levels of this kind of thing, of course, but assuming you use Facebook for anything besides keeping up with your friends’ birthdays and playing Candy Crush, there is nothing else you can do besides attempt to craft an appealing image of yourself. This is not due to personal vanity or commercialism; it simply indicates what Facebook is for.

Our most popular social network was invented, remember, by an awkward teenager with acute social anxiety and (by all accounts) an inferiority complex. Toward the beginning of David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010), the Mark Zuckerberg character promises that he is about to “take the entire social experience of college and put it online.” The movie has already established, however, that the social experience of college is painful for Zuckerberg—which is one reason he might ultimately be less interested in reproducing that experience than in escaping from it. What Zuckerberg actually creates is an alternative space where he can promote a carefully curated image of himself, one that accentuates his strengths and whitewashes his flaws. Nerdiness, physical weakness, even being an asshole in person are all subordinated, on Facebook, to one’s talent for calculated self-presentation (a triumph of ressentiment if ever there was one!). The conventional wisdom that Facebook inspires gratuitous self-exposure does not simply overstate the danger; it inverts it. By allowing the individual to conceal and reveal at will, Facebook takes what used to be known as the public self and quietly recasts it in accordance with private fantasy.

Recent attempts to supplant Facebook, or at least parts of it, have nevertheless proceeded from the assumption that Facebook is not private enough. The much-discussed Ello will not compel members to share their real names at all, a feature that has been welcomed by those who find Facebook’s sole limitation on anonymity to be unreasonably intrusive. An application called Whisper—in the news for feeding secrets to the U.S. military—advertises itself as allowing people to anonymously share “the behind-the-scenes stuff that we’re not always comfortable posting on Facebook.” Both claim to make people less wary of exposing unflattering personal information—either to their friends, or to corporations that might profit from it—than they would be on Facebook, but they achieve this objective by separating the information from its bearer. Like Facebook, only in reverse, Ello and Whisper promise to deliver their users the benefits of social life without exposing them to its risks.

Paradoxically, then, our existing social networks turn out to be anti-social: they all represent ways of avoiding—rather than participating in—the struggle for recognition. This struggle can certainly be embarrassing, or uncomfortable, just as Socrates thought genuine education would always be. For Hegel, such discomfort was sometimes necessary, on both a personal and a cultural level, if progress was to be made toward the end state of “absolute freedom,” where individuals would finally grant one another reciprocal recognition and be able therefore to enjoy what Robert Pippin has called “the satisfactions of self-consciousness.” Of course it would not be easy to reach such a resting place (even if Hegel believed it had been reached in early-nineteenth century Prussia—a debate for another time); it was nevertheless, Hegel thought, the only aspiration truly worthy of a social animal.

But if the motor of history is the discomfort caused by the gap between our own self-understandings and the way we find ourselves understood by others, then there is surely another, less sanguine way in which history might stop. What need is there to improve society, or ourselves, when we can simply reconfigure our personas at will on Facebook? Being recognized for doing cool things on weekends (“Steve has checked in at the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong!”; “Kira just finished the Turkey Trot!”) might seem like a shallow form of gratification, but it is at least a reliable one—and, like more conventional intoxicants, we seem always to crave more of it. History would thus end, rather peacefully, with our becoming a nation of Zuckerbergs, bewitched behind our computer screens by the frictionless satisfactions of self-creation.

Thankfully we do not (yet) live full-time on the internet, so there remain other avenues besides social networks for us to carry on our quest for recognition. By way of habituation, however—not to mention dissemination—social networks seem to be influencing how we engage in social life offline as well as on it. When we complain that contemporary politics have become an “echo chamber,” we are objecting in part to political life becoming more and more like Facebook—a series of sheltered silos where our beliefs about ourselves and the world are flattered rather than challenged. Likewise the ongoing fragmentation of literary culture makes it less likely that we will read books or articles that threaten our self-understanding, or that our cultural habits will ever be subjected to criticism (if A. O. Scott is to be believed, it is now impossible to object even to adults reading “novels” written for their children). In academia, supposedly a bastion of vigorous debate, new arguments are greeted—by a dwindling and ever-more specialized audience—with a mixture of courtly congratulation and inward shrugs.

It is as if we have all gotten too accustomed to being out on Wittgenstein’s “slippery ice, where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk.” Privacy, whatever its importance as a legal and political safeguard, has also become one of the ritualistic abstractions we invoke whenever someone suggests that we stop skating. But the point is to walk.

“Back to the rough ground!”

To read more on Facebook and privacy, check out Rob Horning on Facebook’s last attempt to tweak its privacy settings. Or subscribe to see the full symposium on privacy in print.

This post originally appeared at The Point.