Facebook, Timeline and Identity

My initial reaction to Facebook Timeline was a cynical one – it was a user experience that encouraged people to continue to share their present life, but also fill in details of their past. It would give Facebook even more personal data, in a more structured form, to allow them to (eventually) market ever more targeted advertising to their true customer base. But since I think about Facebook as a company, not as some abstract cultural force, I believed this was an eminently reasonable decision on their part. As I thought more about it, however, my initial negative reaction didn’t dissipate but rather grew into a more visceral, and seemingly less logical, distaste. I eventually realized that Timeline helped me realize Facebook’s view of the self and identity, and it was a view that I fundamentally disagreed with. In fact, it makes me moderately annoyed!

Before Timeline (B.T.) but after News Feed, I didn’t pay much attention to Facebook’s view of identity, as my past actions and thoughts seemed to dissolve as the feed hummed along. I had deleted some old, hammered photos of course, but mostly memories of 25 year old Rob’s awesomeness were hazy and rose-colored. That is until I downloaded my FB history and realized that on Facebook, 28 year old Rob looked a lot like 23 year old Rob. IRL, this was not the case. [1]

But what was my Facebook identity? And what were “Zuck’s” thoughts on the matter. To Google I went! By now, I think we’re all aware of Facebook’s belief that increased transparency forces people to “act better”. This is an issue I’ll discuss another time, but it also has an implication regarding Facebook’s view of identity. From Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect (and many blogs quoting it): “You have one identity,” he emphasized three times in a single interview with David Kirkpatrick…”The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly.” He adds: “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

Um, no Mark it isn’t. But I can see why he would think people “should” have one identity.

Yes, there are the practical business reasons – attaching data to a single, real-world identity is much more valuable from an advertising standpoint. And the sharing (and thus engagement) is maximized by this view of identity – it implies that people who don’t share as much as they can with everyone in their lives are bad people!

But I’m more interested in the personal reasons for this belief. You can’t really blame him as he’s only really had one identity. He went from a HS computer wiz to the same at Harvard. Exeter and Harvard, where many people are classified as archetypes early and irrevocably, are two of the most conservative educational institutions in America. I give him credit for knowing what he was interested in and what he was good at at a young age, but mustn’t he feel, at some level, that there was only one path he could take. And going to great schools is not a bad thing, but has he been in an environment conducive to experimenting with his identity? Is it really any surprise then that he thinks people should have one coherent identity?

Which brings us to Timeline. It implies a linear, deterministic view of the world. It’s not a tree with multiple possible paths, wrong turns, multiple threads that weave in and out over time. We are who we were.

Except most of us are not.

Most people go through phases, change their friends and style or take years to figure out what they’re good at or passionate about. People have been able to create narratives to make their past coherent with their current self-conception or were simply able to let them go. By putting everything up on the internet, changing our identity becomes much more difficult. Our community has a part of defining who we are and Facebook gives them a inaccurate representation. And when we look back at ourselves, Timeline presents us with aspects of our past in naked detail, without room for reinterpretation. Psychologically, people strive to be consistent and present a coherent identity. In the worst case, Facebook makes us lose the ability to reinvent ourselves over time. Timeline gives us no distance, and the facts when we look back on them, remain there, too vividly. It becomes harder to reinterpret our past without simply deleting what is there. I can’t imagine this what Facebook wants, but perhaps they will come up with a more malleable way to capture the self.

So how should we use Facebook, if at all? The fact remains that our current (lack of) technological sophistication prevents us from even remotely capturing the richness of the self. So don’t try to. Don’t share too much and keep some space between you and your online identity. In essence, do exactly what Zuck says not to. Your online identity should serve your narrative of the self – not the other way around. Don’t be fully transparent. Any representation of you will be a flattened version anyway. It is all artifice, so recreate public and private separation through this distance. This will force you to be more mindful of what goes on Facebook and also help minimize the other negative affects is has…but that is a story for another time.

N.B. on “The Self”

Defining selfhood and identity has perplexed humans since there were humans. Whether we embrace the dualism of the Body and Soul, the Behaviorist view that were are all just “meat”, or Buddhism’s Five Aggregates (rūpa (form), vedanā (sensory reception), saṁjñā (perception), saṁskāra (mental processing), and vijñāna (consciousness)), an argument can be made for their validity. I’ll discuss my views in more detail elsewhere, but for now, here’s my view in bullet point form.

Where I come out:
- Body is ever changing
- Mind and body are not separate
- Part of family, community, species, universe
- Actions, reactions
- Emptiness at our core
- Defined by separateness/solitude/secrets
- We need space between ourselves and others or we flatten out
- Arguably flattening out is what Jesus and Buddha did – they gave themselves to others completely. I wouldn’t use FB to achieve enlightenment though


[1] Also, the whole thing is a little depressing in parts. Lots of posts and comments from people I haven’t seen or spoken to IRL in years. I highly recommend looking at yours. (http://www.facebook.com/help/?page=116481065103985)


Living in a Bubble: The implied value system of Silicon Valley

Is my iPhone making me (more) of a dick? Are reddit and Facebook slowly making you hate Southerners? I think we all realize that technology affects our day-to-day lives, but I don’t think most people (including myself) have a good idea of how it changes our values in the long-term. Many people in the technology industry (including Steve Jobs) claim to just be making tools and absolving themselves of their consequences. [1] However, most tools have implied value systems and using them has moral and cultural implications. And implications for us as individuals.

Technology, at its core, is anything that allows us to do more complex tasks more easily. It does this by introducing layers of abstraction (tools or systems) between ourselves and what we are acting on. The term comes from the Greek concept of techne, which is often translated as art or craftsmanship. In this context, technologies are tools that helps us transform raw materials, giving them new meaning. As we learn how to use a tool and slowly become more adept with it, we internalize its implementation and it becomes an extension of us. Think of a carpenter and his hammer – as he grows more skilled, he forgets about the hammer itself and instead focuses solely on what he is trying to accomplish with it.

This closeness leads us to ignore the tool itself and makes us blind to the impact it has on us. This is fine when we’re dealing with a hammer – I’d have to stretch to ascribe it a philosophical position, but this is not always the case with increasingly complex tools [2]. Facebook has an implied view of what constitutes identity and Google’s pledge to “not be evil” takes an explicit moral stand. Views on data ownership and open vs. closed systems have far-reaching philosophical implications (You are not a Gadget!).  To be melodramatic: If we don’t analyze the values embedded in technology, we risk giving up control of our actions and losing our humanity.

I won’t spend much time here on why it’s necessary to create our own value system, but to me the appeal of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, who sees personal value creation as the only solution to nihilism, [3] is self-evident. In an increasingly secular age, many (most?) people are not brought up with complete and coherent ethical systems, giving us the opportunity and responsibility to create them. For all the talk of the singularity, trans-humanism and human progress, the first and most basic task of the technologist is to create a value system that will support technological growth while preventing human extinction (I’ll cover more of this later when reviewing Nicolas Bostrom’s work).

But how do we do so? I believe the first step, as in seeking inner peace, is simply to pay attention to what we do.

As I’ve started to observe my own technology habits, what really frightens me is the almost unconscious way I’ll pull out my phone or bring up Facebook, reddit or Twitter. While I’m waiting for an excel sheet to calc or query to run, I’ll alt-tab over and enjoy a celebrity blog. This is evidence of the increasing efficiency of our technology – the amount of effort required to alleviate boredom is almost zero. This makes it far easier for my choices to become habits and quickly leads to something resembling addiction (Check out Paul Graham’s Acceleration of Addictiveness for more on this).

However, as I become more aware of the technology I use, I am in a much better position to reject aspects of it that I find distasteful. The question then becomes are these sites and apps bad for me? Am I slowly internalizing a desire for constant, superficial information or an unhealthy love of cats wearing bread?

Better than Faith Hilling?

Fortunately, as with meditation, as we get better at observing our actions, we get better at detaching ourselves from our actions and seeing from multiple perspectives. This allow us to better analyze new technologies as they enter and shape our lives. This is ground often mined by writers – Michael Pollan and the Omnivore’s “Dilemma”; the red-state/blue-state battle over Pick-ups and Prius. But food production and transportation are some of our oldest technologies – the new alternatives are easier to integrate into our historical moral framework. Creating a similar model for new technologies requires us to try to look at new things in the context of human evolution, which is much more difficult than accepting TechCrunch’s glorified PR release.

Teaching people how and why to develop this skill is of particular concern because, as more and more young people are pursuing careers in technology and start-ups, it’s important to encourage them to take control of their personal development. We are often presented with the conventional wisdom’s view of Silicon Valley and endless rehashes of it, but I rarely see any second-level analysis that approaches things from a different perspective. To that end, I want to start by looking at the philosophy and ethics underpinning:

  •      Zuckerberg’s views of transparence and identity
  •      Google’s “Don’t Be Evil”
  •      Apple/Foxconn and cheap global supply chains
  •      Peter Thiel’s views on Libertarianism and Education
  •      Zynga, desire engines and respecting one’s customers
  •      Reed Hastings and the Start-up of You
  •      Start-up culture as currently proselytized by YC, Eric Ries and the SV-MSM (techcrunch et al.)
  •      Apple products, closed systems and creativity

By looking at the these things, I hope to develop tools to reflect on my personal value system and the ongoing process that creates it. And hopefully other people will find something useful, or, at the very least, interesting.

[1] From Evegeny Morogov’s excellent review of Job’s biography

Rolling Stone: Let’s talk more about the Internet. Every month, it’s growing by leaps and bounds. How is this new communications web going to affect the way we live in the future?

Jobs: I don’t think it’s too good to talk about these kinds of things. You can open up any book and hear all about this kind of garbage.

Rolling Stone: I’m interested in hearing your ideas.

Jobs: I don’t think of the world that way. I’m a tool builder. That’s how I think of myself. I want to build really good tools that I know in my gut and my heart will be valuable. And then whatever happens is … you can’t really predict exactly what will happen, but you can feel the direction that we’re going. And that’s about as close as you can get. Then you just stand back and get out of the way, and these things take on a life of their own.

[2] This is a pretty quick hacky overview of Heidegger’s view of meaning and technology. Perhaps more to come later. For a review of techne and episteme, check here

[3] From Thus Spake Zarathustra:

 ”I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?

All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment…

Behold, I teach you the overman. The overman is the meaning of the earth.Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth! I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.

Once the sin against God was the greatest sin; but God died, and these sinners died with him. To sin against the earth is now the most dreadful thing, and to esteem the entrails of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth…

What is the greatest experience you can have? It is the hour of the great contempt. The hour when your happiness, too, arouses your disgust, and even your reason and your virtue.

The hour when you say, ‘What matters my happiness? It is poverty and filth and wretched contentment. But my happiness ought to justify existence itself.’

The hour when you say, ‘What matters my reason? Does it crave knowledge as the lion his food? It is poverty and filth and wretched contentment.’

The hour when you say, ‘What matters my virtue? As yet it has not made me rage. How weary I am of my good and my evil! All that is poverty and filth and wretched contentment.’

“Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman–a rope over an abyss…