Facebook, Connecting and Controlling People

On: September 28, 2009
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About ellen sluis
I am currently enrolled in the MA New Media. After graduating in Communication and Information Sciences from the Utrecht University I worked during one year in Brazil (São Paulo) as a web designer and, after that, at a NGO, developing the website and PR.


Facebook connects people. Not a very new phenomenon, but the amount of people using the social network increases every day and so does the amount of information people show and share with (too many?) others.

Social Networking sites are popular among the Internet generation. But that’s not new. In the late nineties in Holland many adolescents already had CU2 profiles; a very one-way of sharing information with others. Actually it was all about self-presentation and online identity construction. Today, the social networks are way more interactive. Besides self-presentation, now sharing actual information about what you do, like and are up to is perhaps more important. It’s very easy to get in touch with your friends, and find old friends you haven’t seen in a while. Through your social network profile you become very available for others. Especially since other media, like your mobile phone, are interconnected. People constantly know where you are, what you do and, also, how to reach you…

Every now and then newspaper articles appear, telling us to be well aware of what information we put online. But unlike for instance the many girls putting kinky photos and videos of themselves on their profiles, I have always been very decent. As I had always protected my profile from access of non-friends, I didn’t really take all that very seriously. But lately, many issues about security and privacy appear in the news and I started to wonder; what are the consequences to and matters of privacy, control and surveillance?

A couple of weeks ago, a Facebook-issue appeared in the news. Facebook, the biggest social network in the world (250 million users), was claimed of threatening the privacy of its users by the advertising application Beacon, that follows the activities of the Facebook users and their friends, and passes the information to thirds. Even though they stopped using the application this week, the privacy policies won’t be so much better for Facebook users as they are still using various other privacy threatening applications such as Facebook Connect; that literally ‘connects’ profile and user data with thirds…

And you probably know those little quizzes, which tell you what kind of ‘Oriental’ or ‘Beer drinker’ you are. You have to fill out a lot of very detailed questions about yourself and your habits, etc. That all seems very amusing and innocent, but advertisers are very happy to find out those facts. Social networking sites are of course not in the first place developed to serve us a social platform, but to earn money by advertisers who are interested in consumer details. In Facing the Facebook Michael J. Bugeja stresses on the privacy aspects of the social network site[1].

“It is ironic that the technologies we embrace and praise for the degree of control they give us individually also give marketers and advertisers the most direct window into our psyche and buying habits they’ve ever had.” (Cristine Rosen, cited by Michael J. Bugeja in Facing the Facebook, 2006).

Not only to marketeers. As Facebook was developed by Harvard students and initially mainly used at universities in the United States, many students created a Facebook account. But what they usually don’t know is that all the information on their accounts can be read by thirds, that is, as I said before, by advertisers but also by university officials and school staff. In 2005 for instance, a student at Fisher College in Boston got expelled from school after creating a Facebook group committed to the dismissal of a campus security official, thinking that the information couldn’t be read by university staff since it wasn’t affiliated to university[2]. Thus, online networks allow high levels of surveillance and not just for marketers:

“College administrators are known to troll the profiles on Facebook for evidence of illegal behavior by students. Students might think they are merely crafting and surfing a vast network of peers, but because their Facebook profile is, in essence, a public diary, there is nothing to stop anyone else—from marketers, to parents, to college officials—from reading it.” (Cristine Rosen, cited by Michael J. Bugeja in Facing the Facebook, 2006).

But in fact these privacy and surveillance issues do not only concern social networks. In fact every bit of information we send online can be checked. That’s the main point authors like Chun, Deleuze and Galloway & Thacker emphasize. The internet offers broad possibilities as it reduces the limits of time and space and thus gives us a certain freedom. But at the same time it is the ultimate ‘control machine'[3]. For example; we need Transmission Control Protocols (TCP Protocols, which govern the connections and information sent in networks) for internet usage, but these protocols also track our information[4]. As the name of the protocol clarifies, it’s all about controlling information…

To my opinion this is pretty scary. Even though some people are well aware, it is very exhausting to think of the possible consequences of every step you take online. But I think the majority isn’t at all aware of those surveillance and privacy issues, and just live their happy lives online, sharing their (personal) information with anybody. And that is mainly Gilles Deleuze’s critique on today’s ‘control’ society in his short but clear essay Postscripts on the Societies of Control[5]. We live in a society totally controlled by corporations; we can’t do anything anymore without people being able to trace our actions. Our signature is substituted by a password…


[1] Bugeja, M. J., Facing the Facebook, 2006
[2] Jones, H. & Soltren, J. H., Facebook: Threats to Privacy, 2005
[3] Chun, W., Introduction in Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics, 2006
[4] Galloway, A & Thacker, E., Protocol, Control, and Networks, 2004
[5] Deleuze, G., Postscripts on the Societies of Control (The MIT press) 1992

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