Always On

Stephen Burt

  • The Accidental Billionaires: Sex, Money, Betrayal and the Founding of Facebook by Ben Mezrich
    Heinemann, 260 pp, £11.99, July 2009, ISBN 978 0 434 01955 7
  • The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social Network Sites, Games and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future by Craig Watkins
    Beacon, 249 pp, £17.50, October 2009, ISBN 978 0 8070 6193 0
  • Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America by Julia Angwin
    Random House, 371 pp, £17.50, March 2009, ISBN 978 1 4000 6694 0
  • The Tyranny of Email: The Four Thousand Year Journey to your Inbox by John Freeman
    Scribner, 244 pp, £17.99, October 2009, ISBN 978 1 4165 7673 0
  • The Peep Diaries: How We’re Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbours by Hal Niedzviecki
    City Lights, 256 pp, £12.00, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 87286 499 3

‘It’s kind of like Facebook, but in person,’ a Boston woman says of the camping ground where her friends take holidays. Two San Francisco teens vow to use Facebook just once a month; ‘It’s like any other addiction,’ a psychologist tells the New York Times. A burglar in West Virginia gets caught after checking his Facebook page in the house he broke into. Oxford University Press picks ‘unfriend’ as 2009’s ‘word of the year’. The Indian edition of Forbes makes Facebook a candidate – along with 20 human beings – for Indian Person of the Year. Recent changes in Facebook’s default privacy settings (which make far more information about its users public) prompt an editorial in the New York Times and a defensive op-ed by Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, in the Washington Post.

Facebook is big, and it seems to be everywhere. Founded in early 2004, restricted first to Harvard, then to students at American universities, and now open to anyone, the site claims 500 million users, having passed MySpace to become the largest social networking site in the world. Social networks – Facebook, MySpace, Orkut, Bebo (big in the UK) and QQ (big in China) – let users build a page about themselves, containing everything from romantic status (‘married’, ‘single’, ‘it’s complicated’) to video clips; each user’s page is linked to the pages of ‘friends’. Social networks aren’t the entire internet (no more than porn, or Google), though (like porn, like Google) they are a big slice: 80 per cent of Britons with internet connections use them. And (like porn, like Google) they are a synecdoche for the internet generally: social networking sites put us in touch with strangers who share our odd interests; reduce the effects of geographic distance; promote bitesize units of image and text; spread up to the minute news; suck away hours; and change how we see ourselves as social beings.

If we are to believe Ben Mezrich, none of the people who developed Facebook expected to bring those changes about: they wanted and thought about nothing but money and sex. Mezrich’s book is full of scene-setting and guesswork, and plainly relies on Eduardo Saverin, the one principal willing to be Mezrich’s source. He tells a vivid story. Harvard and other universities used to distribute physical ‘facebooks’, with photographs to help students put faces to names; undergraduates used them to rate their peers’ sex appeal. Facebook began as an attempt to replicate this model online: Zuckerberg, at the time a Harvard undergraduate, wrote the program, designed the site and found, or stole, the data and images on which the first version relied.

Saverin, another undergraduate, invested the money that let Zuckerberg start Facebook as a company; they brought in other students when they needed more manpower, then sought out Silicon Valley investors in the summer of 2004. As the investors came in, Saverin got pushed out. Before launching Facebook, Zuckerberg had agreed to program a dating site with, or for, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, Harvard athletes with old-money backgrounds. Their site, ConnectU, launched after Facebook, did poorly. The Winklevosses sued Facebook for stealing their idea; Saverin and Zuckerberg later sued each other, while Zuckerberg prospered, becoming the world’s youngest ‘self-made’ billionaire by 2008.

That’s Mezrich’s plot. Soon it will be the plot of a film, The Social Network, with a script by Aaron Sorkin, who wrote The West Wing. But most of Mezrich’s book is not plot, nor an explanation of how and why social networking sites flourish; it’s a lurid depiction of Harvard, thin on fact and thinner as fiction. ‘Eduardo had been at the right place, at the right time – but the place had changed, and time was moving forward at the speed of light.’ Most of Mezrich’s mistakes about Harvard are harmless (Folklore and Mythology is not a class but a degree programme) but some are revealing. The student housing he calls ‘the Quad’ was not ‘part of the university’s expansion deep into Cambridge to deal with overcrowding’; it was and is properly called the Radcliffe Quadrangle, where the women of Radcliffe College lived for decades before they could attend Harvard on an equal footing with men. Mezrich has apparently never heard of Radcliffe: his women are all arm candy, described as he thinks his young men would see them. Harvard men ‘got popular – and sometimes got laid, by going to parties, hanging out with pretty girls’: for example, ‘Marsha, blonde, buxom, in reality an econ major but she looked like a psychology major.’ Mark, Eduardo and their erstwhile friends expected their site ‘to mimic what went on at college every day’, where students ‘meet people, socialise, converse, sure’, but – ‘even at Harvard’ – ‘it was all really about sex.’

But Facebook helps people find one another for sex because it helps people find one another for all the reasons they might in their offline lives; it caught on because users found it more helpful than its rivals. To start with, it could be used only by college students, and its exclusivity set it apart. Even today, now that anyone can join, social researchers Ana Alemán and Katherine Wartman report that its features ‘mimic the real-life campus’, since there are ‘walls’ you can write on, announcements for parties and concerts, as well as internal mail.[*] Part of the reason Facebook has caught on with so many adults is that its rhythms imitate university: on it, you ‘see’ lots of people every day, people you might want to get to know better, and it’s easy to exchange small amounts of personal information with them. That’s what university dining-halls provide, and it’s what adults don’t necessarily have offline. There are more women on Facebook than men – as with almost all English-language social networking sites – and, according to Alemán and Wartman, ‘women are the more active users; that is, women take and upload more photographs and attend to online self-presentation more.’

Social networking sites are almost as old as the web: Six Degrees began in 1997, Livejournal (the first one I joined) in 1999. But these sites were designed to exchange words (Livejournal survives as a venue for amateur fiction). ‘Before broadband,’ Craig Watkins writes, ‘the internet was more textual than visual.’ Broadband at home, pioneered in South Korea and widely introduced in the United States from 2003, turned life online from an alphanumeric experience into an audiovisual one: you could exchange photos and music as well as words, which gave a lot more people a reason to share. The first big hit was Friendster (hence the verb ‘to friend’), but it had a limited visual palette and found it difficult to keep impersonators and spammers (‘fakesters’) out of its network. Its strongest successors took opposing tacks: Facebook started as a controlled adjunct to existing communities, MySpace as an alternative to those communities, an online world that appeared to have no rules at all.

The characters in Stealing MySpace are even harder to like than those in The Accidental Billionaires, entrepreneurial rascals to a man (and they are all men). Julia Angwin, like Mezrich, has written one of those potentially bestselling books about how a few people got rich: ‘The board of directors … wanted an operations specialist who could roll up his sleeves and fix the nitty-gritty aspects of the business.’ Nonetheless, Stealing MySpace is a better book than The Accidental Billionaires by every possible metric: Angwin, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, knows how to tell the tale of a business by following the money, and the tale of MySpace is stranger than most. The site began in the sleazier reaches of the internet economy as a partially owned subsidiary of companies (eUniverse and later Intermix) that sent spam, distributed spyware and sold anti-ageing cream. Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp eventually bought most of it, in the transaction that gives Angwin her title.

Set up in a hurry in 2003, MySpace – unlike its competitors – did nothing to prevent its users from ‘inserting web markup language’ into their profiles. They could fill their pages with homemade art, music or photographs, and link however they wanted to anything they liked. MySpace did nothing to verify users’ identities: you could claim to be Gandalf, or Shakespeare, or your sister. ‘Tech-savvy teenage girls,’ Angwin writes, could ‘customise their profiles with colourful wallpaper and backgrounds’, and bands could distribute their music with ease. Musicians and teens accounted for much of the site’s success.

As it expanded, MySpace, with its jerry-rigged management structure, confronted two ever growing expenses: server space (more and better machines) and surveillance (more employees). Somebody had to look at each contested image and decide whether to block it, and somebody had to go through users’ pages to take out malicious software (to which MySpace was unusually vulnerable because users could code their own pages). ‘By 2005,’ Angwin says, ‘MySpace was barely able to keep its site running.’ It had a reputation for risqué content, and for being a teen hangout: the combination made it an attractive target for politicians. Murdoch saw more value in it than his Americans competitors did, Angwin suggests, because Murdoch, used to Page Three girls, didn’t much mind the association with porn. And MySpace benefited immensely from (legal, adult) porn: the pseudonymous Tila Tequila, with 1,771,920 MySpace friends as of 2007, became the most famous of many sex workers to build her career there.

On the customised (often eye-poppingly amateurish) home pages of MySpace, you can make yourself seem older, or taller or more (or less) promiscuous: you can be a rock star, or a Klingon. On Facebook, especially in its earlier, collegiate incarnations, people were and are expected (as Angwin writes) ‘to use their own names and to connect to people … they already knew’. No wonder, then, that Facebook users are – Watkins’s research confirms – older, whiter, richer and more likely to benefit materially just from being themselves. Facebook users view MySpace users as ‘unsophisticated, uneducated and undesirable’. ‘MySpace is the poor person’s Facebook,’ one student tells him. American teens who attend selective colleges often abandon MySpace for Facebook, or use MySpace only to keep in touch with their high school friends. Once Facebook opened itself up to high school students in 2005, as the sociologist Danah Boyd puts it, it was ‘the Goody Two-Shoes, jocks, athletes or other “good” kids’ who switched to it.

In his surveys and interviews Watkins asks how ‘the first generation of American teens to grow up with … the internet literally at their fingertips’ differs from the ones that went before, though it seems his real concern is with what happens when people of whatever age conduct their social lives online. Much of his research attacks the familiar claim that heavy internet use makes people more isolated. John Freeman’s polemic The Tyranny of Email cites a study that purports to show how ‘people burned up two hours a day on the internet’ that ‘they would normally spend with family and friends,’ but Watkins finds that young people’s internet use just replaces hours spent watching TV: they have been trading one screen for another. Australian researchers claim that MySpace users who ‘started blogging reported feeling less isolated and more part of a community’; even those who didn’t blog somehow felt ‘happier’ after being on MySpace for a few months.

That doesn’t mean that they made new friends of a different kind: it might mean that they felt a little closer to acquaintances, or else to other people much like them. Social networks in general, Watkins concludes, ‘do not appear to be radically altering the personal bonds and connections that young people make’. Online as offline, we ‘prefer to engage people … who are close in body, mind and lifestyle’; ‘young people’ (and not only young people) want ‘online communities that connect them to people who are like them in some notable way’. Yet people who are like me in one notable way (politics, or taste in music) may not be like me in another (age, education, skin colour, income or – especially – location). Tastes correlate with all those other variables – as Pierre Bourdieu never tired of showing – but their correlation is less than perfect: otherwise critics could never convince us of anything we don’t already believe. Social networks can be one more means of convincing.

They are thus part of the larger story of internet-driven ‘disintermediation’, a term that also covers the rise of downloaded music, the lawsuits about it, the migration of ‘little magazines’ to online-only versions, the universal availability of porn, the universal availability of twee pictures of hedgehogs, and the disappearance of book review sections from newspapers (soon to be followed, in the United States at least, by the disappearance of newspapers altogether). No wonder disintermediation has generated such moral panic: the changes that have made it so much harder for Disney or NewsCorp to control what you see and hear are the same changes that make it very much harder for you to limit what your kids see and hear. A Tasmanian teenager can now discover – and, through social networks, find other people who are discovering – the poetry of Lorine Niedecker, the music of the Fat Tulips and the manifestos of climate change activists; she can also find encouragement, on the frightening ‘pro-ana’ (anorexia) sites, if she wants to starve herself to death. She can thereby redefine herself, if she likes, as a poetry reader, as a climate activist, as anorexic. Yet she is more likely (as Watkins suggests) to define herself just as she would have without the internet – by social class, by pre-existing tastes, by her schoolfriends.

Even where life online has not changed what we see, or how we define ourselves, it has changed the speed at which we do it. ‘At one time I can be banking, paying bills, checking my email, Facebooking, emailing my parents, talking online to my friends, checking the TV Guide on the internet, and researching possible graduate schools,’ a 22-year-old tells Watkins. Such habits, Watkins thinks, produce ‘continuous partial attention’ (CPA): along with a craving for fast entertainment, an ‘always-on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace … sense of constant crisis’, ‘an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING’. If social networks are usually Good Things, CPA is a Bad Thing: no matter how often we check our home pages and inboxes, how often we check the news, there is still the chance of more news a minute from now. ‘Everything must be attended to,’ Freeman writes in The Tyranny of Email: ‘The faster you reply, the faster the replies come.’ He decries, predictably enough, our ‘ethic of being “always on”’, which makes us ‘task-oriented, tetchy, terrible at listening as we try to keep up with the computer’.

When Freeman attacks email because its ‘disembodied’ communication creates a ‘radically desensualised information space’, he is really attacking the written word. (Much of his book is a history of written messages, from clay tablets to telegrams to the invention, in 1868, of junk mail.) He ends by proposing a ‘slow communication movement’: step outside, interact face to face, with ‘media-free time every day’. But books, and indeed sheet music, are ‘media’ too, and in a time of continuous partial attention, it would be good to see them hold their own. We have always had trouble paying attention, especially when we are young and excitable, and the wealth of distractions now available makes clear how little focus human beings usually have. ‘Fast entertainment’ scared Wordsworth too: ‘A multitude of causes, unknown to former times,’ he wrote in 1800 in the preface to Lyrical Ballads,

are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind … The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies.

Appalled observers – Freeman is hardly the first – react to the web as Wordsworth reacted to London, with its ‘endless stream of men and moving things’. London, like the internet, brought together people who used to live far apart: ‘Moors, Malays, Lascars, the Tartar, the Chinese/And Negro Ladies in white muslin gowns’; London, too, presented ‘sights that ape/The absolute presence of reality’, from pantomimes to painted outdoor signs. The hourly craving for gossip, or news, the density of visual information, the loss of authentic and trustworthy face-to-face contact, the anonymity of modernity: for Wordsworth, they were all connected (and all to be feared).

They are connected, too, for Hal Niedzviecki, whose bracingly informal book reflects mixed feelings about what he calls ‘Peep Culture’. ‘Blog posts, images, videos, tweets, dating profiles and friend updates’, he says, are creating a culture without privacy, a culture of ‘wanting to know everything about everyone and, in turn, wanting to make sure that everyone knows everything about’ us. Niedzviecki argues that the handful of people who walk about with digital cameras on their heads, so that they can put every part of every day online, and the people who beg to be contestants on reality TV shows, are simply extremes of the Peep that engulfs us all. In Niedzviecki’s telling, modern life classifies all of us either as celebrities or as drones: no wonder we would rather be celebrities. ‘In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 people,’ the songwriter Nick Currie (a.k.a. Momus) joked in 1991; his prediction has come to pass.

Those of us who record our lives online, becoming the paparazzi to our own celebrity, are also creating, willy-nilly, an archive, where future acquaintances, government agents or curious historians can see what we did with our time. According to an anonymous Facebook employee interviewed by the online magazine The Rumpus, the company saves ‘all the data on all of our servers’, ‘every hour, of every day’; ‘at least two people,’ the employee says, ‘have been fired’ for spying on accounts. As a matter of fact, our privacy online has already gone: anything we throw out online can be retrieved if a sufficiently powerful entity wants it badly enough. ‘You have zero privacy anyway: get over it,’ the head of Sun Microsystems told an audience back in 1999; ‘If you have something you don’t want anyone to know,’ the CEO of Google said last year, ‘maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.’ As a matter of mores and expectations, though, it seems wrong to claim that the online world has already destroyed our hopes for privacy, when privacy and secrets remain such a big part of social life: people who use online dating sites (one kind of social network) to cheat on their partners want those partners kept in the dark, and young people still want their sentiments kept from adults. ‘Facebook is for old people!’ one girl tells Boyd; this girl, who is 14, has a Facebook account, but she spends most of her time on MySpace, where adults are unlikely to go. The recent flap over Facebook’s privacy settings shows both that we should not expect to keep secrets online, and that many of us still want to try: reacting to what seemed like a web-wide backlash, Zuckerberg promised new ‘privacy controls that are much simpler to use’.

‘Social networks are addictive and instinctual,’ Niedzviecki writes; we ‘feel … the hours slipping away’. A glowing screen, with the promise of infinitely more glowing screens behind it, calls to us as a closed book perhaps can’t. Freeman points out that the intermittent and unpredictable reward you get by checking your email, or your Facebook page – perhaps there’s a message for me! – resembles the intermittent, unpredictable reward of slot machines. People who say they’re ‘addicted’ to Facebook are often using the term in a less than clinical sense; videogame addiction, on the other hand, seems to have killed at least one South Korean. But anyone who regrets time spent online, anyone who spends hours clicking on photos and links and then asks where his morning has gone, has experienced at least a bit of the feeling that addicts know: the sense that our brains’ pleasure centres, our immediate impulses, have led us astray.

If hours and years of time spent at home in front of a computer screen haven’t corroded your sense of privacy, they have probably changed your sense of time: there’s so much available right now that will feel old tomorrow, so much breaking news, so many requests from friends, that less time-sensitive pastimes get pushed out. Social networks, with their cascade of updates, along with blogs and Twitter feeds, increase both the quantity and the quality of our attention to time-sensitive pursuits – politics, sport, our friends’ daily lives – in which the best information really is the latest news we can get. The same cannot be said for most of the arts. I lost hours, while thinking about writing this essay, looking for up-to-date information about the then upcoming Massachusetts election on news sites and on blogs such as Daily Kos, whose 250,000 registered users comprise a ‘social network’ of their own. That news, once found (current polls show a statistical tie!), led me to spend a day making phone calls for the Democrat: at the phone bank, I met two retirees, one high school student, and the owner of a local Burger King. My continuous partial attention, my ‘always-on’ life, had made me twitchier, and more distracted, more focused on the present but also more involved – in something. Our candidate lost.

[*] Online Social Networking on Campus: Understanding What Matters in Student Culture (Routledge, 168 pp., £24.99, December 20o8, 978 0 415 99020 2).