I’m Not Buying It

From Library Babel Fish, February 1, 2012

We increasingly depend on companies whose business is collecting information about us – what we read, what we say, what we watch, what we buy, where we go, and who we know. It’s scary how much the tools that we use every day capture and use personal information – and how little we care. But perhaps that will soon change. Both Facebook and Google will be revealing some of the astounding amount of information they’ve gathered about us, and it may make people uncomfortable enough to stir things up.

The soon to be non-optional Facebook Timeline is designed to show you your entire life as it unspools through wall postings and photos, giving others a chance to comment on your life history. After it’s rolled out in the next few weeks, you will have a week to decide how much of it to hide or delete; the default setting is public. It’s a curious move; so far as I know, nobody asked for it, and a lot of people actively dislike the idea. But it will at least be a chance to get a glimpse of just how much Facebook knows about you. (Of course, it’s not everything they know – it doesn’t include which websites you’ve visited as the company follows you around the web, taking notes – but it still may seem a shocking amount of detail.) The company’s assumption that we love sharing also informs a little project underway right now, “2012 Matters,” a poll Facebook will conduct with results to be broadcast on a billboard in Times Square. Times Square! Wouldn’t you want to be there? The invitation suggests we’ll leap at the chance, even though we’re bored with politics. A company official told the New York Times “Facts don’t spread. Emotions do spread.” Forget about carefully designed opinion polls. Let’s go with aggregated gut feelings. But this isn’t about politics or civic engagement. We’re not going to occupy Times Square, after all. This is the “intersection of social media and branded event advertising.” That’s pretty depressing. But I don’t have to be part of it.

I decided last fall that, while I quite enjoyed sharing links and photos and the brainstorm of the minute with my friends, I really disliked sharing those things with Facebook. Facebook’s massive data mining and integration of their hooks into the rest of the web has just become too creepy for me, so I went through the process of deleting my account, which was about as easy as fasting for a month. But it can be done.

Google, however, is not in the “take it or leave it” category. Its research tools are too valuable for me to swear off Google completely. But I’m not happy that Google is once again “improving the user experience,” which means using my behavior online to fine-tune advertising. By merging information streams from their many applications, the search engine that has become ubiquitous will be turning into a weird sort of narcissistic peeping Tom. Your gmail messages will try to put things on your calendar; what you watch at YouTube will change the results of your next search. What you find when you search might be influenced by what your friends are talking about at Google+. The company has reassured Congress that it is simply making their policies clearer. They are not gathering more information on us. They’re just using data from one service to influence our use of another.

When I search, I don’t want what I wrote in an email or what I watched on YouTube to change what I find. Sure, there are places where my scholarly interests blur into my idle curiosity and into my social relationships. I also know that my choice of search terms and even the questions I decide to ask will be influenced by things I have read or conversations I’ve had. But somehow, I want search to be pure, not influenced by my own limitations and blind spots. I want to find what is out there, not what I’ve already expressed. I guess it boils down to my belief that the search for knowledge should be fundamentally different than shopping. Google is not treating it that way.

The ways libraries operate has been deeply influenced by trends in retailing. Barnes and Noble borrowed library décor to furnish their stores, and libraries then had to borrow it back after learning that our patrons’ love of bookish and comfortable reading spaces was not being nourished in libraries. We had an awesomely vast catalog of books in Worldcat, but it wasn’t until our patrons showed up with Amazon printouts that we realized how shortsighted it was to confine all that information about books to a fairly clunky library-based subscription database. We had accrued a lot of cultural capital, but we didn’t value it until corporations borrowed it and began to exploit it.

One bit of library capital that hasn’t been borrowed by social media companies is our respect for privacy as a condition fundamental to intellectual freedom. We don’t want to look over your shoulder when you read. We don’t want to provide information about what you’re reading to others. This runs against prevailing ideas about how social relationships work. Even JSTOR is trying out a way of trading limited free access to articles in exchange for data that publishers can use. In the absence of any access, this seems like a good deal, but it’s not clear to me why we can’t do better. I already click through a copyright statement every time I use JSTOR because I prefer not to tie what I read to a personal account. I suppose JSTOR might say establishing personal accounts will improve our user experience, but I’m not buying it.

Research is by its nature social. We build on one another’s ideas and we share ours publicly to keep the conversation going. But it’s not social the way Facebook is. Facebook is a data-gathering machine. It’s a blank slate on which we write so that they can aggregate and monetize what we freely share. There are real problems with companies trailing you wherever your curiosity leads so that they can report to others where you’ve been. There are real problems with a database showing us what it thinks will make us happy rather than what might be out there. Privacy is one traditional library value that I wish these companies would borrow from us, but it would undermine their business model.

What happens if this mania for gathering private information passes and the business model proves unsustainable? What if it’s all a bubble? We may have to find new ways to search and share. And maybe next time we’ll avoid building it as a front for a massive surveillance system.