Monday, November 14, 2011

Steering clear of the magic kingdom

In his stylish and thought-provoking book Frozen Desire: An Enquiry into the Meaning of Money, James Buchan argues that one of money's defining properties is that it robs things of their essences by making them comparable.

Pre-money, each thing had a certain thinginess. It was what it was, and could not be otherwise. But once money comes along, a thing can be expressed in terms of its cash value, and so, instead of seeing it as uniquely itself, we see it as more or less valuable than something else, and it loses that essence.

(One reason that men give women chocolates and flowers, Buchan suggests, is that they are perishable, and so, because they cannot be converted back into money, they retain their thinginess, helping to keep money and romance apart.)

Similarly, one feature of social media is that, by making our social lives quantifiable in a way they weren't before, they make them more like money. One can count one's twitter followers and facebook friends, compare them to someone else's, feel inadequate, and change one's behaviour to try and catch up.

Of course, people have always courted popularity, but never before has it been so easy to measure and compare. And, as occurred with money, something is lost in the process.

Or, as Bonnie Stewart puts it: "The peer-to-peer relationality of social media is undermined by the kind of behavior that cultivates status over relationships." (Stewart is writing in Salon, or rather Salon has reproduced one of her blog posts.)

Stewart is discussing Klout, which aims to give you "a single tidy number meant to sum up your influence and engagement in the social media sphere". There have been several attempts in the past to create general online measures of social worth, often with reference to Whuffie, the reputation-based currency imagined by Cory Doctorow in his novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

In People Will Talk, I'm sceptical about them, for the same reason as Stewart is - because by reducing a narrative to a number, you lose information, but gain a precision and quantifiability that is actually spurious.

But it looks like Klout is taking off. It, Stewart writes: "has established itself as a major arbiter of influence in social media’s already driving hiring in social media spheres. Its algorithm is being taken up as a factual assessment."

One reason for this is probably that employers have no idea how to decide who to hire, and will clutch at any straw, such as credit scores, that seems to differentiate one candidate from another.

That may be bad for certain types of people trying to get certain types of job. On a self-interested note, I wouldn't be surprised if this type of information were also influencing hiring decisions in journalism.

Whether it means anything, I don't know. Is your Klout score a reflection of anything more than your Klout score? I guess the way to judge that is whether it tells you anything you don't already know, or can't deduce another way - simply by counting their friends/followers, for example. (Given that too many can be a bad thing, in terms of likability and credibility, it'd be interesting to know how Klout treats this.)

Klout, for example, hints that Justin Bieber is famous. I am, however, prepared to believe that these things can be useful, and will probably become more so (even though I don't really want to, because I value the thinginess of things, and doubt that I am the kind of person/writer who will prosper in that kind of world - I don't want to know my Klout, and not just because I suspect it's tiny).

More generally, what's pernicious about this type of quantification is that it infects everyone, not just those who play the game professionally. It encourages us to compare and commodify ourselves - again, not a phenomenon confined to online life, and not a new complaint about online society, but something that seems to be becoming easier to do and more widespread.

One of my favourite lines in a novel comes in Jonathan Franzen's the Corrections, when one character says to another, "what's life about?", and she replies "I don't know, but it's not about winning." And yet, we're being given ever more ways to treat life like a high-score table. And, because we are competitive animals, as well as cooperative ones, we lap it up.

In the process, social information becomes like money, and our social lives become monetized. Stewart again: "We are gradually being directed away from sociality and toward businesslike behaviors by the business interests that design and profit from the platforms we use."

Or, to quote Slavoj Zizek (I know!) in the LRB: "We are often told that privacy is disappearing, that the most intimate secrets are open to public probing. But the reality is the opposite: what is effectively disappearing is public space, with its attendant dignity."

Or to put it a third way, the difference between social interaction and social media is like the difference between a park and a theme park. In the latter, your experience is controlled to commercial ends. Theme parks can be fantastic, but (unlike the hero of Down and Out) I wouldn't want to live in one.

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