The Internet was supposed to facilitate direct connections between individuals and dis-empower gatekeepers. Instead, it has become a massive man-in-the-middle attack.
Social networking shouldn't be compulsory, and yet it's becoming an obligation. The hunger among Internet companies for data about who you are, what you do, where you go, and who you know keeps growing. They want you to share so they can earn. So they have violated Communication Neutrality: They have made mechanisms for expression into vehicles for marketing, forcing those who participate in online life to promote.
Social networking has become inescapable. Startups often require a Facebook or Twitter login. Google now requires a Google+ account to post app reviews on Google Play. And in many lines of knowledge work, including journalism, participation in these networks has become a job requirement.
The latest entry in the field comes from Microsoft, which has just opened a social network of its own, the aptly named so.cl. Evidently, the world needs more sharing.
Or it would, if social networks were actually about sharing. The irony of the constant cajoling to share more, of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's self-serving predictions that everyone will share more in the future, is that social networks themselves limit how they share the data they've collected. They don't so much share as restrict, through contractual API limitations, through incomplete export capabilities, through burdensome processes, under the pretense of user protection, or to spite the competition.
Consider the latest dustup between Instagram and Twitter. According to the New York Times, Instagram's CEO Kevin Systrom acknowledged that his Facebook-owned company has eliminated the ability to embed pictures in Twitter and intends to make posts to Twitter redirect users to Instagram to view images.
Share and share alike? Hardly. You promote, we monetize.
Social networking isn't about sharing. It's about marketing. Perhaps the most obvious proof of that is Facebook's promoted posts, through which advertisers can pay to have their marketing distributed more widely in Facebook users' news feeds.
Sharing at its best is private, personal and genuine. It's direct. It doesn't involve intermediaries. It doesn't have terms of service or privacy policies that describe how you will not be getting privacy. But public sharing is something else entirely. It's publishing, or something like it, paid for by free online services worth far less than the data surrendered and the labor required to produce it. But that's capitalism, isn't it? Buy low, sell high.
Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek,...
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