Plutonian Striptease VII: Florian Cramer

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Plutonian Striptease is a series of interviews with experts, owners, users, fans and haters of social media, to map the different views on this topic, outside the existing discussions surrounding privacy.

Florian Cramer‘s background is comparative literature and art history with a focus on experimental arts, media, poetics and aesthetics. From 2006 to 2010, he was responsible for the Networked Media Master programme of the Piet Zwart Institute. Since 2008, he works as an applied research professor (Dutch: “lector”) supervising the research programme Communication in a Digital Age of the Piet Zwart Institute.

Social networks are often in the news, why do you think this is?
I see two major reasons: One, social networks have popularized classical Internet communication with accessible interfaces. So finally, everyone – including journalists – understands Internet as more than just an electronic distribution channel, and has also been cured from the “cyberspace”, “hypermedia” and “virtual reality” memes. But as a result, functionality and communication culture that has always been a core feature of the Internet is falsely being perceived as new, as a “social media revolution”.

The second reason is widespread job anxiety among the makers of the traditional news media, and those who indirectly live on the food chain of classical mass media production. Research suggests that younger people devote most of their media attention to social networks and “Web 2.0” services. At the same time, nobody except Google and, to a lesser degree, Facebook has figured out a revenue model for them. They help making traditional media marginal, but don’t create equivalent work opportunities for ‘creatives’ – designers, writers, etc. Contrary to the common belief that “social media” brought a shift from centralized one-to-many communication to a decentralized and self-organized model, just the opposite is true in regards to media ownership. A culture of countless local newspapers and TV stations, for example, is being replaced with a few global players in the Internet. The days where filmmakers could live from making MTV video clips, where critics could survive outside academia as newspaper and magazine writers and artists lived from jobs in the advertising industry are almost over. The strong news media coverage of social network mirrors the respective anxiety of the editors.

To explain this a little bit more: On one of our conferences, the German advertiser Marc Schwieger quoted Henry Ford saying that fifty percent of the money he spent for advertising was money flushed down the toilet. Social networks and other Google Ads help people like Ford reaching only the 50% which are the real target group of his company. Since all traditional news and broadcast media economically depend on advertising, the whole industry is shrinking to half its original size as an effect. This streamlining and economic efficiency gain might even justify the dotcom and new economy stock market craze of the late 1990s retroactively. One heavily invests into a new technology only when expecting breakthrough productivity gains, productivity in the economic sense of generated value divided by labor costs. If users create most of your content, if you need designers only once in a while for a template overhaul, and most of your staff consists of software developers and system administrators, this means a radical shift in media professions.

This conversely explains why Apple has become a news media darling, with Steve Job’s press conferences being broadcast as breaking news. Apple’s consumer devices and services successfully sell (and thus finance) traditional mass media industry content: music, movies, TV series, now also magazines. I wouldn’t be surprised if these two competing models, user-generated social media and mass media content sold over online services, will continue to coexist, and if social networks will partly have been a hype of the early 2010s. They will probably continue to be the media for younger people in school and college, but even those may move towards paid editorial media with age. It boils down, after all, to a question of having no income and a lot of time for Facebook versus having an income but no time. A Facebooker/Twitterer/blogger lifestyle is simply unsustainable for anyone with a life, a job, or both. If my scenario is right, then social media will continue to be socially powerful but economically marginal.

(2) In what way do they differ from older forms of communication on the Internet?
As said, mostly in interface design and accessibility. If you analyze a service such as Facebook, you can see that practically all its social communication functions already existed, and were commonly used, in the multiuser terminal operating systems of the 1970s and 1980s – Unix, Vax, VM/CMS and others: commands to see which other users were online at the same time, mail messages and chats (‘talk’ in Unix), user status messages (‘finger’), sharing files (via setting file permissions) etc. etc. This, however, required physical access to a university or company server and expert knowledge of terminal-based operating systems. So only a very small elite of people knew and used these technologies. Dial-up BBSes, which provided similar functions for anyone with a home computer and a telephone line, had a similar user experience. In the 1990s, the classical World Wide Web primarily provided an interface for reading pages, but was harder to use for publishing stuff yourself. Pages needed to be coded in HTML and uploaded using external services like FTP, group communication needed to resort to other services like E-Mail mailing lists, newsgroups and IRC chat.

With the availability of always-on broadband Internet, newer generation web browsers and more complex HTML features, it became possible to integrate all these functions into web sites and use the browser as a one-stop interface. This way, the web was effectively turned from an electronic library into a user-friendly operating system. The earliest manifestations were web forums, auction sites, blogs and Wikis. If there’s genius in Facebook, then in the absorption of all these media into one with a relatively clean and straightforward user interface.

The idea of the online community as a social medium, on the other hand, is anything but new. Classical examples include The Well in the late 1980s, AOL, Compuserve and Digitale Stad Amsterdam in the early 1990s. Facebook for sure has taken this idea to a new level – but in the end it simply is what AOL would have morphed into if it had been run by more competent managers and developers. Data-mining was not yet as advanced in the 1990s, and privacy issues were less debated, but structurally everything was already in place back then.

(3) Who is ultimately responsible for what happens to the data you upload to social networks?
It is your responsibility because it is your own stupidity if you share information that you do not want everyone to know. In this respect, posting something in a “social medium” is no different from, for example, publishing something in a newspaper or in a book. “Social media” services can only be blamed for the illusions of intimacy and privacy they create, making people falsely believe that they are only talking to their friends. But the same problem exists with E-Mail since unencrypted E-Mail can be read by anyone with access to the network nodes in between the sender and the recipient, and by the provider of your web mail service if you use one.

(4) Do you read Terms of Use or EULA’s and keep up to date about changes applied to them?
I avoid services and software for which I need to click an EULA as much as possible. – Good news is that in most juridictions, these EULAs are legally void. Unfortunately, there has not been enough effort to actively bring them down in court.

(5) Do you think you’ve got a realistic idea about the quantity of information that is out there about you?
No, because others are aggregating information about me that I can neither control nor revoke. I have not been amused in the past, for example, that pictures of me and my partner taken in a private social context ended up on Flickr and Facebook, marked up with my name, and posted by people who falsely think of themselves as critical media activists. I had a full-fledged social relations profile on Facebook before I ever became a member because people had been careless enough to upload their gmail or Hotmail address books to the site, feeding Facebook’s social graph algorithm. And these examples do not even include hidden corporate and governmental information gathering. It would be naive to assume that company and government databases don’t routinely leak, with information being traded to third parties. The interesting perversity of the so-called social networks is that intelligence gathering has turned from high-paid agency work into volunteer self-surveillance. It was rather naive by the Chaos Computer Club to call the German government “Stasi 2.0” given that Facebook’s database and social graph really is the user-generated, Web 2.0 version of an intelligence database.

(6) How do you value your private information now? Do you think anything can happen that will make you value it differently in the future?
A good example of an information collection that was at first harmless but soon gained entirely new significance were European public censuses in the 1920s and early 1930s which tracked people’s religious affiliations.

(7) How do you feel about trading your personal information for online services?
I only use online services for public information.

(8) What do you think the information gathered is used for?
First of all marketing, secondly governmental intelligence, thirdly for a black market of insurance companies, banks and corporate employers to assess the contract risks of an individual or a group, plus foreign intelligence services and employer’s competitors seeking clues for bribing or blackmailing individuals or finding out trade secrets; and finally, to criminals for finding profitable targets. For this, one doesn’t necessarily need data leaks, but can work very well with public data. Thanks to camera manufacturer tags and no also geo location tags in digital photographs, Flickr, for example, is an excellent resource for spotting homes of people who own expensive photography equipment.

(9) Have you ever been in a situation where sharing information online made you uncomfortable? If so, can you describe the situation?
If I describe it here, I would provide more online clues and links to the respective information.

(10) What is the worst case scenario, and what impact would that have on an individual?
The answer to question (6) hints to the historical worst case so far.

(11) Nowadays, most of the “reading” of what is written online is done by machines. Does this impact your idea of what is anonymity and privacy?
Given how rudimentary and error-prone semantic pattern recognition algorithms and other artificial intelligence algorithms are, the above is rather good news.

(12) Can a game raise issues such as online privacy? And if so, what would you like to see in such a game?
The game could succeed in this goal if it works as a simulation of the whole within the constrained, user-visible realm of a social Internet service. It could demand from its players to create data mining schemes under the guise of friendly services that affect the other players. Whoever succeeds in extracting the most valuable information wins the game, just like in real life.

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