Facebook and Google: Parochialize your Intarnet!

There’s a very nice little article in Wired this month about Facebook’s plans to rule the world. It’s got lots of details about things like Facebook Connect and about the hubris-filled and cocksure Mark Zuckerberg. What got me thinking most, however, was this chestnut:

For the last decade or so, the Web has been defined by Google’s algorithms—rigorous and efficient equations that parse practically every byte of online activity to build a dispassionate atlas of the online world. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg envisions a more personalized, humanized Web, where our network of friends, colleagues, peers, and family is our primary source of information, just as it is offline. In Zuckerberg’s vision, users will query this “social graph” to find a doctor, the best camera, or someone to hire—rather than tapping the cold mathematics of a Google search.

It’s one of those nice journalistic object lessons which seems to sum it all up at the exact moment that all of its assumptions leak out of the edges: that the Web must be one thing, that one must gain knowledge either from machines or people, that our circle of friends is “our” primary source of information, that we use facebook to get information or that its CEO’s vision maps onto its practices; and so forth.

But there is something crystalline about this. There is a change at work here, a kind of parochialization in process. The metrics of trust embodied by Google are a set of ideals grounded in the idea of a vast library, a global brain, “the world’s information” and the Internet as a vast sea of computable texts and actions; those of Facebook are ideals of human contact, facefulness, recognition, mimicry, identity management, constant contact, powerful control over one’s identity, social network and reputation, self-actualization. Google is dominated by an ethic of information openness in which more is better, because it makes it easier to comb through collect, sort and analyze data. The more open data is, the better your analysis of it will be. Facebook is dominated by something like an ethic of “revealed preferences”–the only information that matters is information tied to a autocthonous system that gives it meaning. Parochialize your Internet; re-embody your avatar. On Facebook, everyone knows you’re a beautiful and well-bred dog. On the capitalist side, this all comes down to how your information will be commodified: facelessly and anonymously, but with possible benefit for a general public (though that public is a geo-politically fraught one with fault lines called China and Saudi Arabia) or facefully and behaviorally targeted commodification, with maximum benefit for the social graph you make and belong to. If we want to talk about intentional communities today, let’s start here: with the automatic co-creation of consumer profiles. The war to make our own demography starts here.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

7 thoughts on “Facebook and Google: Parochialize your Intarnet!

  1. Hi Chris,

    I wonder if I’m missing something. Google allows users who are logged in to up-vote/down-vote and comment on search results.

    It seems to me that connecting those personalizations of Google results with your Google contacts would be sufficient for achieving much of what Mark Zuckerberg envisions.

    So I don’t really see the dichotomy.


  2. yes… but I can’t see WHO up or down voted the results. Facebook is all about tying every action to an identity. Google may increasingly try to do that, since it is competing with FB, but it was founded on the ideal of an anonymous stream of data that reveals The Truth regardless of whether individuals are identifiable or not. FB inverts that and discards any information not produced by identifiable entities… or that’s how I understand it anyway.

  3. Hi Chris,

    No, Google’s already doing it with Google Reader, which shares your favorites non-anonymously with your contacts.

    I’m sure they’re quite ready to compete with Facebook on this point but cautious about changes to their core business. 🙂


  4. Could you tell me what you mean by “parochialism” and “metrics of trust” here – I am slightly confused but interested enough to respond – are you referring to a continuing process of division of labour and markets type of thing? But you know Zukerberg has sort of got a point – face book is “nicer” especially when you open it and see all your family and friends – and new messages and pictures – and whoa!- theres uncle Charlie online and drug free! Anyway facebook is nice but I am not sure I would agree that it gives you power over your identity – it might allow you to play with it a little, but inend everyone knows its you – if you know what I mean. Anyway thanks for the post

  5. Brett,

    Let me preface by saying I don’t have a ton of anthropological experience, so if there are difficulties with the comment I am about to make, feel free to point out any errors I might make.

    I recently started a “professional” facebook running along side my more personal facebook. On this more professional facebook, I have moderated some of my views or comments so as to provide an identity that is much more accessible to many persons. I come from a very small, Texas town, and inherent within that community (and hence my family) there are certain stereotypes that are hard to let go of, no matter the amount of dialogue.

    I find it most interesting how this more moderate facebook account has encouraged me to, internally, moderate myself. So, there is an interesting dialectic going on between me and my own facebook account (which of course is uber-controlled by the social groups I try to interact with). I would agree with you in that it gives you but a moderate control of your own personal identity (the ways that you internally understand your characteristics); however, it gives you a great deal of control over how you present yourself to the world or, more simply, to your social contacts, friends, and family. However, it also seems to me that in during this dialogue with oneself (should I REALLY put “Communist” for my political views or should I simply put “Moderate”?) has an effect on one’s own understanding of oneself.


  6. John- It seems the dialogue with ‘oneself’ you describe is simply you negotiating your identity by incorporating your offline social values and expectations to create a realistic sense of self online. Whether online interacting with social groups or offline interacting with people, we all ‘code shift”, that is we identify accordingly.

  7. I think this a post on a very interesting topic.

    There are a lot of things going on here which have implications for information and identity – and commodification seems to have a lot to do with it.

    I guess at the end of the day what your talking about is anonymous open-source information (seemingly scientific) versus identity-based open-source information (seemingly parochial and humanist).

    But all is not what it seems.

    With Google (and another example is Wikipedia) you can take the information at face-value and accept it as anonymous (and also by passive consensus ‘scientific’ or at least the prevailing wisdom) or you can dig deeper and find the author, track the changes etc. Google has been criticised for its shift to sponsored links, which questions the ethics of its ‘open-source’ policy. Are the named sponsored links the only sponsored links? Can businesses artficially enhance their search listing by searching themselves? Do lobbyists and interest groups create and modify Wikis for a secret agenda? Or is it just individual loonies with axes to grind? (you often see pages closed due to vandalism).

    On the flip-side, it is not just information on facebook which is being commodified by association with parochial groups. Identity is also being commodified. I particularly like the reference in the post to mimicry – being a young(ish) facebook user it is interesting to watch the passing fads in photos, posts, applications and even the naming of one’s ‘identity’ which spread like wildfire and are gone just as quickly. One of the most recent ones I have seen is the addition of a abstract descriptive word as a nickname/middle name such as Rowan ‘Danger’ Reilly. There is a lot of ‘theatre’ involved in producing an identity on facebook.

    FaceBook recently moved to sponsored links and is diversifying its commercial interests to maximise profit on the phenomenon. This could be as explicit as ‘become a fan of …[insert Jessica Alba, Quarter-pounders with Cheese etc.] to embedded advertising in applications and identity trolling for marketing purposes (to the point where users will have personalised advertising for themselves without being conscious of it). Facebook is also a new medium for publicity stunts which are also great for marketing, and can be used to subconsciously induce behaviours, attitudes and aesthetics in consumers.

    The common thread between facebook and google is that despite the initial good intentions of both there a hidden commodification agenda beneath them both. Which is why i am a fan of more decentralised blogs (even such as this one) but which are not as accessible for the less Net-savvy and geekish majority of the population. Facebook offers a quick and convenient source of cyber-status (as someone with command of technology and cyberspace) and access to a network of products, information and identities without too much effort. It is a classic reproduction of mass production.

    A couple of asides:

    First, I find it interesting and disturbing the way in which Facebook Identities are pervading real life – for example my sister used to go out with her friends and spend the whole night taking ‘zany’ photos to put on facebook, and then spend the whole next day editing and uploading them (in between that i hope she had fun in the real world, because i had to wait all day to get on the computer). So the question is, as people go about their day-to-day lives, are they living in the real world, or living for Facebook? Which identity is more ‘real’ (or powerful/visible to a wider audience), the one people see face-to-face, or the one they see online.

    Second, I was reading a recent article about Twitter, which questioned whether it would be a passing fad. I personally have not used Twitter and I am reluctant to because it seems to be a step in the wrong direction in terms of producing quality information (versus commodifiable information). But it made me reflect on Facebook – and I get the feeling that people from my social circles are getting over the fad – or at least have their addiction under control. I am sure that there will be a new one, so just as Facebook replaced MySpace and Twitter may steal some of the market from Facebook, there will be a new fad.

    I think there needs to be a name for this industry of cyber-consumption which is such a drain on human productivity and creativity, not to mention the carbon footprint of it…

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