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Net cracker

by Prasad Krishna last modified Apr 02, 2011 05:11 PM
Is Facebook taking over our lives? And if it is, so what? In email interviews with new media researcher and user control advocate Marc Stumpel who is conducting a Facebook Resistance workshop this fortnight, and artist and communication designer Tobias Leingruber, the originator of the FB Resistance idea, Akhila Seetharaman attempts to answer these questions. This article was published in Time Out Bengaluru Vol. 3 Issue 19, April 1 - 14, 2011.

There’s a lot said about the role of social media in fuelling political revolutions. What do you make of the role of Facebook, for instance, in the recent uprisings in the Arab world?

Marc Stumpel Clearly, social media has been utilised as instruments by citizens in the Middle East to organise and coordinate democratic protests. They have also proven to be important sources for real-time reporting and documenting political events. The use of networked communication in political protests, however, is nothing new. In my view, it’s wrong to assume there is a causal relationship between social media and “political revolutions”. You need “the people” to instigate a revolution; they will unquestionably use any media at hand.

My interest lies more with researching and exposing the political dimension of social media, rather than questioning its relationship with the politics that we are used to talking and writing about. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are sites of governance themselves, as the user activities, conditions and data distribution are maintained by a particular set of rules and constraints, embedded in the software.

How do social media sites control people, while at the same time giving them more outlets for self expression and communication?

MS Proprietary social networking software like Facebook have many constraints, which means that users have to abide by the laws and strict limits as defined by the software. Where is our ‘freedom’? For example, why not let the users change their background colour or ‘dislike’ something?

There have been many changes to Facebook that have met with widespread opposition and outrage. How does one make sense of these instances?

MS Facebook’s PR communication regarding its immediate software changes has been very deceptive. They’ve repeatedly used a particular vocabulary to create images of Facebook ‘apologising’ for or ‘justifying’ rigid changes. They say, ‘Look! We ‘simplified’ privacy controls, because we care about your privacy,’ while making them more complex instead.

Can you tell us a few things that Facebook users should know but don’t, about the way Facebook uses their stuff?

Tobias Leingruber Realise the nature of the company. Google is not a search engine. Google is an advertising network. Facebook is not a social network – it’s an advertising network. We are the product, ‘the sheeple’. We get to be in a herd, but we pay with our most private data. They shave our wool.

MS Facebook is not transparent about its Web user-tracking activities. Via cookies it saves every website you visit outside of Facebook that has any FB social plugin implemented. We don’t exactly know what FB does with this tracking data.

What is the Facebook Resistance?

MS Our attempt is to resist from within the system by slowly undermining and questioning it. This means we’re not leaving it and building a new one. We’re accepting the fact that Facebook has already ‘won’ for now, and we’re trying to make the best out of it by bending its rules.

Critical talk about social media landscape often borrows from the lexicon of war – with online suicide, tactical media, resistance, etc. How much of a warzone is it?

TL Nice observation! Actually ‘cyberwar’ has become very real this year, as US and Israeli militants created a worm that successfully attacked and physically destroyed parts of the Iranian nuclear research programme.

But more specifically on social media I think those extreme terms are very helpful to get people’s attention. We’re overwhelmed by information, so getting people’s attention is an art form itself.

MS We are not at ‘war’ with Facebook; we are at “softwar”, fighting for internet freedom and the adoption of open standards.

What is the potential of resistance to Facebook? What can be achieved?

TL In theory we could undermine and replace their entire system. For example, the chat – to get rid of the tracking and censorship, the system behind Facebook’s chat interface could be replaced with something else, such as the Jabber protocol through an independent server.

MS Expanding your freedom on Facebook by learning how to impose new rules and features onto the system through internet browser processing (thus, not changing any code on Facebook’s server) and spreading awareness about this possibility.

Photography by Tobias Leingruber

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