Who’s that Friend?

Posted by Nishant Shah at Oct 23, 2012 09:25 AM |
If you are reading this, stand on your right foot and start hopping while waving your hands in the air and shouting, “I am crazy” at the top of your voice. If you don’t, your Facebook account will be compromised, your passwords will be automatically leaked, and somebody will use your credit card to smuggle ice across international waters.
Who’s that Friend?

Friendship within the social network is a non-reciprocal one-way transmission of secrets

Nishant Shah's column was published in the Indian Express and in the  Financial Express on October 7, 2012.

We have all received messages of this order — if not exactly this much silliness — on the various social networks that we belong to. These are messages that warn us that our security is breached, our data is unsafe, that our transactions are public, and all the sensitive information we have trusted to the different platforms on the Web, is now up for grabs.

The best of us have fallen prey to such messages of alarm, and have “shared”, “liked”, or “retweeted” them, and in retrospect felt foolish when we realised that the message was just a hoax. For those of us who are savvy with the ways of the Web, even when we are sending these messages, there is an instinctive feeling that something is wrong, but we do it nevertheless, joining the ranks of conspiracy theorists who make this world enchanting and mysterious in its quotidian banality. These messages are common, harmless and habit-forming — they spread, even when we recognise that they are not completely plausible — because we have formed habits online, which we immediately perform, before rational thought or reason sets in.

At a recent Thought Marathon on “Habits of Living”, supported by Brown University and organised by the Centre for Internet and Society, a handful of scholars, artists, practitioners and researchers examined how such habits shape the world of the digital. One of the concerns about such habits of viral dissemination is about the design of trust and the nature of friendship in our social networking systems. How do you trust information online? What is the information that uses you as a conduit, disseminating through you into the network? What role do we play in keeping these messages alive, by spreading them, by talking about them, by retracting and discussing them, giving them more value than they could muster on their own?

At the centre of all these questions is the idea of proximity, intimacy and friendship. Within the social Web, we have all become “friends”. The six degrees of separation have fallen — every lurker is a potential friend, just waiting to be authenticated by a system, tagged in a photo, connected by a weak link of interest or closeness. These friends are our social safety nets on the Net. They give us a sense of belonging and safety when we are committing our intensely personal and private data on the publically private digital platforms. Despite knowing that information we produce online is going to be archived in servers over which we have no control, in forms and formats that will outlive our social relations and indeed, our very lives, we constantly produce data that quantifies and marks our social relationships. We commit secrets and private thoughts to “friends” in the network.

However, friendship within the social network is a non-reciprocal one-way transmission of secrets. The covenant of digital friendship on Facebook is that we pass on a secret to a friend, knowing well, that the act of passing on the secret expects a betrayal of that secret. The information that we submit to somebody to show our trust, has already been witnessed, stored, archived and mapped by the code and algorithms that make that system. Which is why, we live in constant fear of our data being compromised by the “system” which is both vulnerable and fragile. Which is why, we are continually bombarded by warnings of glitches in the matrix, outside of our control, reminding us of the fearful precariousness of being on the Web.

And yet, the trolling messages and the way they spread, remind us that in the system, it is the “friend” who is invariably the person who puts us in danger. There are almost no documented cases of a system endangering the person who shares information on the social Web. The leak in the network is always done through a human actor — somebody who is close to us, somebody who we trust — who invariably passes on that secret to another “friend” in the network. Similarly, the chances of your machine getting infected by a random virus by a stranger are very low. The people who infect you are those you trust, because you receive information from them without questioning it. An attachment in the email, a link to a dodgy site, instructions asking for personal details are all safe because we are naturally suspicious of strangers bearing candy. But when these questions come from our “friends”, we drop our guards and accept viruses, share personal data, give out compromising pictures, putting ourselves in conditions of threat.

This is the fundamental paradox of the social Web — that those who we trust, are generally the primary sources who put us in danger, and yet, because we think of them as “friends”, we continue to trust them, while remaining suspicious of the systems that are far more benign than the humans in the network.



Nishant Shah

Dr. Nishant Shah is the co-founder and board member of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, and is a professor at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media at Leuphana University in Germany, and is Dean of Research at ArtEZ Graduate School, the Netherlands.