I seem to have been creating mail list groups like mad these past couple of weeks. The fact is that email is still the best social network: if you’re online, you’re almost certainly on email; the basic metaphor is easy to understand and use. My neighbours and I are mostly on email, and when we want to talk about something of local importance, we tend to cut and paste a long list of “cc” addresses. This has advantages and disadvantages. The plus is that almost anyone can work it and you know who you’re communicating with. The biggest minus is that it’s hard to get into the list in the first place or off the list in the last.
The "cc" field is crying out for improvements. In a way, you can think of the whole of the evolution of the social web as footnote in the history of how to improve the "cc" field. But the contributions that we have from Facebook, Twitter and now Google+, the much buzzed-about Facebook-slayer from Redmond, are all dangerous in a deeply architectural and similar way. I am going to try to persuade you that email, the original social app on the web had its architecture right from a political point of view. If we want to reclaim our public spaces, we should make the effort to build our apps and opur networks on top of email, not on top of the cyber-billboards and e-malls that much of the free web has become.
There was a meeting convened in the neighbourhood by the Greater London Authority (GLA) a couple of weeks back. It was meant to introduce a big redevelopment that’s planned right next door to us. Imperial College are building a bit of student accommodation tacked onto a huge amount of commercially-minded residential and office space.
They’re doing it on the site that you can see in this clip here, from Linsay Anderson’s “Oh! Lucky Man”. It is the plot just to the North (left) of the fly-over where the lucky man (Malcolm McDowell) enters swinging London; Linsay Anderson must have shot that as a symbol of London’s exciting modernisation – the first American-style aerial freeway, a sort of highway straight into Helen Mirren's deliciously inviting embrace ... The aerial freeway was never completed. It still has round-abouts with exits hanging in mid-air. Quite rightly, Hammersmith and Fulham Council and the GLA think that such a plot needs to mark a spectacular gateway to London and so are gearing up to allowing Imperial’s private-sector financial partners, Voreda Capital, to put up 100m high-rises.
Now I’m not against the development. I’m usually excited by the confident new building in London. But I will be living close to the foot of the building and so feel I have a legitimate say in what goes up. And so do lots of other residents, NIMBYer than I.
Naturally, during the neighbourhood meeting, I passed a form around asking people for their emails so that we could communicate and keep each other informed without relying on the GLA to bring us together. I put that list of about 40 emails onto a Google group which anyone can apply to join. This is how the group is described on Google’s pages:
- Members 42
- Description Residents of W10 and W12. This group was started following the LGA planning consultation meeting at St Helen's Church on Wednesday 8th June 2011
- Language English
- Anybody can view group content
- Only members can view group members list
- Anyone can join
- Only members can post
Google’s groups have some very nice social features – for those who remember, they essentially seem to be an attractive packaging of Listserv + Usenet. The creators of groups can decide how egalitarian and how open a group is, who has what rights to view, to post etc; Google offers nice invite, subscribe and unsubscribe features and widgets. And of course, their real trademark service from the point of view of the person who gets landed with the sys-admin role, they host and serve it all in the cloud with extreme professionalism and reliability.
It feels almost like the good old days. Almost, because, of course, unlike the old days, there's someone new at the feast: Google’s voracious stomach for data is crunching on all that goes on. Although you don’t need a Google email to join, you do need a Google account. So – a bit like Imperial College who are building profitable commercial space whle also providing student accommodation – Google are pretending to give us the old-fashioned tools we loved and trusted from the web’s prehistory while actually building us another shopping mall.
And what’s wrong with that?
I went to listen to Eli Pariser, founder of Move-on! and Avaaz give a talk at the Royal Society of Arts about his new book, The Filter Bubble. His basic question is very important: as the online experience is increasingly designed to make us click on a link that will eventually make us buy something, what will be the impact on what we discover, what we believe, and what we think of the world around us? And if we don’t like the answers, what should we do about it?
There are lots of scary scenarios: we don’t come out of our “filter bubble”; we hear only the news that the algorithms discover put us in a mood to click and spend, for example; we become paranoid about being ever-watched, ever manipulated; we are surrounded – probably – by bias-reinforcing information … because when we have a bias confirmed, the body rewards us, points out Pariser, with a jolt of pleasure juice.
That, apparently, is a fixed part of our learning circuitry, although I have to say – in digression – that I tend to get a jolt of pleasure from being surprised, rather than comforted … I suspect subsequent neuro-peering will show – surprisingly? – that people are different in what gives them pleasure. So neophiles, heterophiles and xenophiles love surprise and the opposite of bias confirmation – a new problem to chew on. The algorithms behind Google’s new-look pages, Google+ and those behind Facebook’s ads might even pick that up.
Indeed, after writing the first draft of this essay, my Facebook feed threw up this juxtaposition: I am now worried that Facebook's neural net has me down as a hopeless heterophile.
But then there is no particular virtue in an excess of novelty either. It will create the impression of a world in constant flux, where surprise is everywhere. Roland Barthes, in a Fragment of a Lover’s Discourse , pities the person who never re-reads a book – or never remains faithful to a lover – because that person is only ever reading the same book: the only experience available is novelty.
Obviously, in an ideal world, I’d prefer not to have Google chew with its algorithms on our neighbourhood problems. If the crunching discovers that the best way to distract a group conversing about a communal garden is to throw up advertisements for Birkenstocks, we might eventually find that the street has become better foot-clad but less focused on discussing its garden. Indeed, when Nicholas Carr et al worry – and I am amongst the worriers – that the hyperlink is distracting our concentration, maybe it is really the ad-driven filter bubble that is really at work – the "mallification of the web", its rapid evolution into a space optimised in every recess for commerce – rather than the hyperlink in itself.
Facebook and Google need you to click on ads. They have no theory as to how to achieve this – just the simple empirics of do what has had a chance of working before. And the better we are captured by the stats, the harder it will be for us to navigate the web while staying on a focused course: this is how we are paying for our wonderful cloudware tools. Soon, the world will be for the taking by the strong-willed or the advertising-immune.
But these are not the only costs of extreme mallification. For one, The brain-drain of talented mathematicians to figuring out the minutiae of better selling is a social waste. Here is just one example, from a BusinessWeek story about the fantastic valuation of consumer-facing tech companies right now:
After a couple years at Facebook, Hammerbacher [ a 23-year-old math genius one year out of Harvard ] grew restless. He figured that much of the groundbreaking computer science had been done. Something else gnawed at him. Hammerbacher looked around Silicon Valley at companies like his own, Google, and Twitter, and saw his peers wasting their talents. "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads," he says. "That sucks."
You might say Hammerbacher is a conscientious objector to the ad-based business model and marketing-driven culture that now permeates tech. Online ads have been around since the dawn of the Web, but only in recent years have they become the rapturous life dream of Silicon Valley.
Selling is important. I have great respect for sales, advertising and marketing people. It requires creativity, charm, understanding, sympathy, adventurousness. But turning mathematicians into society’s sales-people seems terribly wasteful. Maybe we should make sure there is more reward to working on the physics of getting humanity plentiful clean energy than the physics of figuring out which video I am most likely to want to watch next.
Mallifaction of the social web through Facebook – and now Google+ – has another cost that I would call quasi-aesthetic. I think it deprives us an opportunity to exhibit distinctive humanity – and this applies much more to the social applications than to Google's original - and disappearing - bauhaus search page. The Facebook newsfeed is a social pleasure. A rapid scan a few times a day and you feel you have listened in to the chit-chat happening around your favourite people. Some of them have recommended things for you, and you go off and read or watch with the particular pleasure that you are and will be engaged in a conversation - maybe an imaginary conversation - with that person about that piece of content. It has many of the good aspects of the office, or campus or local pub - all of which, note, are under various forms of threat.
But at the same time, there are only a very few ways to “be” in the Facebook stream. The unidimensional, indeed unipolar nature of the “Like” button is an obvious example. One of the fascinating things Pariser discovers is that what Facebook puts into your stream has a great deal to do with the feedback from “Like” buttons. Since most people feel queasy at the idea of “Liking” a headline that says: “Innocents killed by drone”, these sorts of stories tend to get filtered out of the stream. It does remind me of the Sony camera I saw advertised at Tokyo airport that, in an effort to save the photographer the endless hilarity and embarrassment of the “Cheese” moment, had wired in a feature by which the shutter would click as soon as – and only when – it had detected a smile in the subject.)
It is not just the unipolar “Like” that is destructive of humanity. There is the page layout also – no doubt endlessly optimised by Hammerbacher and others to improve time-on-site, ad click-through, etc. There is a dull uniformity to it. There is no sign of craftsmanship here. It is Facebook’s page of you, not your page for the world. (Of course, MySpace was much more customisable. Maybe that was its demise. But even then it did not have the diversity of the home page of the 1990s. And in a trick endlessly used by web companies since, the name itself was created to hide what it precisely was not: MySpace was, in a quite literal and monetisable sense, not mine, but his, Murdoch’s.)
Tom Ash reminds me of the 1984 Newspeak quote: "‘Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.’"
So now we have Google+. Should we welcome its new features?
Of course it is good to have choice and competition. I like the idea of being able to create different spheres – co-workers, family, intimate friends, the world at large etc – and to communicate with each of them differently. Indeed, that is exactly what all those new mail groups I have set up recently allow me and others to do: those interested in the garden; those interested in the Imperial College mall/campus; those interested in Wormwood Scrubs … etc. Some people will be on all those lists, some on just one. But we have, through them, a simple way to deal with information overload.
So do I look forward to moving our lists onto Google+. Well, reflect on this report from the FT:
Data Google has been collecting show that new tools to make it easier for users to segment their online social connections into smaller groups are already influencing how they interact, says Vic Gundotra, the executive spearheading Google’s social efforts. Women, in particular, have been making much greater use of these more limited sub-networks, he says.
Freed of the concerns about who will see what they are posting, people are already showing signs of opening up about themselves far more, Mr Gundotra adds. [my emphasis]
There we have it. Google wants to make us think that we control who is seeing our information in Google+, because if we believe that, then we will “open up about ourselves”. But of course, there is one participant in this conversation who will always be there, and who Mr Gundotra hopes we will forget: the voracious Google data muncher. “Tell us your secrets and we’ll make your dreams come true”.
The Imperial College campus/mall (mampus, perhaps?) has prompted Hammersmith and Fulham and GLA to accelerate plans to create a wider “Opportunity Area Planning Framework” for the area. Just as with Facebook, there is much that I like about the idea. The space is not well used at the moment; I like the idea of high-rise buildings, mixed uses, interesting experiments in urban design, etc. And the idea of having a campus, a development pole for knowledge workers, etc. around the corner gives me the comforting feeling that I will be living on the gentrified fringes of a hip, desirable and unique urban neighbourhod. SoMa (well named?) here we come. How nice.
But a story in the week-end’s local paper suggests to me that all may not be quite so rosy. It turns out that the proposed developers of the huge site just south of Imperial's are none other than the owners of the site to the South of that, Westfield, Europe’s biggest mall. And the proposal is to create an extension of Westfield. What it seems we have here is a shopping mall parading as a regeneration project. The move is rather like Google+’s: the belief that we are embarked on a dream of creating an exciting new urban space is encouraged in order to build a shopping mall under our noses.
Not that there isn’t a proper place for shopping malls.
I went down to Westfield to immerse myself in the experience before writing this article. I had been told that my father-in-law, a hard-to-please Catholic traditionalist, had been overawed by Westfield: its cathedral proportions; the beauty of its roof; the sense of a spacious soukh, bustling with humanity, activity and commerce. And all that is true. I went on a Sunday afternoon, and the sense of the temple is there. (Down, as it happens, to the omni-presence of the temple guard. I was innocently filming the interior, assuming that the rules of privacy were as I would expect them to be for an urban street. But no – the rules say no filming, and the guard, although unable to produce a copy of the rules, was in no mood for a wistful chat about the nature of public space. As a policeman offered to walk me off the site, I thought of Facebook's royal-wedding take-down of various protest groups from its site ... We are guests on these properties, we are not in a public space. Anyway ... the video below is not from my trip but someone else’s.)
But just as Hammerbacher noticed that not too much mental capacity should be devoted to increasing spending in the great cyber-mall, so we might think that not all large-scale spare urban space ought to be devoted to malls. The film – and the experience – of Westfield strongly suggested to me the aesthetic similarity of Facebook and the shopping mall. Look at the panels of advertising; the milling, smiling faces; the shop windows that seem to invite nothing better than a click. The web became a shopping mall ... but the shopping mall has also become the web. Down to the screens in the arcades that provide an elegant mixture of information, advertising, and an opaque mixture of the two.
So mallification is everywhere with us – not just the web, but in the logic of regeneration projects that work in apparently public-purse tight times. Should we in both cases simply accept that the mall is often better than what went before and enjoy its benefits?
No, but what we can do is different in the web and the urban spaces. Urban space is supply-constrained – you can’t expand it at will. That’s why a complex politics has developed around land use planning. So I’ll be working - inside the various Google groups and within the processes laid out by English planning laws - to fight the vision for White City as a total mall. The politics of geographical space has its rules and we’ll see what is possible within them.
But cyberspace has no supply-side constraint. The constraint is our attention, not the number of properties that can be built to try out some model or other.
The supply-unconstrained space is a wonder, and hugely creative. But it means there is no need for the old politics of space. This is where I think Eli Pariser is less convincing. He would like Facebook and Google to adopt the kind of responsible attitude towards its clickers that the New York Times had (has?) towards the citizens of New York. Make sure that it carries worthy information, not just feel-good, etc.
But I think that muddles up the politics of supply constraints from the politics of attention constraints. The New York Times avoided the strictures of anti-trust – of market power in its local market – in a uniquely American trade that saw the toleration of media monopoly in exchange for the subsidised supply of public sphere. (I describe Schudson’s account of how the American newspaper developed a public service culture here).
The constraints of geographical space were not accidental to this deal: without them, no market power; without them, freedom of entry. So if we went with the Pariser recommendation for fixing the public sphere of asking Facebook to become more worthy, you could expect in no time a less worthy Facebook clone to arise that produced more click-throughs. So the very lack of barriers to entry in cyberspace precludes the protective policies that Pariser is nostalgic for.
Supply is unconstrained in cyberspace, so that leaves only the demand side as a way of resisting the mallification of our Internet. Fine. But how do we do that?
What we need is to remember to feel the same sense of tackiness everytime we visit the Facebook feed as when we enter a Westfield-style space full of commodified luxuries. Every time we see a Google adsense, remember to feel as annoyed as when the insistent telephone seller won’t stop disturbing you. We just need to train ourselves to keep our eyes open to what is happening on-screen.
In no time at all, we will rediscover GNU’s Mailman and we’ll re-invent our Google+ spheres around idiosyncratic and personal uses of multiple personal lists. Email has all the tools we need to create all the gradations of friend/group/association/public communication between the personal and all-out, openly published material. The architectural virtue of email is that it does not give the mall owners – the Googles, Facebooks and other Twitters – the central database that they have found so valuable and which motivates their shaping of the social web
We need to rebuild the social web on top of email. It will bring back plurality, distinctiveness, innovation and craftsmanship to our social networks. Our sociality is different for each of us. We should keep it that way by avoiding the candy-store temptations of the cyber-malls. The alternative is that we become one of their exhibits. Pariser is right in this: if you're in a commercial transaction where you're neither paying for a product nor selling it, then you are the product.