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Facebook Stalking: The News Feed as Digital Dossier

In September, 2006, Facebook users revolted. The debut of the News Feed—a feature that allowed users to “get a quick view of what their friends are up to, including relationship changes, groups joined, pictures uploaded, etc., in a streaming news format.” (via) Thousands of students joined a Facebook group dedicated to protesting the News Feed. College students denounced the feature as “stalkerish.” An uproar; a measured response from Facebook. Privacy features. Fine-grained controls. The uproar quieted. And people got used to the News Feed. In fact, it’s now hard to imagine life on Facebook without it.

This story is not new. Two years later, the anecdote is already a classic case study in the fraught user dynamics that can plague social networks. In fact, I’m pretty sure I heard this very story outlined at one of Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It book talks. The story usually ends with the News Feed prevailing against the apparent odds. And that’s a fine ending. But given this week’s topic—which I’ll get to in a minute—it’s worth going back to the beginning, and asking: what dissonance provoked the uproar in the first place?

Prior to September, 2006, Facebook was largely static. Students would update their profiles with their latest favorite bands, or change their relationship status after a bad breakup, or switch their profile picture to something a little more flattering. But no one would know about those changes unless they visited your page. The changes, in fact, weren’t even indicated as such. (I’m fairly confident that the yellow highlights on new information were only introduced later.) In order to glean what was new—literally, what was newsworthy—from a friend’s profile page, you would need to visit the page frequently enough to remember what used to be there. And visiting someone’s page frequently enough for that became affectionately known as “Facebook stalking.” You might admit to your friends that you were “Facebook stalking” your crush, but you would think long and hard before admitting to your crush that you were Facebook stalking him. It was a cloaked world. News still traveled fast, and still reached the people who mattered…as long as they were checking your Facebook profile regularly enough. But it was hard to acknowledge that newfound knowledge in any sort of meaningful way: to do so, to introduce its content to a conversation, would be to admit that you were a little too interested.

Enter the News Feed. It’s been compared to 19th-century society pages, and I think there’s something to that. A reporter circulates through town, picking up on shards of gossip and announcing marriages. Announcing, even, who went to high tea at whose house. Except it’s the 21st century, and it’s Facebook, and instead of marriages, there are “It’s Complicateds.” And instead of high teas, there are hectic parties, documented via grainy cell phone pictures. And the silent reporter, slipping through town? She’s a bot. A bot who knows everything.

From this sidelong sketch, some concerns emerge. If Facebook’s News Feed algorithm is the silent reporter, then where’s her tact? You never told a reporter your secrets, after all. They just came to light (when you posted them to your Facebook profile, or someone else posted a picture of the previous night’s revelry), and the reporter relentlessly found them. Distressing, to say the least.

And now, finally, this week’s topic: dossiers. I wanted to lead off with a discussion of Facebook, since of all the repositories on the Internet, Facebook is the single destination that most resembles a comprehensive dossier for many Digital Natives. As I approached this week’s theme, though, I realized that I wasn’t 100% clear on what, exactly, a dossier was. I knew it referred to a collection of personal information, but I wasn’t sure what other connotations the term “dossier” had. Fortunately, Wikipedia came to the rescue, with the following definition:

A dossier is typically a briefing paper based on an individual of interest in police or intelligence circles. They generally contain a relevant biography, most current information on activities and any special information of interest to the agency, such as having training in various specialized fields i.e. (assassination techniques or money laundering contacts). When the target in question has retired or died, or is of no further interest, the dossier is generally filed away for reference. If the information contained inside, or the identity of the person is too sensitive, the dossier is destroyed along with all records of it.

I found this definition both illuminating and troubling. The term “dossier,” far from being neutral, actually implies some sort of surveillance—a suspicion of future wrongdoing, documentation in support of future prosecution. Is “dossier,” then, even an appropriate term for the collections of personal information amassed on Facebook?

It is and it isn’t. It isn’t true, for instance, that every Facebook profile is the object of suspicion and active surveillance. Moreover, these “briefing papers”—profiles plus Mini-Feeds—are constructed not by secret agents, but by the subjects of the briefings themselves.

There is, however, an element of apparent surveillance in play. And it is that element, I would argue, that provoked the Facebook uproar in the first place. The silent, algorithmic reporter—who, until September 2006, had been hiding in the shadows—finally announced her presence. Students felt exposed. Worse: they felt surveilled.

So what changed? Where did the uproar go? Students realized, I think, that they could take this algorithmic reporter into their confidences, and feed her headlines. With such an intermediary at their disposal, they no longer had to take responsibility for their own self-promotion. They acquired, as I wrote elsewhere in a piece on the differences between Facebook and Twitter, the “illusion of absolution”:

I think what’s so striking about this social signaling in Twitter is that it’s imbued with intentionality. On Facebook, when you do something or friend someone or post on someone’s wall, Facebook just reports it; the “hey, look at me” is automated. Therefore, the person who wants to be looked at is absolved of responsibility, vanity, or attention-seeking. Twitter is all about self-reporting, and so that all-important illusion of absolution is whisked away.

Enabling this new cozy relationship with the algorithmic reporter on Facebook, of course, was the introduction of fine-grained privacy controls on Facebook. Privacy controls—to mute relationship changes, or friend additions, or comments on other people’s Walls—allowed each student to whisper certain things “off the record.” The reporter, in these situations, might kiss. But she would never, ever tell.

And so, Facebook users turned the police blotter into the society pages. One thing I hope this sketch makes clear, though, is that the opportunities were there from the very beginning. What could you do with publicly acknowledged social omniscience? How many small-talk-athons could you skip if you already knew all the relevant news, and your friends knew you knew it, too? With all of its dangers, pleasures, and opportunities: this is the world that many Digital Natives live in today.