Love in a Time of Algorithms

Posted on November 21st, 2011 by

In last Sunday’s New York Times Jonathan Franzen wrote about the ways love, technology, and consumerism are growing blurred. We collect friends, we show affection for things by clicking on them, and we gather followers in a hall-of-mirrors projection of our selves as an aggregation of connections. Those connections, in turn, determine what we see when we search, now that search engines return results that match our previous searches. Even the New York Times pushes links that are specially recommended for me based on what I’ve read in the past month and offers me a link to see what my Facebook friends are reading. (There’s an even more in-your-face display at the Washington Post; I still find it startling to see the pictures of people I know – or, more often, their avatars – on the front page of the Post and have to remind myself that I’m only seeing them because I’m logged in and the Post and Facebook are swapping information behind the scenes.)

Our identities are big business, but it’s not just advertising that generates money. Facebook is worth $65 billion, but it doesn’t make anything like that in advertising revenue. It’s real asset is all the information it gathers about its 600 million members and the interconnections among them. We benefit too as we gather friends and followers. It pays to have a presence on the Web in terms of being visible, findable, networked. We become our own product.

Franzen characterizes the choices we make online as “asserting a consumer choice” and as these choices accrue, they begin to define who we are and what we can see. Oddly enough, the price we pay is our selves – our privacy, which we give up routinely in exchange for convenience and customization. Mostly, we give it up without even noticing it’s gone. Facebook is radically transparent – at least, when it comes to you.It’s not so transparent about its plans, or its latest set of byzantine privacy settings.

Some time ago, in a comment stream at a blog, I realized that the social web had fundamentally changed how I portray myself to the world. In the days of Web 1.0, I put information about me on a Webpage, along with links to things I’d written. Now, people get to know me by links to things I read and found interesting. Basically, I am what I read.

I wonder, sometimes, how this new sharing of reading might affect the way people do research. Like many researchers, particularly in interdisciplinary areas, I am more likely to find good sources through the network of citations rather than through a database. As Stephen Stoan pointed out decades ago, the primary literature indexes itself through cited works. But lately I am more likely to recall something that I saw on Facebook or Twitter, because I have some well-read friends who like to share links. These are the new hallway conversations, or they are those moments when you have arrived as a guest at someone’s house and scan the spines on a bookcase, looking for insight into your host’s true identity, looking for familiar titles that will prove you have something in common or finding temptingly unfamiliar ones.

I’m not sure how to understand this new world of always-on connectedness, of secondary orality, of socially defined serendipity. When I read and share what I read I don’t feel like a consumer, but I do feel like a hoarder, hanging onto links that I’m sure will come in handy one day. Though I’m happy to express my identity by what I read, I am deeply creeped out when familiar Facebook connections occupy a piece of a newspaper’s virtual front page, just as I was when Amazon first greeted me by name.You know something strange is going on when the Wall Street Journal becomes a watchdog for privacy against corporate snooping.

I am, in short, ambivalent about this Web-based world where identity is product and where our identity is an aggregation of the things we acquire, a loop of references that are all somehow self-referential. But I’ll figure it out later. I just saw something interesting on Twitter that I want to read.

Published originally on May 31, 2011 at Inside Higher Ed

Leave a Reply