[-empyre-] Introduction

Ben Grosser grosser at bengrosser.com
Thu May 7 13:06:52 AEST 2020

Byron wrote: *Do you ever worry that you’re doing the research of finding
conceptual holes for the corporations whose platform you are critiquing? I
mean, is there ever a concern that they use your work to actually close
loopholes, or more actively suppress the very real marginalizing effects
their platforms engender?*

I don't worry much about this. I think this is because, while the
corporations have at times used my research to make (or really, more, to
announce potential) changes, the holes they might close by doing so would
be—on balance—of benefit to the user. Further, even if it wasn't, it's my
role as an artist to critique the platforms in ways that enable everyday
users to see them differently. Doing so risks alerting the companies to
those same critiques.

I'll use my social media demetrication projects as illustration. Back in
2012, when I first launched Facebook Demetricator
<https://bengrosser.com/projects/facebook-demetricator/>, many thought
hiding visible metrics on the platform was a strange idea ("without like
counts how would I know what matters?" was a common refrain), or that
Demetricator was meant for those "unpopular" people whose metrics were so
low they couldn't bear to face them. Even so, Facebook developers tried it
out and Silicon Valley talked about it for a while. In 2014 I published a
research article detailing the negative effects of metrics that was covered
in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. In the summer of 2016 Facebook (which now
also owns Instagram) came after me legally to get my work kicked off the
Chrome web store (I successfully fought back with pro bono help from the
EFF). In other words, even though Facebook knew about my work, they weren't
using it. Sometime after this, I built additional Demetricators for Twitter
<https://bengrosser.com/projects/twitter-demetricator/> and Instagram.

But then came the 2016 US Presidential and UK Brexit votes, and social
media corporations were all of the sudden facing significant scrutiny.
Governments investigated them for their roles in the dissemination of
disinformation and targeted advertising used to manipulate those elections.
The public was up in arms about Cambridge Analytica and the misuse of
personal data. The world was finding concern about the negative effects of
social media on self-esteem, anxiety, and well-being. And so, finally, in
2019 the corporations had an amazing "original" idea: maybe we should hide
some metrics! Jack Dorsey (Twitter CEO) started talking about the visible
follower count as producing undesirable behavior. Facebook announced they
would test hiding metrics. Adam Mosseri (Instagram CEO) said hiding the
like count (for others) would improve user well-being and announced their
first "tests" would commence. (If of interest, the influence of
Demetricator on the social media corporations was the subject of a
article in *OneZero*)

To be clear, these CEO/corporate PR statements haven't led to much action
yet. Twitter hasn't hidden any metrics in their core product. Tests by
Facebook haven't been observed or talked about publicly since the
announcement. And while Instagram has garnered significant positive media
attention for their *announcements*, so far their actions have been limited
to hiding only the like count for certain users under specific conditions
in a subset of countries (not including the US). In other words, these
tests have been small to non-existent so far, so perhaps the influence is
limited. But even if Instagram does move forward and hide like counts in
all countries for all users, it's still a limited co-option of the idea of
hiding metrics platform-wide. That said, I hope they do it anyway as it
would be interesting to see the results.

Loopholes closed in response to some of my other works might be less
balanced than Demetricator (I'm thinking about ScareMail
<https://bengrosser.com/projects/scaremail/> potentially enabling the NSA
to further refine its surveillance algorithms, or Go Rando
<https://bengrosser.com/projects/go-rando/> showing Facebook they need to
analyze a user's words in addition to user "reactions" if they want to
surveil user emotion). But even in these cases, the primary purpose of the
works is not to severely thwart these companies' activities (if I did that
they'd just use a pile of lawyers to shut me down instantly). It is instead
to enable regular users to develop their own critical lens on the platforms
in a way that not just alerts them to problems with the particular
interface component of concern, but also to the need to scrutinize
*whatever* these platforms want from us and to question why one feels
compelled to give them just that.

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au/pipermail/empyre/attachments/20200506/39d7a824/attachment.html>

More information about the empyre mailing list