[-empyre-] Introduction

Sophia Brueckner sbrueckner at gmail.com
Fri May 8 00:42:11 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 am deeply critical of existing social networks, but this isn't something
that worries me. To be honest, I think the brokenness of popular social
networks is structural, and there is no way they could fix it with the
addition of a new feature at this point.

I mentioned to Ben recently that I’ve been doing some writing about this.
The need for social distancing has made the limitations of these
technologies more apparent. People want to connect, and, despite having all
these social technologies, people are still feeling frustrated and

I think this is because when we think we are “sharing” on a social network,
we are actually performing online for others. The word you see plastered
all over social networks is “share”. Sharing is supposed to be a good
thing. Sharing is generous. It’s unselfish. Sharing is a way of connecting
with people. These positive connotations are exactly why tech companies
homed in on the word “share”.  As a result, “sharing” online has come to
mean *broadcasting monetizable content*. Sharing isn’t broadcasting, but
we’ve been conditioned by tech companies to think that it is. This
evolution has happened slowly so that most people haven’t noticed the
change. There is no good synonym for “share” in the English language, and I
worry about what will happen when soon there will be people who never knew
“sharing” before social networks co-opted the word.

Making people aware of this is what drives my work as well as helping
people imagine how things could be different.

Just because popular social networks don't allow for genuine sharing
doesn’t mean technology has to be this way. In Captured by an Algorithm (
https://sophiabrueckner.com/romance.html), I’ve uncovered an existing
example of a social network where people are sharing without broadcasting
through Amazon’s Kindle Popular Highlight feature. A passage in a Kindle
e-book becomes a Popular Highlight after a certain number of people
independently highlight the same passage. Popular Highlights show up as
underlined along with the number of people who highlighted that passage.
Kindle Popular Highlights in romance novels surprisingly often focus on
loneliness and grief. These passages are not the sort of thing that people
would broadcast. They aren’t something people would highlight to return to
later or post on Goodreads. When a reader highlights one of these Popular
Highlights, it is as if they are saying "I understand" or "me too!" Not
having to perform through a persona allows people to express their empathy
and vulnerability.

My hardware projects (https://sophiabrueckner.com/amulet.html,
https://sophiabrueckner.com/embodisuit.html) all explore ways we could
connect with others that are totally different than how social networks
function now. In preliminary research with incarcerated youth, I’ve been
working with Nokia Bell Labs to reduce social isolation in juvenile
detention centers. We are working to transform physical walls into
interfaces bridging incarcerated youth anonymously with the outside world.
Using physical sensations, we aim to create an anonymous sense of presence
and generosity between the youth and the surrounding community. Maybe if we
hadn’t ignored the situation of people who struggled with isolation before
the Covid crisis, such as those who are incarcerated or the elderly, we
wouldn’t be struggling so much now with how online personas interfere with
authentic connection. By focusing on those who are now the most vulnerable
and affected, maybe we can learn how to help the greater community. Popular
social networks focus on attention instead of presence. They emphasize
attention instead of generosity. Attention is prioritized because attention
is monetizable.

The engineer in me knows that it would require the resources of a tech
company to build a new kind of social network, and I hope one day they do
build a social network that I would be happy to pay for with actual money
rather than my attention and data.
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