[-empyre-] Introduction

Byron Rich brich at allegheny.edu
Mon May 11 01:10:08 AEST 2020

Thanks for the history, Ben. 

I think your work has an incredible amount of reach given that you’ve been featured in (relatively) conservative news outlets in addition to having widely shown your work globally. I, like most artists I think, have to spend time reflecting on what kind of impact their work is actually having more broadly. It seems like you’re in a position where you’ve found a sweet spot in terms of content vs. public digestibility. I mean that your work has a level of complexity, both technically and conceptually, that could be alienating, yet the way in which you deliver it in terms of its actual accessibility (Chrome web store for instance as a plugin in the case of Facebook Demetricator), but also aesthetically seems to give it a level of social permeability that is kind of rare for tactical media (are we still able to use that term?). It’s admirable, and I think incredibly rare to be able to produce such poignant but simultaneously, at least on the surface level, understandable work.

As we start to wind down week one, I’m really interested in your perspective on the future. As noted in the opening thoughts earlier this week, Margaret Atwood doesn’t like it when the word “dystopia” is thrown around without a level of criticality. As someone really invested, aware, and working in the discourse of social media and its proliferation of policy and culture, are you hopeful at all? Do you see potential in any emerging platforms to be less invasive like Vero or even Discord? 

Byron Rich 
Assistant Professor of Art
Director of Art, Science & Innovation
Global Citizen Scholar Faculty Director
Affiliated Faculty - Integrative Informatics 

Allegheny College
Doane Hall of Art, A204
Meadville, PA
(o) 814.332.3381

Allegheny Lab for Innovation & Creativity

Co-chair of Exhibitions & Events - New Media Caucus

Reference letters require three weeks of lead time. 

From: Ben Grosser
Sent: Thursday, May 7, 2020 8:03 AM
To: empyre at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au
Subject: Re: [-empyre-] Introduction

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, 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 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 comprehensive 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 potentially enabling the NSA to further refine its surveillance algorithms, or 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.


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