The Laboratorium
October 2010

Andy Warhol Speaks To Us Still

Compare recent news:

New York City on Wednesday asked the United States Department of Agriculture for permission to conduct a two-year experiment barring the city’s 1.7 million users of food stamps from spending them on soda and other beverages with added sugar.

with this 1975 quote from Andy Warhol:

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

Good Faith Scholarship

My brief and positive review of Joseph Reagle’s Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia has just been published on Jotwell. Here are some excerpts:

Why is Wikipedia’s culture so important? Nazis. …

Reagle convincingly argues that there is a crucial link between Wikipedia’s core substantive commitment (“NPOV,” short for “Neutral Point of View”) and its core procedural commitment (“Assume Good Faith”). NPOV refuses to privilege any one version of “the truth” and thus requires articles to fairly present all sides. Assume Good Faith and its related norms of patience, civility, and humor, refuse to privilege any person. Everyone — even neo-Nazis — is welcome to edit. Open-mindedness, about arguments and about people, is thus central to Wikipedia’s culture.

The picture of Wikipedia that emerges is messy, contentious, and productive. Conflict is routine; NPOV and Assume Good Faith are sometimes honored only in the breach. Arguments over small matters like naming conventions may seem like a tremendous waste of energy. But this endless series of discursive crises, small and large, in fact keeps Wikipedians engaged in articulating — in producing — the spirit of collaboration.

Just Arrived

Adrian Johns, Death of a Pirate (W.W. Norton 2010)

I am so looking forward to this.

Richard Nagareda, 1963-2010

Professor Nagareda died at his home on Friday. In my research on the Google Books case, I had occasion to read many of his papers on class actions. He wrote with elegance, clarity, warmth, and a penetrating intelligence; his book is the best analysis of class-action settlements I have ever seen. I had looked forward to discussing the Google Books case with him someday. That conversation is now just one of many that the rest of us will never have with him. Farewell.

A Straussian Reading of The Social Network

Mark Zuckerberg is not the antihero, he is the hero. Zuckerberg is the only one who gets it: he doesn’t just have a vision for a social network but understands how to make it happen. The Winklevosses are buffoons who spend their time rowing rather than working on their competing network; they think that the technical details are so trivial they can all be delegated. Eduardo Saverin is even worse; he’s a would-be business manager with terrible ideas, an inability to commit, and awful business judgment. Sean Parker at least understands what’s at stake but is too much of a hedonist to really focus. Zuckerberg, on the other hand, has the necessary technical chops, commits wholeheartedly, and drives himself to the absolute limit. That’s what it takes.

This is secretly a movie for techies. The technological details are, for the most part, strikingly accurate. (Pay attention to the color-coded directories in Zuckerberg’s terminal windows.) The one scene of true head-rush joy is Zuckerberg’s coding run creating Facemash. Zuckerberg’s relationships with his roommates and later his employees are always effortless and sunny; they all understand what it is to be “wired in.” The movie celebrates the programming lifestyle and its camaraderie. There are two scenes of serious debauchery, neither of which Zuckerberg is at, and which frame his character arc; he is conscious of being excluded from the first, but chooses not to be at the second.

The exoteric message of the movie is that Zuckerberg shreds his humanity and friendships in order to create Facebook, and that we should feel either contempt or pity for him over it. The movie is bookended by characters telling Zuckerberg he acts like an asshole. In between are scenes in which he appears to act like one, from the perspective of other characters. (Note how frequently others speak condescendingly to or of him—even and especially when they think they’re doing him favors.)

The esoteric message is that everyone who treats Zuckerberg as though he were a sociopath is merely confirming the depth of their misunderstanding. As played by Jesse Eisenberg, Zuckerberg is actually a well-adjusted geek, a little physically standoffish and blunt-spoken, but otherwise quite “normal.” Others are constantly projecting their own needs and anxieties onto him; he struggles with their inability or unwillingness to accept his more subtle expressions of emotion and engagement. The non-geeks are constantly precipitating conflict, insisting that he play by their social rules (which of course favor them and not him); Zuckerberg is an interesting, heroic character because he learns how to refuse to play along.

The Social Network tells geeks that it’s a lonely, often difficult world. The final scene, in particular, makes a chilling point about just how badly “normal” people (here, members of a hypothetical jury) misunderstand geeks and their ways of speaking. At the same time, though, the movie ends with Zuckerberg at his keyboard, logged into Facebook, a reminder that this time at least, the programmers won.

The Privacy Virus

I’m very happy to report that Facebook and Philosophy, a new book in Open Court’s extensive Popular Culture and Phliosophy series, has just published. My essay “The Privacy Virus” is the first chapter, and thanks to the publisher’s permission, it’s part of the free preview available on the book’s Amazon page. The essential ideas should be familiar from Saving Facebook, but the presentation is much snappier. The book as a whole was ably edited by Dylan Wittkower and includes essays from incisive thinkers like Ian Bogost and Trebor Scholz. Read it and find out why danah boyd said, “This book is a must-read for anyone who doubts the social importance of Facebook (and a sheer delight for those obsessed with updating their status).”

Here are the first few paragraphs of “The Privacy Virus”:

How many times have you heard someone (probably someone over forty) say, “Kids these days don’t care about privacy”? Facebook is their Exhibit A: over four hundred million users and growing, telling the world all sorts of scandalously personal details. And it’s not just keg stands, either. There are things federal law considers so private it’s illegal to ask you about them in a job interview. Age. Sex. Birthplace. Religion. They’re all questions on the first page of the Facebook profile form. Yea, verily, privacy is dead and the kids these days killed it.

It’s a neat theory, except for one inconvenient detail: the actual behavior of Facebook users. If “privacy” is on the list of words nobody uses any more, Facebook users didn’t get the memo. College students spend the wee hours of weekend nights untagging photos of themselves on Facebook, removing the evidence of their drunken revels earlier in the evening. A “Facebook stalker” is a creep, not a contradiction in terms.

In fact, as you look closer and closer, the idea that Facebook is privacy’s tombstone becomes stranger and stranger. If over four hundred million users don’t care about privacy, why are they using a site that allows them to reject friend requests? If they wanted to broadcast every last detail about their lives to everyone everywhere, why don’t you ever see credit card numbers on Facebook profiles? And why did hundreds of thousands of users sign petitions protesting Facebook’s decision to introduce real-time news feeds? For people who allegedly don’t care about privacy, Facebook users sure spend a lot of time worrying about it.