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"Digital Vertigo provides an articulate, measured, contrarian voice against a sea of hype about social media. As an avowed technology optimist, I'm grateful for Keen who makes me stop and think before committing myself fully to the social revolution." —Larry Downes, author of The Killer App
In Digital Vertigo, Andrew Keen presents today’s social media revolution as the most wrenching cultural transformation since the Industrial Revolution. Fusing a fast-paced ...
"Digital Vertigo provides an articulate, measured, contrarian voice against a sea of hype about social media. As an avowed technology optimist, I'm grateful for Keen who makes me stop and think before committing myself fully to the social revolution." —Larry Downes, author of The Killer App
In Digital Vertigo, Andrew Keen presents today’s social media revolution as the most wrenching cultural transformation since the Industrial Revolution. Fusing a fast-paced historical narrative with front-line stories from today’s online networking revolution and critiques of "social" companies like Groupon, Zynga and LinkedIn, Keen argues that the social media transformation is weakening, disorienting and dividing us rather than establishing the dawn of a new egalitarian and communal age. The tragic paradox of life in the social media age, Keen says, is the incompatibility between our internet longings for community and friendship and our equally powerful desire for online individual freedom. By exposing the shallow core of social networks, Andrew Keen shows us that the more electronically connected we become, the lonelier and less powerful we seem to be.
“Andrew Keen has found the off switch for Silicon Valley's reality distortion field. With a cold eye and a cutting wit, he reveals the grandiose claims of our new digital plutocrats to be little more than self-serving cant. Digital Vertigo provides a timely and welcome reminder that having substance is more important than being transparent.”—Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
"Andrew Keen is that rarest of authors: one has taken the time to understand the benefits of technological innovation before warning us of its risks. In Digital Vertigo Keen finds himself in a dizzying world where it is not just possible to share every detail of our professional and private lives, but actually expected. While a growing number of his friends — including those in the upper echelons of Silicon Valley society — preach the gospel of total transparency and cyber-oversharing, he refuses to blindly click the "accept" button. Instead he takes us on a guided tour of the history of privacy, solitude and the technology of socialization — before encouraging us to take a long, hard look at our lives before we blindly allow others to do the same. A vital and timely book that's terrifying, fascinating, persuasive and reassuring all at the same time. And one that will make even the biggest Facebook-o-phile or Linked-in-a-holic think twice before adding another contact to their network."—Paul Carr, author of Bringing Nothing to the Party and The Upgrade
"A bracing read. From Hitchcock to Mark Zuckerberg and the politics of privacy, a savvy observer of contemporary digital culture reframes current debates in a way that clarifies and enlightens."—Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together
"Web 3.0 has catapulted society to new technological heights, yet afflicted us individually with a profound sense of vertigo as we stand naked for all to see. It is almost too late to ask whether we would live our digital lives differently if we had known that privacy would become the scarcest commodity on the Internet. But in this timely and important book, Andrew Keen once again thinks one step ahead of social media pioneers, posing questions they will need to answer or risk facing a digital uprising. Equal parts philosophical and informative, Digital Vertigo brings us back to 19th century debates that have an eerie relevance to today's technological dilemmas, while also laying out the latest corporate strategies being deployed to decipher and commercialize your most intimate thoughts. Better than any other multi-media expert, Keen challenges the false promise of the virtue of sharing." — Parag Khanna, Director, Hybrid Reality Institute, and author of How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance
"Despite the unfortunate lesson throughout the 20th Century of the dangerous allure of utopian thinking, the Digital Age has inspired a whole new generation of fabulously successful entrepreneurs who preach the revolutionary future of Web 2.0, Web 3.0, . . . That’s why Andrew Keen’s work is so important. He’s a voice of informed caution, a Silicon Valley insider warning against false prophets and a future that may destroy as much as it creates. In Digital Vertigo, he examines the fantastical claims for and astounding growth of social media, countering the vision of excited gurus with sober, reality-based queries and judgments. The book is a tonic for individuals who are tired of the hype and coercion and display of online contact."— Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation
"Digital Vertigo provides an articulate, measured, contrarian voice against a sea of hype about social media. As an avowed technology optimist, I’m grateful for Keen who makes me stop and think before committing myself fully to the social revolution.” — Larry Downes, author of the e-commerce bestseller Unleashing the Killer App: Digital Strategies for Market Dominance
A SIMPLE IDEA OF ARCHITECTURE
“Morals reformed—health preserved—industry invigorated instruction diffused—public burdens lightened—Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock—the gordian knot of the Poor-Laws are not cut, but untied—all by a simple idea in Architecture.”1
If this was a picture, you’d have seen it before. History, you see, is repeating itself. With our new digital century comes a familiar problem from the industrial age. A social tyranny is once again encroaching upon individual liberty. Today, in the early twenty-first century, just as in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this social threat comes from a simple idea in architecture.
In 1787, at the dawn of the mass industrial age, Jeremy Bentham designed what he called a “simple idea in architecture” to improve the management of prisons, hospitals, schools and factories. Bentham’s idea was, as the architectural historian Robin Evans noted, a “vividly imaginative” synthesis of architectural form with social purpose.2 Bentham, who amassed great personal wealth as a result of his social vision,3 wanted to change the world through this new architecture.
Bentham sketched out this vision of what Aldous Huxley described as a “plan for a totalitarian housing project”4 in a series of “open”5 letters written from the little Crimean town of Krichev, where he and his brother, Samuel, were instructing the regime of the enlightened Russian despot Catherine the Great about the building of efficient factories for its unruly population.6 In these public letters, Bentham imagined what he called this “Panopticon” or “Inspection-House” as a physical network, a circular building of small rooms, each transparent and fully connected, in which individuals could be watched over by an all-seeing inspector. This inspector is the utilitarian version of an omniscient god—always-on, all-knowing, with the serendipitous ability to look around corners and see through walls. As the French historian Michel Foucault observed, this Inspection House was “like so many cages, so many small theaters, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible.”7
The Panopticon’s connective technology would bring us together by separating us, Bentham calculated. Transforming us into fully transparent exhibits would be good for both society and the individual, he adduced, because the more we imagined we were being watched, the more efficient and disciplined we would each become. Both the individual and the community would, therefore, benefit from this network of Auto-Icons. “Ideal perfection,” the utilitarian figured, taking this supposedly social idea to its most chillingly anti-social conclusion, would require that everyone—from connected prisoners to connected workers to connected school children to connected citizens—could be inspected “every instant of time.”8
Rather than the abstract fantasy of an eccentric Englishman whose experience of life, you’ll remember, was no more than that of a boy, Bentham’s radically transparent Inspection-House had an enormous impact on new prison architecture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The original Oxford jail where I had breakfasted with Reid Hoffman, for example, had been built by the prolific prison architect William Blackburn, “the father of the radial plan for prisons,”9 who built more than a dozen semicircular jails on Benthamite principles. In Oxford, Blackburn had replaced the medieval “gaol” in the city’s castle with a building designed to supervise prisoners’ every movement and control their time down to the very minute.
But Bentham’s simple idea of architecture “reformed” more than just prisons. It represented an augury of an industrial society intricately connected by an all-too-concrete network of railroads and telegraph lines. The mechanical age of the stream train, the large-scale factory, the industrial city, the nation-state, the motion picture camera and the mass market newspaper did indeed create the physical architecture to transform us into efficient individual exhibits—always, in theory, observable by government, employers, media and public opinion. In the industrial era of mass connectivity, factories, schools, prisons and, most ominously, entire political systems were built upon this crystalline technology of collective surveillance. The last two hundred years have indeed been the age of the great exhibition.
Yet nobody in the industrial era, apart from the odd exhibitionist like Bentham himself, actually wanted to become individual pictures in this collective exhibition. Indeed, the struggle to be let alone is the story of industrial man. As Georg Simmel, the turn-of-the-twentieth-century German sociologist and scholar of secrecy, recognized, “the deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life.”10 Thus the great critics of mass society—John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville in the nineteenth and George Orwell, Franz Kafka and Michel Foucault in the twentieth century—have all tried to shield individual liberty from the omniscient gaze of the Inspection-House.
“Visibility,” Foucault warned, “is a trap.”11 Thus, from J. S. Mill’s solitary free thinker in On Liberty to Joseph K in The Castle and The Trial to Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-four, the hero of the mass industrial age for these critics is the individual who tries to protect his invisibility, who takes pleasure in his own opacity, who turns his back on the camera, who—in the timeless words of Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis—just wants to be let alone by the technologies of the mass industrial age.
Our Age of Great Exhibitionism
Yet now, at the dusk of the industrial and the dawn of the digital epoch, Bentham’s simple idea of architecture has returned. But history never repeats itself, not identically, at least. Today, as the Web evolves from a platform for impersonal data into an Internet of people, Bentham’s industrial Inspection-House has reappeared with a chilling digital twist. What we once saw as a prison is now considered as a playground; what was considered pain is today viewed as pleasure.
The analog age of the great exhibition is now being replaced by the digital age of great exhibitionism.
Today’s simple architecture is the Internet—that ever-expanding network of networks combining the worldwide Web of personal computers, the wireless world of handheld networked devices like my BlackBerry Bold and other “smart” social products such as connected televisions,12 gaming consoles13 and the “connected car”14—in which around a quarter of the globe’s population have already taken up residency. In contrast with the original brick and mortar Inspection-House, this rapidly expanding global network, with its two billion digitally interconnected souls and its more than five billion connected devices, can house an infinite number of rooms. This is a global Auto-Icon that, more than two centuries after Jeremy Bentham sketched out his Inspection-House,15 is finally realizing his utilitarian dream of allowing us to be perpetually observed.
This digital architecture—described by New York University social media scholar Clay Shirky as the “connective tissue of society”16 and by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the new “nervous system of the planet”17—has been designed to transform us into exhibitionists, forever on show in our networked crystal palaces. And, today, in an age of radically transparent online communities like Twitter and Facebook, the social has become, in Shirky’s words, the “default” setting on the Internet,18 transforming digital technology from being a tool of second life into an increasingly central part of real life.
But this is a version of real life that could have been choreographed by Jeremy Bentham. As WikiLeaks founder and self-appointed transparency tsar Julian Assange said, today’s Internet is “the greatest spying machine the world has ever seen,”19 with Facebook, he added, being “the world’s most comprehensive database about people, their relationships, their names, their addresses, their locations, their communications with each other, and their relatives, all sitting within the United States, all accessible to US Intelligence.”20
But it’s not just Facebook that is establishing this master database of the human race. As Clay Shirky notes, popular21 geo-location services such as foursquare, Facebook places, Google Latitude, Plancast and the Hotlist, which enable us to “effectively see through walls” and know the exact location of all our friends, are making society more “legible,” thus allowing all of us to be read, in good Inspection-House fashion, “like a book.”22 No wonder, then, that Katie Rolphe, a New York University colleague of Shirky, has observed that “Facebook is the novel we are all writing.”23
Social media is the confessional novel that we are not only all writing but also collectively publishing for everyone else to read. We are all becoming Wiki-leakers, less notorious but no less subversive versions of Julian Assange, of not only our own lives but other people’s now. The old mass industrial celebrity culture has been so turned upside down by social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter that celebrity has been democratized and we are reinventing ourselves as self-styled celebrities, even going as far as to deploy online services like YouCeleb that enable us to dress like twentieth-century mass media stars.24
There has, consequently, been a massive increase in what Shirky calls “self-produced” legibility, thereby making society as easy to read as an open book.25 As a society, we are, to borrow some words from Jeremy Bentham, becoming our own collective image. This contemporary mania with our own self-expression is what two leading American psychologists, Dr. Jean Twenge and Dr. Keith Campbell, have described as “the narcissism epidemic”26—a self-promotional madness driven, these two psychologists say, by our need to continually manufacture our own fame to the world. The Silicon Valley–based psychiatrist, Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, whose 2011 book, Virtually You, charts the rise of what he calls “the self-absorbed online Narcissus,” shares Twenge and Campbell’s pessimism. The Internet, Dr. Aboujaoude notes, gives narcissists the opportunity to “fall in love with themselves all over again,” thereby creating a online world of infinite “self-promotion” and “shallow web relationships.”27
Many other writers share Aboujaoude’s concerns. The cultural historian Neal Gabler says that we have all become “information narcissists” utterly disinterested in anything “outside ourselves.”28 Social network culture medicates our “need for self-esteem,” adds best-selling author Neil Strauss, by “pandering to win followers.”29 The acclaimed novelist Jonathan Franzen concurs, arguing that products like his and my BlackBerry Bold are “great allies and enablers of narcissism.” These kind of gadgets, Franzen explains, have been designed to conform to our fantasy of wanting to be “liked” and to “reflect well on us.” Their technology, therefore, is simply an “extension of our narcissistic selves. When we stare at screens in the Web 2.0 age, we are gazing at ourselves. It’s all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us.”30 Franzen says, “To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.”31
We broadcast ourselves and therefore we are (not).
Twenge, Campbell, Aboujaoude, Strauss and Franzen are all correct about this endless loop of great exhibitionism—an attention economy that, not uncoincidentally, combines a libertarian insistence on unrestrained individual freedom with the cult of the social. It’s a public exhibition of self-love displayed in an online looking glass that New Atlantis senior editor Christine Rosen identifies as the “new narcissism”32 and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat calls a “desperate adolescent narcissism.”33 Everything—from communications, commerce and culture to gaming, government and gambling—is going social. As David Brooks, Douthat’s colleague at The Times, adds, “achievement is redefined as the ability to attract attention.”34 All we, as individuals, want to do on the network, it seems, is share our reputations, our travel itineraries, our war plans, our professional credentials, our illnesses, our confessions, photographs of our latest meal, our sexual habits of course, even our exact whereabouts with our thousands of online friends. Network society has become a transparent love-in, an orgy of oversharing, an endless digital Summer of Love.
Like the network itself, our mass public confessional is global. People from all around the world are revealing their most private thoughts on a transparent network that anyone and everyone can access. In May 2011, when one of China’s richest men, a billionaire investor called Wang Gongquan, left his wife for his mistress, he wrote on the Chinese version of Twitter, Sina Weiba, a service that has 140 million users: “I am giving up everything and eloping with Wang Qin. I feel ashamed and so am leaving without saying good-bye. I kneel down and beg forgiveness!”35 Gongquan’s confession exploded virally. Within twenty-four hours, his post was republished 60,000 times with some of the billionaire’s closest and most powerful friends publicly pleading with him to go back to his wife.
This love-in—what the author Steven Johnson, an oversharing advocate who, as @stevenberlinjohnson, has 1.5 million Twitter followers of his own, praised as “a networked version of The Truman Show, where we are all playing Truman,”36 is quite a public spectacle. Rather than The Truman Show, however, this epidemic of oversharing, in its preoccupation with immortality, could be subtitled The Living and the Dead.
What If There Are No Secrets?
More and more of us are indeed playing Truman in a networked version of our own intimately personalized show. “What if there are no secrets?” imagined Jeff Jarvis in July 2010.37 A transparency evangelist at the City University of New York, Jarvis popularized the neologism “publicness” in a speech that same year entitled “Privacy, Publicness & Penises.”38 By very publicly announcing his own prostate cancer in April 2009 and turning his life into “an open blog,”39 Jarvis40—the author of the 2011 transparency manifesto Public Parts,41 written in “homage” to shockjock Howard Stern’s Private Parts biography42—certainly promoted his own Benthamite thesis that “publicness grants immortality.”43 Another apostle of publicness, the veteran social theorist Howard Rheingold, who, back in 1993 as a member of the pioneering Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link (the WELL), fathered the term “virtual community,”44 revealed his own struggle with colon cancer online in early 2010. A third advocate of openness, the British technology writer Guy Kewney, who was afflicted with colorectal cancer, even used social media to chronicle his own impending death in April 2010.
While social media, for all its superhuman ability to see through walls, might not quite guarantee immortality, its impact is certainly of immense historical significance, what Jeff Jarvis describes as an “emblem of epochal change45—as profound a technological development, in its own way, as anything invented in the last fifty years. You’ll remember that Reid Hoffman defined this explosion of personal data as “Web 3.0.” But John Doerr,46 the wealthiest venture capitalist in the world whom Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos once described as “the center of gravity on the Internet,” goes even further than @quixotic in his historical analysis.
Doerr argues that “social” represents “the great third wave” of technological innovation, following directly in the wake of the invention of the personal computer and the Internet.47 The advent of social, local, and mobile technology now heralds what Doerr calls a “perfect storm” to disrupt traditional businesses.48 Such, indeed, is Doerr and his venture capitalist firm of Kleiner Perkin’s confidence in this social revolution that, in October 2010, in partnership with Facebook and Mark Pincus’s Zynga, Kleiner launched a quarter-billion-dollar sFund dedicated to exclusively putting money into social businesses. While on Valentine’s Day 2011, the firm made what the Wall Street Journal described as a “small” $38 million investment in Facebook,49 buying the Silicon Valley venture capitalists no more than an affectionately symbolic 0.073% stake in the social media company.50 “We’re making a blue ocean bet that social is just beginning,” Bing Gordon, another Kleiner partner thus explains the firm’s thinking behind its sFund. “Usage habits will change dramatically over the next 4–5 years.”51
Mark Zuckerberg, the beneficary of Kleiner’s generous Valentine’s Day present, Time Magazine’s 2010 Person of the Year and the semi-fictionalized “Accidental Billionaire” subject of David Fincher’s hit 2010 movie The Social Network,52 agrees with Gordon that we are at the beginning of a social revolution that will change not only the online user experience but also our entire economy and society. Zuckerberg who, as the English novelist Zadie Smith notes, “uses the word connect as believers use the word Jesus,”53 is the Jeremy Bentham 2.0 of our digitally networked age, the social engineer who claims to be “rewiring the world.”54 And, like Bentham too, the Facebook co-founder and CEO is a “boy to the last” who lacks any experience or knowledge of human nature and who wants to build a digital Inspection-House in which none of us are ever let alone again.
Zuckerberg’s excitement about the five-year horizon is certainly boyish. “If you look five years out, every industry is going to be rethought in a social way. You can remake whole industries. That’s the big thing,”55 Zuckerberg gushed in December 2010. “And no matter where you go,” he told Robert Scoble, Silicon Valley’s uber-evangelist of social media, “we want to ensure that every experience you have will be social.”56
Zuckerberg’s five-year plan is to eliminate loneliness. He wants to create a world in which we will never have to be alone again because we will always be connected to our online friends in everything we do, spewing huge amounts of our own personal data as we do it. “Facebook wants to populate the wilderness, tame the howling mob and turn the lonely, antisocial world of random chance into a friendly world, a serendipitous world,” Time’s Lev Grossman explained why his magazine made Zuckerberg their Person of the Year in 2010. “You’ll be working and living inside a network of people, and you’ll never have to be alone again. The Internet, and the whole world, will feel more like a family, or a college dorm, or an office where your co-workers are also your best friends.”57
But even today, in the early stages of Zuckerberg’s five-year plan to rewire the world, Facebook is becoming mankind’s own image. Attracting a trillion page views a month,58 and now hosting more active users than the entire population of Europe and Russia,59 Facebook is where we go to reveal everything about ourselves. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the satirical website The Onion, confirming Julian Assange’s remark about Facebook as history’s “most appalling spying machine,” presents Mark Zuckerberg’s creation as a CIA conspiracy. “After years of secretly monitoring the public, we were astounded so many people would willingly publicize where they live, their religious and political views, an alphabetized list of all their friends, personal e-mail addresses, phone numbers, hundreds of photos of themselves, and even status updates about what they were doing moment to moment,” a mock CIA deputy director reports to Congress in the Onion skit. “It is truly a dream come true for the CIA.”60
But perhaps the most disturbing thing of all is that Facebook isn’t a CIA plant and Mark Zuckerberg isn’t an Agency operative. Ironically, Zuckerberg five-year plan might make the CIA redundant or transform it into a start-up business division, what Silicon Valley people would call a “skunk-works” project, within Facebook. After all, professional spooks have little value if we all live in a universal dorm room where anyone can know what everyone else is doing and thinking.
Everyone can become a secret policeman in a world without personal secrets—which is why the CIA really has set up an Open Source Center at its Virginia headquarters where a team of so-called “vengeful librarians” stalk thousands of Twitter and Facebook accounts for information.61 That may be scary for the traditional powers that be at the CIA, with their industrial-age assumptions about the top-down, exclusively professional nature of intelligence work, but it’s even scarier for the rest of us who cannot escape the transparent lighting of a global electronic village in which anyone can become a vengeful librarian.
The Dial Tone for the 21st Century
So for who, exactly, is today’s social media a “dream come true”?
Architects of digital transparency, technologists of openness, venture capitalists and, of course, entrepreneurs like Reid Hoffman, Biz Stone and Mark Pincus who are all massively profiting from all these real identities generating enormous amounts of their own personal data. That’s who are transforming this “dream” of the ubiquitous social network into a reality.
No, Mark Zuckerberg is far from being the only young social media billionaire gazing, with a mix of communitarian aura and financial greed, onto that five-year horizon when the whole world will have become a twenty-first-century version of Bentham’s Inspection-House. Speaking at the launch of the sFund, Zynga CEO Mark Pincus—the co-owner, you’ll remember, with his friend Reid Hoffman, of the future itself—concurred with Zuckerberg’s vision of a world radically reinvented by social technology. “In five years, everybody will always be connected to each other instead of the web,” Pincus predicted.62 Social companies like Zygna, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, he explained, are becoming the central plumbing for what he called “the dial tones” for the ubiquitous social experience of tomorrow, connecting people through increasingly invisible mobile technology that will always be with them. Connectivity, Pincus predicts, will become the electricity of the social epoch—so ubiquitous that it will be invisible and so powerful that it threatens to become the operating system for the entire twenty-first century.
But even today, it’s increasingly difficult to avoid the relentlessly invasive beep of Mark Pincus’s social dial tone. The digital networking of the world, this arrival of The Truman Show on all of our screens, is both relentless and inevitable.63 By mid-2011, the Pew Research Center found that 65 percent of American adults were using social-networking sites—up from just 5 percent in 2005.64 In June 2010, Americans spent almost 23 percent of their online time in social media networking—up a staggering 43 percent from June 2009,65 with use among older adults (50–64 year olds) almost doubling in this period and the 65+ demographic being the fastest growing age group on Facebook in 2010 with a 124 percent increase in sign-ups over 2009. And by the summer of 2011, the Pew Research Center found that this number has risen dramatically again, with 32 percent of fifty- to sixty-four-year-olds in America accessing networks like Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook on a daily basis.66
Yet, for all Facebook’s meteoric growth among the senior digital citizens, it’s teens and high school kids who have most fully embraced social media, with Facebook and Twitter replacing blogging as their dominant mode of online self-expression.67 As Mark Zuckerberg said, in November 2010, when he introduced Facebook’s social messaging platform, “high school kids don’t use e-mail.” Unfortunately, Zuckerberg is correct. In 2010, e-mail—private one-to-one electronic communication that is the digital version of letter writing—was, according to ComScore, down 59 percent among teenagers, replaced, of course, with public social-messaging platforms like Twitter and Facebook.68
Facebook, with its members investing over 700 billion minutes of their time per month on the network,69 was the world’s most visited Web site in 2010 making up 9 percent of all online traffic.70 By early 2011, 57 percent of all online Americans were logging onto Facebook at least once a day, with 51 percent of all Americans over twelve years old having an account on the social network71 and 38 percent of all the Internet’s sharing referral traffic emanating from Zuckerberg’s creation.72 By September 2011, more than 500 million people were logging onto Facebook each day73 with its then almost 800 million active users being larger than the entire Internet was in 2004.74 Facebook is becoming mankind’s own image. It’s where our Auto-Icons now sit.
Not to be outdone, Biz Stone’s Twitter, Facebook’s most muscular competitor in real-time social networking, added 100 million new members in 2010 who contributed to the 25 billion tweets sent that year75 and, by October 2011, were authoring a quarter-billion tweets per day (that’s more than 10,000 messages authored per second) with more than 50 million users logging onto the site every day.76 Then there’s the social ecommerce start-up Groupon, whose 35-million subscriber base and annual revenue of around $2 billion makes it the fastest growing company in American history. In December 2010, Groupon turned down a $6 billion acquisition offer from Google and instead raised almost a billion dollars of its own from private investors before launching its own oversubscribed November 2011 IPO in which the company was valued at $16.5 billion.77 Groupon’s most direct competitor, LivingSocial, with its rumored $6 billion valuation and expected $1 billion revenue in 2011, is also experiencing meteoric growth.78 Meanwhile, Pincus’s social gaming start-up Zynga continues its own quest for global domination: Founded in July 2007, the Silicon Valley–based company, which includes Facebook’s most popular apps CitiVille and Farmville79 in its network, is now delivering an astonishing 1 petabyte of daily data, adding 1,000 new servers a week and has had its social games played together by 215 million people, which corresponds to about 10 percent of the world’s entire online population.80 No wonder, then, that Pincus’s still private three-and-a-half-year-old company raised a $500 million round of investment from a number of venture capitalists—including, of course, Kleiner—at a $10 billion valuation,81 before launching its own IPO in December 2011.
The rate of growth for younger social media companies is equally jaw dropping. Foursquare, one of Silicon Valley’s hottest social start-ups, grew by 3400 percent in 2010 and, by August 2011, the then year-old geo-location service was getting 3 million check-ins per day from its 10 million members,82 with its users growing to 15 million by December 2011.83 A second, the blogging platform Tumblr, was growing by a quarter billion impression every week in early 2011,84 and, by September 2011, had raised $85 million in fresh financing and was attracting 13 billion average monthly page views from its 30 million blogs.85 Another, the social knowledge network Quora, founded by former Facebook technologists Adam D’Angelo and Charlie Cheever,86 was valued at $86 million by investors before the advertising free service had even established a business model for making money87 and was rumored to have “scoffed” at a $1 billion acquisition offer.88 Not to be outdone, the social photography app Instagram reached 2 million users in only four months since its late 2010 launch—making its phenomenal rate of growth three times faster than that of foursquare and six times more viral than Twitter.
Once just a medium for the distribution of impersonal data, the Internet is now a network of companies and technologies designed around social products, platforms and services—transforming it from an impersonal database into a global digital brain publicly broadcasting our relationships, our intentionality and our personal taste. The integration of our personal data—renamed by social media marketers as our “social graph”—into online content is now the central driver of Internet innovation in Reid Hoffman’s Web 3.0 age. By enabling our thousands of “friends” to know exactly what we are doing, thinking, reading, watching and buying, today’s Web products and services are powering our hypervisible age of great exhibitionism. No wonder, then, that the World Economic Forum describes personal data as a “New Asset Class”89 in the global economy.
In early 2011, Sergey Brin, Google co-founder, acknowledged that Google had only “touched” 1 percent of social search’s potential.90 But even today, with social realizing only a few percentage points of what it will eventually become, this revolution is dramatically reshaping not just the Internet but also our identities and personalities. Whether we like it or not, twenty-first-century life is increasingly being lived in public. Four out of five college admissions offices, for example, are looking up applicants’ Facebook profiles before making a decision on whether to accept them.91 A February 2011 human resources survey suggested that almost half of HR managers believed it was likely that our social network profiles are replacing our resumes as the core way for potential employers to evaluate us.92 The New York Times reports that some firms have even begun using surveillance services like Social Intelligence, which can legally store data for up to seven years, to collect social media information about prospective employees before giving them jobs.93 “In today’s executive search market, if you’re not on LinkedIn, you don’t exist,” one job search expert told The Wall Street Journal in June 2011.94 LinkedIn now even enables its users to submit their profiles as resumes, thus inspiring one “personal branding guru” to announce that the 100 million member professional network is “about to put Job Boards (and Resumes) out of business.”95
Mark Zuckerberg once said “movies are naturally social things.”96 What he forgot to add is that in this brave new world of shared information, resumes, pictures, books, travel, music, business, politics, education, shopping, location, finance and knowledge are, it seems, also naturally social things.
So my question for Zuckerberg—who already has 51 percent of all Americans over twelve years old on his network and who believes that kids under thirteen should be allowed to have Facebook accounts97—is very simple: Mark, in your vision of the future, please tell me something that isn’t a social thing?
Nothing. That, of course, would be his answer. Everything is going social, he would say. Social is, to borrow a much overused metaphor, the tsunami that is altering our entire social, educational, personal and business landscape. And, I’m afraid, Mark Zuckerberg isn’t alone in seeing social as that tidal wave that, for better or worse, is flattening everything in its path.
The Emerald Sea
On the wall of an otherwise nondescript fourth-floor Silicon Valley office is a picture of a great wave crashing against the beach. In its foamy, tumescent wake lies the corpse of a small fishing boat. This picture is a copy of “Emerald Sea,” an 1878 landscape of the Californian coastline by the romantic American artist Albert Bierstadt, and it hangs in the Mountain View office of Google, the dominant Web 2.0 company that is now aggressively trying to transform itself into a Web 3.0 social media player.
No, it’s not just me that is using the metaphor of a great wave to describe the social revolution. In the second half of 2010, acknowledging the failure of Buzz and Wave, its first generation social media products, and realizing that social media threatens to turn this Web 2.0 leader into a Web 3.0 laggard, Google established an elite army of engineers and business executives led by its SVP of Social Business, Vic Gundotra and Bradley Horowitz, its VP of product and incorporating eighteen Google products and thirty traditional product teams. What Gundotra described to me as a “project” was called Emerald Sea and it referred directly to Bierstadt’s idealized nineteenth-century landscape, with its enormous wave crashing down against the coastline. “We needed a code name that captured the fact that either there was a great opportunity to sail to new horizons and new things, or that we were going to drown by this wave,” Gundotra explained the project that, a year later, conceived the Google + social network. 98
Bradley Horowitz described Emerald Sea’s 100-day ambition of transforming Google into a social company as a “wild-ass crazy, get-to-the-moon” goal. But it was, in fact, a wise move by the once dominant search company that has been forced to play social catch-up to Facebook, Zynga, Groupon, LivingSocial, Twitter, and the rest of the Web 3.0 tidal wave. You see, on today’s Internet, it seems, everything—and I mean absolutely everything—is going social. The Internet’s core logic, its dominant algorithm, has been reinvented to operate on social principles—which is why some technology pundits are already predicting that Facebook will soon surpass Google in advertising revenues.99
The result is a flood of new online social businesses, technologies and networks with collaborative names like GroupMe, Socialcast, LivingSocial, SocialVibe, PeekYou, BeKnown, Togetherville, Socialcam, SocialFlow, SproutSocial, SocialEyes and, most appropriately for our hypervisible age, Hyperpublic. And it’s not just Kleiner-Perkins that is pouring billions of dollars of investment into this social economy. The smartest investors in the Valley are all going social. In the first half of 2011, for example, the Silicon Valley–based VC firm of Andreessen Horowitz, managed by Netscape founder Mark Andreessen, the technologist who sparked the original Web 1.0 boom in August 1995 with his company’s historic IPO, invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Facebook, Twitter, Groupon, Zynga and Skype.100 Then there’s Mike Moritz, the legendary Silicon Valley venture capitalist who invested in Google, Yahoo!, Apple and YouTube, who is now a board member at @quixotic’s LinkedIn.101 While Chris Sacca, who The Wall Street Journal described as “possibly the most influential businessman in America, is now managing a J.P. Morgan funded billion dollar investment fund which, in early 2011, invested several hundred million dollars in Twitter.102
Doerr, Andreessen, Moritz, Sacca and, of course, my old sparring partner @quixotic all recognize the profound changes that are transforming the Web 2.0 into the Web 3.0 economy. The old link Internet market, dominated by Google’s artificial search algorithm, is being replaced with the “like” economy, symbolized by the first working product that came out of the Emerald Sea project, Google’s “+1” social search. Described by Techcrunch’s MG Siegler as a “massive”103 technological initiative, the prolifically viral +1—which was launched in June 2011104 and within three months could be found on a million Web sites generating more than 4 billion daily views105—adds a social layer of public recommendations from friends not only on top of the dominant search engine’s nonhuman artificial algorithm but also above its advertising platform. “Whether they admit it or not,” Siegler says of +1, “Google is at war with Facebook for control of the web.”
That’s because +1 allows us to publicly recommend search results and Web sites, thus replacing Google’s artificial algorithm as the engine of the new social economy. In the +1 world, we all will eventually become personalized versions of the old Google search engine—directing Web traffic around our transparent tastes, opinions and preferences. Siegler is correct. The stakes in this new war between Google and Facebook really are about control of the Internet. No wonder, then, that Larry Page, the new Google CEO, tied 25 percent of all Google employee bonuses in 2011 to the success of the company’s social strategy.106
Gundotra and Horowitz acknowledged the centrality of the company’s social strategy when they appeared on my TechcrunchTV show in July 2011107 to discuss the informal launch of their second product, a social network called Google + that, while still in beta, amassed 20 million unique visitors in just three weeks108 and, in the seven days after its June 2011 release, increased the company’s market cap by $20 billion.109 Marginalizing the importance of the company’s artificial algorithm, Horowitz boasted that Google + puts “people first,” while Gundotra presented Google + as “the glue” that unites all of Google’s products—from its algorithmic search to YouTube to Gmail to its myriad of advertising products and services.
So is Google now a “social company”? I asked Gundotra.
“Yes,” Google’s VP of Social replied about the Google + community, which, in the 100 days after its beta launch in June 2011, had grown to 40 million members.110 and which is predicted to include 200 million members by the end of 2012.111
As a social company, it’s hardly surprising, therefore, that Google followed up the launch its Google + network with the January 2012 introduction of “Search, plus Your World” (SPYW)—a Web 3.0 product that Steven Levy, the author of InThe Plex and the world’s leading authority on Google, describes as a “startling transformation” of the company’s search engine.112 With SPYW, the content on the Google + social network replaces the company’s artificial algorithm as the brain of its search engine; with SPYW, the old Google search engine, once the very heart and soul of the Web 2.0 world, becomes merely what Levy calls an “amplifier of social content.”
In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, 2 + 2 was said to equal 5. But in today’s social information age, when we are all publicly broadcasting our personal tastes, habits and locations on networks like Google +, what might +1 plus +1 equal?
+1 + +1 + +1 + +1 + +1 + +1 + +1 + 1
It will not quite compute into a googol—10,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to be exact—but the +1 social economy has already spawned into thousands of new Web sites, billions of dollars of investment and revenue, and countless new apps incorporating all the personal data of the hundreds of millions of people on the social web.
This personal data, what Google’s Bradley Horowitz euphemistically calls putting “people first,” is the core ingredient, the revolutionary fuel, powering the Web 3.0 economy. But the Internet is radically changing too, its architecture reflecting the new social dial tone for the twenty-first century. Everything on the Web—from its infrastructure to its navigation to its entertainment to its commerce to its communications—is going social. John Doerr is right. Today’s Web 3.0 revolution, this Internet of people, is indeed the third great wave of technological innovation, as profound as the invention of both the personal computer and the Worldwide Web itself.
The Internet’s business infrastructure, its core architecture, is getting a major social overhaul—so that every technology platform and service is shifting from a Web 2.0 to the Web 3.0 model. Internet browsers, search engines and email services—the trinity of technologies that shape our daily Internet use—are becoming social. Everyone in Silicon Valley, it seems, is going into the business of eliminating loneliness. To compete with Google’s SPYW, there are now Facebook-powered “liked results” from Microsoft’s Bing search engine,113 as well as the Greplin and Blekko search engines and a “people” search engine from PeekYou that has already indexed the records of over 250 million people. There are social Internet browsers from Rockmelt and Firefox, and social updating from Meebo’s increasingly ubiquitous MiniBar messenger. There is social email from Gmail’s People Widget, Microsoft Outlook’s Social Connector and from start-ups like Xobni and Rapportive for old fogies like myself who are still relying on archaic email.114
It’s not just email. All online communications—from video to audio to text messaging to microblogging—is going social. There are real-time social video platforms from Socialcam, Showyou, SocialEyes, Tout and from Airtime, a start-up founded by the real Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, the co-founder of Napster, which is quite literally focused, according to Parker, on “eliminating loneliness.”115 There are social texting and messaging apps from the Skype acquisition GroupMe,116 as well as from Facebook’s Beluga, Yobongo, Kik and many other equally unpronouncable start-ups. There is social blogging on Tumblr, social “curation” from Pinterest, social “conversation” from Glow,117 small group social networking on Path that has amassed almost a million users in under a year118 and workplace social communications from Yammer and Chatter that each have around 100,000 companies using their platforms.119 Then there is Rypple, a social tool for “internal employee management,” which enables everybody in a company to rate everyone else, thereby transforming work into a kind of never-ending real-time show trial.120
Entertainment is going social, too. In December 2011, YouTube’s homepage went social, emphasizing the Google + and Facebook networks in what the video leviathan called “the biggest redesign in its history.”121 There is social music and social sound from Pandora, the iTunes Ping network, Soundcloud and Soundtracking.122 There are social reality television shows on American Idol and The X-Factor,123 social information about what movies we are watching on GetGlue, social TV networks like Into.Now and Philo, which reveal to the world our viewing habits, and Facebook integration on Hulu which enables us to share our remarks with all our friends. Social TV means everyone will know what everyone else is viewing. “Miso now knows what you’re watching, no check-in required,” thus warns a headline in The New York Times about Miso, a social TV app that can already automatically recognize the viewing habits of DirecTV satellite subscribers.124
Most ominously of all, the online movie jugernaut Netflix—already estimated to be the origin of 30 percent of all Internet traffic125—is so committed to deeply integrating its service with Facebook that its CEO, Reed Hastings, gazing like Mark Zuckerberg onto the five-year horizon, acknowledged in June 2011 that he has a “five-year investment path” for making social central to his company’s product development.126
The news industry, another core pillar of twentieth-century media, is trying to transform itself with social technology. There are, for example, socially produced news stories from the New York Times’ News.me127 and from Flipboard, the 2010 start-up behind the social magazine app for mobile devices that is already valued at $200 million and includes Kleiner-Perkins and Ashton Kutcher as investors and Oprah Winfrey’s OWN cable network as a content distribution partner.128
Of all twentieth-century media, it is the once mostly private art of photography that is being most radically socialized by the Web 3.0 revolution. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being poured into social photography so that we can share all our intimate pictures with the world. There are social photos from the social self-portrait network Dailybooth, from the sensationally popular Instagram app, from the $15 million photo and gaming start-up ImageSocial,129 and from Color, a “proximity based” photo sharing service “with no privacy settings” that raised $41 million in March 2011 before its product had even been launched.130
But it’s our contemporary mania for revealing our location which is the most chilling aspect of the Web’s new collective architecture. There are social geo-location services not only from foursquare, Loopt, Buzzd, Facebook Places and the Reid Hoffman investment Gowalla (which was acquired by Facebook in December 2011), but also from the MeMap app that enables us to track all the check-ins of our Internet friends on a single networked map131 and from Sonar, which identifies other friends in our vicinity.132 There is social mapping on Google Maps, social travel recommendations on Wanderfly, social seating on aircrafts from KLM and Malaysia Airlines’s MHBuddy,133 social travel information on TripIt, social driving on the Kleiner-funded Waze app134 and on the social license plate network Bump.com135 and, most bizarrely of all, social bicycling from the iPhone app Cyclometer, which enables our friends to track, hear and share exactly where we are and what we are doing on our bicycles.
Even time itself, both the past and the future, is becoming social. Proust, a social network designed to store our memories, is trying—presumably in an attempt to emulate the eponymous French novelist—to socialize the past.136 There are “social discovery” engines like The Hotlist and Plancast that have aggregated information from over 100 million Web users that enables us to not only see where our friends have been and currently are located but also to predict where they will be in the future. There is even a social “intentionality” app from Ditto that enables you to share what you will and should do with everyone on your network,137 while the WhereBerry social networking service enables us to tell our friends what movies we want to see and restaurants that we’d like to try.
But the social media revolution isn’t just about obscurely named start-ups—many of which, in today’s Darwinian struggle for digital domination, will inevitably fail. Take, for example, Microsoft, the former technology leader that is now trying to buy its way into the social economy. Microsoft’s intended $8.5 billion acquisition of Skype, announced in May 2011—the company’s largest acquisition in its history—is an attempt to socialize its Internet business. This acquisition seeks to leverage Skype’s active 145 million users into a Microsoft centric social network that will maintain the company’s relevance in the social media age.138
Like Microsoft, every presocial technology company is now trying to surf the Emerald wave. Indeed, there are now so many social business products from large enterprises like IBM (Connections Social Software), Monster.com (the Facebook app Beknown), and Salesforce (Yammer) that one analyst told the Wall Street Journal “it’s hard to think of a company that isn’t selling enterprise social software now.”139 And the corporate world is embracing Web 3.0 technology, too, with “enlightened companies” such as Gatorade, Farmer’s Insurance, Domino’s Pizza, and Ford investing massively in social media marketing campaigns. “If you want to reach a millennium,” wrote one of Ford’s social media evangelists in a justification of why they sent a tweeting car across America, “you have to go where they live, and that means online.”140
Yes, the fictional Sean Parker from The Social Network got it right: First we lived in villages, then in cities and now we are increasingly living online. And the truth is that today it’s hard to actually think of an Internet start-up whose products or services aren’t embracing the web’s new social architecture. This revolution in sharing our personal data extends to every imaginable nook and crevice of both the online and offline world. Even a partial list makes one’s head spin. So the next few paragraph are best read sitting down.
Given that social media advertising’s annual revenue is expected to grow from its 2011 total of $5.5 billion to $10 billion by 2013,141 the online advertising business is now going social, with the meteoric growth of platforms like RadiumOne that serve up ads based on what our friends like142 and SocialVibe, the branding marketing engine that is fuelling the Zynga network.143 There are now hundreds of collaborative commerce start-ups with communitarian names like BuyWithMe and ShopSocially attempting to emulate Groupon and LivingSocial. For the socially conscious, there are social networks for social entrepreneurs at Like Minded and Craig Connect, social investment from CapLinked,144 socially generated charity from Jumo and social fund-raising from Fundly. There are social networks for foodies like My Fav Food, Cheapism145 and Grubwithus146 and, as an antidote, social dieting apps147 like Daily Burn, Gain Fitness, LoseIt, Social Workout and Fibit—a social gadget that broadcasts to the world its users’ sex lives.148
There are social networks like Yatown,149 Hey, Neighbor!, Nextdoor.com, and Zenergo150 that have been designed to connect local neighbors and real world activities. There is the bizarre Google + and Twitter clone Chime.in, which allows you to follow “part of a person.151 There is social discovery from ShoutFlow, which describes itself as a “magical” app for finding “relevant” people nearby.152 There is social education from OpenStudy that “wants to turn the world into one big study group.”153 There are social productivity tools from Manymoon and Asana,154 professional social networking from BeKnown, social event networking from MingleBird, social media analytics from Social Bakers, social investing from AngelList, and social consumer information on SocialSmack and something called a “marketplace for social transactions” from Jig.155 There is social local data from Hyperpublic, social cardio training from Endomondo156 and a growing infestation of social networks for children like Club Penguin, giantHello and the creepily named Togetherville—a kids’ network that Disney acquired in February 2011.157 Perhaps most eerily of all, there is even a so-called social “serendipity engine” from Shaker—a well backed and much hyped Israeli start-up that won Techcrunch’s 2011 Disrupt championship—which turns Facebook into a virtual bar for meeting strangers.158
Phew! And if this vertiginous wave of social networks isn’t enough, then there is social reading—offering a giant collective hello to book lovers everywhere. Yes, reading, that most intensely private and illicit of all modern individual experiences, is being transformed into a disturbingly social spectacle. Some of you may even be reading this book socially—meaning that instead of sitting alone with this book, you’ll be sharing your hitherto intimate reading experience in real-time with thousands of your closest Facebook or Twitter friends via your e-readers through social services like Amazon’s Kindle profiles.159 Indeed, in January 2011 Scribd, a social reading company with a mission to “liberate the written word, to connect people with the information and ideas that matter most to them,”160 raised $13 million in order to add more “social features” to every mobile networked device.161 Meanwhile, Rethink Books, a collaborative reading company, launched the Bible as a socialized product, perhaps with the intention of creating a “direct social channel” between the book’s “Author” and its readers.162
Maybe Rethink Books should acquire the social cardio training network Endomondo and rename itself. You see, social reading really does, in a sense, represent the end of the world. It means the end of the isolated reader, the end of solitary thought, the end of purely individual literary reflection, the end of those long afternoons spent entirely alone with just a book.
Nervous about the coming social dictatorship? Need a cigarette break with fellow smokers? Don’t worry, there is even a social networking device for smokers, introduced by a company called Blu in June 2011, which sells electronically enhanced e-cigarettes ($80 for a five pack) that enable their owners to download their contact information onto personal computers and connect with other smokers.163
SocialEyes Is Creepy
MingleBird, PeekYou, Hotlist, Rypple, Scribd, Sonar, Quora, Togetherville and the thousands of Web 3.0 companies are creating, social brick by social brick, a global networked electronic Inspection-House, a twenty-first-century home in which we can all watch each other all of the time. Take, for example, SocialEyes (pronounced socialize), the social video start-up founded by Rob Glaser, the former Microsoft executive and CEO of RealNetworks, and backed by a number of blue chip West Coast venture capital firms. Launched in beta form in March 2011, SocialEyes unintentionally captures the matrix for our age of great exhibitionism, making it a metaphorical picture of our collective future.
“It looks like there is a wall of video cubes, like the set of Hollywood Squares,” Glaser explained the SocialEyes interface.“You can see yourself in one of these squares and then start initiating phone calls to anyone in your network.”164 This is the true picture of the social web. When we socialize on SocialEyes, the world becomes a gigantically transparent set of Hollywood Squares and we all become cubes inside its wall.
You’ll remember that @quixotic once said that his goal was to provide society with a lens to who are we and who should we be, as individuals and as members of society. And that, I’m afraid, is all too literally what new networks like SocialEyes are doing. The emergence of this socialized economy, with its powerful lens directed upon society and its tens of billions of dollars of investment appears now, for better or worse, unstoppable.
So what, exactly, are we telling the world when we use networks like Rob Glaser’s SocialEyes, the “social serendipity engine” Shaker or Sean Parker’s Airtime—the social network, you’ll remember, designed, in Parker’s words, to “eliminate loneliness.”
“Snoop on me” we are saying. Snoop on me we are all saying, each time we use SocialEyes, Airtime, Shaker, foursquare, Into.now or the hundreds of other Orwellian services and platforms that reveal what we are doing and thinking to the world. And snooping on me has, indeed, become so central to the Internet’s architecture that there is even a Web site called SnoopOn.me which, quite literally, enables our online followers to watch everything we do on our personal computers. Equally chilling is an app called Breakup Notifier which tracks people’s relationship status on Facebook and then alerts everyone when our love life changes and we become divorced or single. When launched in early 2011, Breakup Notifier attracted 100,000 users in a few hours before, thankfully, being blocked by Facebook.165
But even creepier than Breakup Notifier or SnoopOn.me is Creepy, an app that enables us to track the exact location of our Twitter or Facebook friends on a map.166 With Creepy, we all know where everybody else is all the time.
The simple architecture of the digital Inspection-House is now all around us. Has Nineteen Eighty-four finally arrived on all of our screens?
Copyright © 2012 by Andrew Keen
Introduction: Hypervisibility 1
1 A Simple Idea of Architecture 19
2 Let's Get Naked 46
3 Visibility is a Trap 65
4 Digital Vertigo 84
5 The Cult of the Social 106
6 The Age of the Great Exhibition 121
7 The Age of Great Exhibitionism 145
8 The Best Picture of 2011 161
Conclusion: The Woman in Blue 180
"The Cult of the Social": Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Andrew Keen
After his first book, The Cult of the Amateur, was published in 2007, Andrew Keen established himself as one of Silicon Valley's most outspoken critics, the contrarian in their midst. With his second book, Digital Vertigo: How Today's Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us, Keen takes on social media, warning us that we may lose what makes us human when we post status updates on Facebook.
Andrew and I are friends who, more often than not, agree to disagree. That's what we did in the conversation below about his book. ?Anne Trubek
The Barnes & Noble Review: Let's begin with the cover of your book. The title appears as a hashtag (#digitalvertigo) and your name as your Twitter handle (@ajkeen). In this way, the book reminds me a bit of Plato's Phaedrus, in which he writes down Socrates' arguments against writing. Are you being hypocritical by advertising your book against social media by using the language of social media?
Andrew Keen: You shouldn't judge a cover by its book. As you say, Plato wrote down Socrates' arguments against writing. But rather than a tweet or a Facebook update, my book is a 60,000-word nonfiction narrative that can't be read in fifteen seconds from a smartphone while you are sitting at a stoplight.
The issue of hypocrisy irritates me. All too often, the first question anyone asks me is: "You tweet or blog and yet you've written a book against tweeting and blogging." BORING. I'll leave the business of being virtuous to the blogosphere. That said (and I really feel dirty claiming the moral high ground), but I'm actually surprisingly consistent. I'm not on Facebook or foursquare or Google + or almost any of the other social networks. I am on Twitter; this self-evident paradox is part of my narrative.
I hope Digital Vertigo is more than just a book which is simply against social media. Yes, I'm critical of Facebook and what I call Silicon Valley's "cult of the social," but this is a book in support of individual liberty in a digital age which will be lived on the network.
BNR: You employ a vast range of references in Digital Vertigo, from the greats of Western political philosophy — Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill — to the movers and shakers of today's Web, such as Reid Hoffman and Biz Stone. But women appear infrequently — Sherry Turkle is the only thinker cited. However, at the end of the book you wax rhapsodic about a fictional woman, Vermeer's Woman in Blue, who represents the private individual, alone in her room, reading a letter. It's funny: I identify with that woman. I sometimes feel, when I am alone in my study, staring at my computer reading tweets, that sort of absorption in the social (via Twitter) and the glory of privacy (I'm alone in my study). What are the gender valences of social media, if any?
AK: I think you are wrong to say that women aren't prominent. Along with Vermeer's Woman in Blue, the two central characters in the narrative are Madeleine Elster and Judy Barton from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. The book begins with a haunting tweet from Alexia Tsotsis and, as you say, I am very reliant on the invaluable research of the MIT professor Sherry Turkle.
Since finishing Digital Vertigo, I've read two excellent books by women which I wish I could have included in my argument. The first is Quiet, by Susan Cain, which brilliantly explodes the myth of the social value. The second is I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did by the thriller writer and law professor Lori Andrews, which is an erudite exposé of how social media is destroying privacy.
Yes, I'm reliant on John Stuart Mill ? but remember that Mill wrote in his Autobiography that most of his moral and intellectual development was realized through his wife, Harriet Taylor. So even the gendered origins of old J. S. Mill's ideas are more complicated that they first appear.
I'm avoiding your question, of course. Is there a gender bias in social media - - do men and women use it differently? I've no idea. I'm not well informed about the "valence" of either gender, so I will leave it to those, perhaps like yourself, who know more than me about this subject.
BNR: These days I notice I'm more solitary but feel less lonely, because I can interact on social media. Why am I wrong when I think of myself as having gained more privacy with the onset of social media?
AK: I decided to write Digital Vertigo because I saw two profoundly contradictory forces coexisting in the world. The first is the increasingly individualization, solitariness, and isolation of our lives, a phenomenon researched by prominent sociologists like Sherry Turkle, Dalton Conley, and Eric Klinenberg. The second is our increasingly obsession with all things social online — from Facebook to foursquare to Twitter and Google +.
Causality is, of course, complex, and I don't argue that social media is the root cause of loneliness. Instead, I see it, in many ways, as a casualty of what the novelist Walter Kirn calls the "fragmentarian" nature of life in the early twenty-first century. And I'm convinced that the lonelier and more radically individualized we become, the more we fetishize the idea of the social on the Internet.
The problem with the Internet, however, is that it isn't social. It's an aggregation of increasingly atomized individuals who dip in and out of communities, networks, and friendships at the click of a mouse. The Internet is what Eli Pariser calls a "Filter Bubble." It's a gigantic mirror which reflects our desires, our interests, our biases.
BNR: You do a great job arguing that the social media visionaries are the heirs of the failed communitarian movements of the 1960s, which stemmed from a Rousseauian romanticism, for which they are nostalgic. Which point in the past are you nostalgic for?
AK: In Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher's film The Social Network, the fictional Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake, famously says: "First we lived in villages, then we lived in cities and now we are going to live on the Internet."
I think the fictional Parker is correct. And as we increasingly live on the Internet and use social location services like foursquare, Highlight, Glancee, Sonar and Facebook, we are losing not only our privacy but also our anonymity. The world we are creating is like the pre-industrial village ? only now it exists on a global scale. Everywhere we go online we are being watched and tracked ? by advertisers, by the government, by each other. It is a world increasingly without surprise, without mystery, without privacy or solitude.
The real Sean Parker has a new start-up called Airtime, which, he says, is intended to "eliminate loneliness." I'm nostalgic for a world in which billionaire entrepreneurs weren't in the business of eliminating loneliness.
BNR: You compare the ubiquity of our private lives on social media to Bentham's panopticon and draw upon Foucault's writings about the panopticon as well. But no one is making me live in a Facebook prison. Aren't you conflating voluntary publicity with forced incarceration?
AK: Bentham's panopticon wasn't just a prison ? he meant it to be incorporated into the architecture of schools, hospitals, and even cities. And Foucault is less interested in formal prisons than in the prison-like architecture of industrial life.
Nobody is forcing anyone of us to sign up for Facebook, Highlight, or foursquare. But as the Google "link" Web 2.0 economy is replaced by the Facebook "like" Web 3.0 economy, it is increasingly hard to avoid participating in social media. Indeed, only the very rich and the very poor can afford to disconnect. For the rest of us, our reputations, our community, indeed even our very identities are locked into the increasingly ubiquitous global electronic network.
BNR: You say "social reading really does, in a sense, represent the end of the world. It means the end of the isolated reader, the end of solitary thought, the end of purely individual literary reflection, the end of those long afternoons spent entirely alone with just a book" (43–44). Now, I argue that the notion of solitary reading is a pretty historically specific one: we needed artificial light (gas or electric), and, of course, print. For most of human history, people read communally (or even out loud, until the medieval era). And Dickens was more often than not read in a reading circle, with one person reading out loud from a book. So why didn't the world end then?
AK: You are welcome to go back to village and be collectively read to by the village elder in the candlelight of his hut (always a He, by the way). That's exactly the kind of communitarian pipe dream that I certainly don't want to resurrect in the well-lit twenty-first century. Yes, maybe there was a time when we didn't have the luxury of being able to read on our own. But there was also a time when we didn't have enough to eat, or the medicine to cure smallpox or the technology for heating homes. Does that justify a time when we were hungry, ill, and cold?
BNR: You see an Orwellian future in which we are all willingly giving the government information they can use against us. The social media visionaries, who are idealistic and talk about community and transparency, are the architects. Are the creators of LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter also, then, the architects of a future totalitarianism?
AK: It's not really an Orwellian future: It's more surreal than that. More like Borges, perhaps, or Shteyngart. The creators of LinkedIn and Facebook are the inadvertent architects of this future. Sheryl Sandberg, for example, Mark Zuckerberg's right-hand woman, says that Facebook is finally enabling us to become "authentic." The truth, though, is that Facebook is enabling Sandberg and a handful of Silicon Valley programmers to become immensely rich. Yes, Facebook could, as Julian Assange noted, be a CIA plot which convinces all of us to broadcast our most intimate data to the world. The creepiest thing of all about Facebook, however, is that it isn't a CIA plot.
At the beginning of his classic critique of television culture, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argued that we got our dystopias the wrong way around. Rather than George Orwell's totalitarian 1984, Postman said, we are now living in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, a place of collective cultural amnesia and narcissism. Postman was right. Only it's a democratized dystopia. We are the ones populating Facebook with our most personal data. We ? rather than Sheryl Sandberg or Mark Zuckerberg ? have to take responsibility for our creepily collective future.
BNR: I love Twitter. I feel I have an intellectual community for the first time in my life. I live in Cleveland (and therefore have fewer options for intellectual gatherings than you, living Northern California). I feel much more connected to like-minded people than ever before. I feel less lonely. If I never tell people on Twitter my geographic location or who I had sex with last night, what's the problem?
AK: I guess I'm okay with lonely women in Cleveland being on Twitter. But let's limit it to people in Ohio. =)
Anne Trubek is Chair of Rhetoric and Composition at Oberlin College and the author of A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses.