People were extensively mocked in the last fortnight for copying and pasting this text to their Facebook walls:
In response to the new Facebook guidelines, I hereby declare that my copyright is attached to all of my personal details, illustrations, comics, paintings, professional photos and videos, etc. (as a result of the Berner Convention). For commercial use of the above my written consent is needed at all times!
The people doing the mocking positioned themselves as knowing, savvy Internet users who realised, unlike the copypasta sheeple, that this was ineffectual as protection for their uploaded materials. (This despite legal opinions which offered that it may in fact have some force).
The scorn is a neat way of ignoring what the widespread sharing of this text reveals – a systematic confusion among Facebook users about their rights. This is a collective failure to appreciate what’s at stake in uploading materials to social media services. Individualising the blame for this actually works to absolve companies like Facebook, whose terms and conditions shift so often, and so rapidly, that even relatively sophisticated users can find it difficult to keep up. People are relying on their friends for information on changes to Facebook’s terms of service because they find reliable, authentic information difficult to come by.
This is connected to a perpetual, free floating anxiety about what it means to be on social media, and to reposit so information in the hands of companies whose business model admittedly rests on harvesting our data. People understand the upside, and millions of people have signed up to services that let them keep in touch with their friends and family (recently this includes a large cohort who are online for the first time). But the downside is poorly understood, not least because making this clear would run counter to the interests of a range of people, including big Internet firms.
In dealing with this anxiety, and rapid, often opaque changes, users have to make do. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen such a practice spread quickly across Facebook, and there have been times in the past when a similar strategy has been used to spread accurate information, and alert fellow users to a problem. (The recent campaign by bands against the changes to the visibility of fan page updates springs to mind) But when anxious users spread incorrect information, savvy users point the finger at them, rather than at a company which has frequently actively misled its users.
The 1337/n00bs divide plays out unhelpfully in other ways. The reflex (and 1337) cyberlibertarian response to concerns about the behaviour of social media companies is formed by an historic fear of Internet regulation. When critics argue that big internet firms are cavalier or exploitative in relation to users’ privacy, intellectual property or other rights, the response is often to point out that users can always exit a particular platform, and/or use one of the other options. However much information Facebook harvests, however loose with users information, it is not a coercive entity like the state. No one is forcing you to be there, and there are alternatives.
There are at least two clear objections to be made to this. One concerns the cost to users. If I were to abandon Facebook for, say Google Plus (and it’s not at all clear to me that G+ is better now, or will be into the future, when it comes to how it uses my information) I would just not be able to keep in touch with a range of people in my life in the same way. My entire family are on there. Schoolfriends are there. Colleagues are there. It’s taken some years for them all to arrive, and it’s unlikely that even a small proportion of them will shift to an alternative platform anytime soon. If I decide that some change to Facebook’s terms of service is the last straw, I have to bear the cost of broken connections indefinitely. Social networking platforms are very sticky because of the big switching costs for users, and I would suggest that for now, Facebook has no meaningful substitute. I won’t even start talking about Google search.
But the second is that the cyberlibertarian assumes that the users actually have enough information at their disposal to know what rights are being sacrificed in order to use any particular platform, and also enough information to know about alternatives and how to use them. I would argue that it’s simply not practically possible to know, in depth, the terms of service on each and every one of the many websites we use, and further that it’s unreasonable to expect that users in a simple bilateral relationship with a tech giant will be able to make sense of terms and conditions that are shifting constantly along with the form and function of the platform.
Walter Lippman mounted a criticism of democracy which said that classical democratic theory required the impossible ideal of an “omnicompetent citizen”, who was abreast and informed about all issues and could make rational decisions about voting on that basis. I actually think this is a fairly vapid critique of democracy, though that’s another story. But I think that a lot of the discussion around big platforms and users’ rights really does assume an impossible ideal: an omnicompetent user who has the time and necessary literacies to make competent, well-informed and regular cost-benefit analyses of their own use of a range of platforms, and the wherewithal to exit or switch when particular platforms become unfavourable.
I don’t think this user exists, and I think the ideal prevents us actually talking properly about users’ rights.
I would say most users lack these capacities, and that this is particularly true of the newer cohorts of regular Internet users who have been drawn out by the affordances of big social media platforms. (However, I’d love to talk further to anyone who really does think they’re completely across the ToS for every service they use. I suspect these specimens are exceedingly rare). Obviously questions about literacy across different cohorts can be framed empirically. But I think it’s pretty uncontroversial to say that a lot of the talk about how disgruntled users can switch is coming from the most literate and experienced users, with the least need for and least dependence on those platforms that have undegone mass uptake.
Rather than thinking in terms of the omnicompetent user, I would prefer us to be talking about the least competent user. If we can’t manage that, we could at least address ourselves to the average user of the average service. And we’re going to be discussing something that Facebook won’t provide without being pushed: either better protection of users’ rights, or more education about them, or both.
(I wouldn’t want to suggest that this post covers the issues he’s concerned with in anything like the depth he does, but I am aware that Mark Andrejevic is pursuing empirical research in this area, and I first raised the idea of the omnicompetent user in conversation with him)