Episode 30: Transcript
Transcription by Keffy
Annalee: [00:00:00] Welcome to Our Opinions Are Correct, a podcast about the social meaning of science fiction.
Charlie Jane: [00:00:06] I’m Charlie Jane Anders, a science fiction writer who thinks a lot about science.
Annalee: [00:00:09] And I’m Annalee Newitz. A science journalist who writes science fiction. Today, we’re going to be talking about why social media must die. Essentially, social media as we know it has become one of the biggest social problems of our time and we’re going to talk a little bit about how social media has become such a menace in our everyday lives and how that’s treated in the news, and how we talk about that when we’re not telling stories. And then we’re going to talk about how social media is treated in science fiction, and it’s really interesting to see the contrast between the two things. So, we’ll be winding up by talking about how we need some new science fiction that maybe deals better with what social media is doing to us right now.
[00:00:54] Intro music plays: Drums with a bass drop and more science fictional bells and percussion.
Charlie Jane: [00:01:20] Yeah, so it’s really interesting. I mean, even just a few years ago social media felt like kind of this interesting, weird, sometimes scary Greek chorus on the sidelines of our political landscape, but now social media is at the center of our political landscape, and it’s shaping events in the world in a way that few other forces have done since the invention of the printing press almost. Where do you think social media went wrong, or how do you think it became so powerful and bizarrely important?
Annalee: [00:01:51] I think you’re right that it moved from the periphery to the center of our political landscape and social media started out as something that was for being social and it grew out of things like Usenet in the 1990s where people would get together on things that we once called news groups, and they would write essays or comments that were threaded and so you could have a conversation. And then you started to get early social media things, like you could claim that chat rooms, for example, were a form of social media.
Charlie Jane: [00:02:26] AOL.
Annalee: [00:02:26] AOL’s chat rooms and then later chat rooms that evolved. And then, finally , you started to get things like Friendster or things like Napster where people were—
Charlie Jane: [00:02:37] Or Myspace.
Annalee: [00:02:38] Or, Myspace. Things where people were either sharing media or were just posting about themselves. Kind of just a glorified homepage. Like, this is who I am and this is who my friends are. And then, over time with things like LiveJournal, and things like Facebook. It became a lot more complex. People started combining the idea of a page devoted to what they’re up to, to a long conversation about politics. And as we moved into the modern era with things like Twitter or Snapchat or WhatsApp, or any number of other things like YouTube, for example, again, you’re starting to see people sharing media but in a much more sophisticated way. Or sharing ideas in a way that is really artificial. For example, on Twitter, where you get just a tiny amount of space to talk. Which, as we’ve learned, has become really toxic.
[00:03:35] So, this was a long backstory to say I think what went wrong is that people who were designing these social networks were responding to a shift in business models, basically. These early things that I’m talking about, Usenet and Friendster and a lot of these other kind of first generation social networks, either they were barely monetized, or they were monetized in a way that wasn’t sustainable. Nobody knew how to make money on them. And so, including Myspace, right? Which just kind of died a sad death. But by the time we had things like Facebook, there was a sense that you could make money through getting people to look at ads or click on things. So, we’ve already gone through a whole phase of the internet where we kind of learned how to make money.
[00:04:29] So, the goal of the social network stopped being something like just getting people to join and it became engagement. We want people to be engaged because then they’ll look at ads, or they’ll click on brands. Or they’ll ultimately buy something to please the advertisers that we have. This is, of course, Google’s model as well on YouTube. And as soon as that happened, people designing these networks started designing them to keep people clicking and to keep people on the network. As opposed to earlier ones which often pointed people away. Like Slashdot, which is a very early community online, a community space. The whole point of Slashdot was to link you to something that wasn’t on Slashdot, basically. And that’s not a sustainable business model because everybody keeps leaving.
[00:05:14] I think you start to get these really addictive structures being designed. Deliberately designed. Information structures, information purveyors that are trying to get you addicted to the information on them.
Charlie Jane: [00:05:31] They just keep grabbing your attention. They keep bombarding you with stuff, with people saying the most outrageous things. Or people sharing really intense personal stuff. And you’re like, I can’t look away from that. So-and-so who I met that one time is having this really intense personal thing. I have to engage with that. So, it kind of draws you in in a weird way. And it draws you in using social cues, it draws you in using extreme content like I said. And it’s interesting, because part of the shift that happened is that social media used to exist alongside a robust non social media landscape, like. There were blogs. There were lots and lots and lots of media sites.
Annalee: [00:06:04] Although some people would call blogs social media.
Charlie Jane: [00:06:05] They were top-down. There was like the blogs and then the comments.
Annalee: [00:06:09] That’s right.
Charlie Jane: [00:06:09] And the line between blog and comments was very, very clearly delineated. And there were other newspaper websites, there were tons and tons of publications being started all the time. There were tons of other kinds of media that existed alongside social media and social media was kind of a supplement to those other kinds of media until, you know, roughly 2015-2016, when advertising imploded and traffic imploded for a lot of these non strictly social media websites and social media became kind of the whole show. And now it almost feels like the other way around. It feels like traditional media is a supplement to social media.
[00:06:42] Like, you read about people screwing about something on Twitter and then you go to the Washington Post to find out more details about what they’re screaming about, if you actually want to know more details. Which, maybe you don’t.
Annalee: [00:06:51] That was exactly what led to the biggest social media scandal of the era which is the scandal around election meddling on Facebook. Which is—election meddling is just a phrase that we’re using for a whole bunch of different things that were happening, ranging from actual deliberate manipulation from Russian operatives to just kind of cynical political propaganda from a range of sources but all of them were exploiting Facebook’s ability to let you share news in a clicky way, in an engaging way. So, you would get these fake, what we’re calling fake news stories alongside stories from the Washington Post or other sites that have a little more gatekeeping or fact checking involved in their publication process. And, I think people became bewildered by that and couldn’t—they were used to the idea that when news came to them from a source, that they trusted, that it would be relatively truthful. And that just completely, the bottom fell out of that. And so—
Charlie Jane: [00:08:04] Right.
Annalee: [00:08:04] —like you said, the distinction between s social media and traditional media just kind of evaporated.
Charlie Jane: [00:08:09] Yeah, and meanwhile, of course, Facebook was charging Donald Trump less for ads than it was Hilary Clinton because Donald Trump’s advertising was more engaging. It was more outrageous and more provocative and would make people kind of freak out and therefore spend more time looking at it and Facebook’s algorithm said, Donald Trump has to pay less for advertising because his ads drive more eyeballs on Facebook than Hilary Clinton’s which are probably being more careful to be accurate and to avoid freaking people out the way Donald Trump very gleefully did.
[00:08:42] And, you know, it’s interesting that, at the same time social media kind of collapsed the already kind of collapsing distinction between public figures and private individuals. It used to be that you could say anything about a public figure. Like, a sports star, a pop star, an actor, a politician, but people who were not already famous in some way had a certain degree of protection. And I feel like that’s just been collapsed. Everybody on Twitter is a public figure to some extent. If you say something dumb on Twitter. If somebody decides that something about you is objectionable, you can be subject to the same amount of scrutiny as like a famous person. And you can become famous—you can become infamous. And there is a plus side to it in the sense that even just a few years ago, I feel like Hollywood and a lot of public figures felt much more comfortable being kind of lowkey racist or lowkey offensive and just—
Annalee: [00:09:33] Or lowkey just terrible writers or terrible generators of policy.
Charlie Jane: [00:09:40] Yeah, and I think that there is a general awareness among policy makers and content creators that if you do say or so something kind of racist or obnoxious or offensive, you will be called on it and it could be really bad for you and it could actually hurt whatever you’re trying to do. And so, I think people, because of social media, because of the rise of social media, people are generally… try harder to avoid being dicks.
Annalee: [00:10:02] One of the things that makes media social and that enables this system of kind of ordinary people becoming celebrities really goes back to something super simple, which is comments. And, comments have been reviled and beloved since the very earliest days of social media. And, Anil Dash had a really interesting episode of his podcast called Function where he talked about the origins of social media with some of the people who were there. And Bruce Ableson who worked at Open Diary which was something sort of similar to LiveJournal talked about how he invented comments.
Bruce Ableson Clip: [00:10:39] The second night the site was live, I wrote the code for what we called notes then, which were comments. And it was the first time comments had been put at the bottom of a page of content, and I’m sorry about that.
Yeah, thanks. That worked out great.
You’re welcome. But, at the time, it was like, that was what made the site social because now suddenly you could talk back and forth to one another and conversations would evolve in the comment thread or the note thread that we were calling it then. And privacy evolved quickly after that.
Annalee: [00:11:09] And, of course, this is an example of convergent evolution. There were other sites that were also inventing comments. Some of them converted their guest book function into comment functions.
Charlie Jane: [00:11:20] Right.
Annalee: [00:11:20] It was something that as soon as social media was born in the form of these kind of journaling sites it became immediately obvious, and that’s why Bruce Ableson says, like, second day of the site being live he realized that they needed comments because it was just so obvious. But then, once the comments become as important as the original post, or even more important than the original post, I think that’s when you kind of get into modern social media. That’s—because social media really is a sea of comments. It’s not, I posted a journal entry and you make comments on it. It’s, you make a comment, I make a comment, you make a comment, I make a comment, and then it’s Twitter or Facebook and we can share things on there. And I think it’s great that at the end of that comment, you know, Bruce says, “I’m really sorry.”
Charlie Jane: [00:12:09] Yeah.
Annalee: [00:12:11] Sorry for inventing comments. But then the very next thing that he mentions is, and out of that comment system, they involved a privacy system. In the case of Open Diary, it had to do with who could see your comments and who you would allow to comment on your stuff. And that’s the earliest version of the kind of Byzantine privacy controls or lack of privacy controls that Facebook has where you can share certain kinds of information with different people and none of it really works. But, it’s interesting that privacy issues seem wedded to social media from the very beginning. There’s something built into that structure that makes us wonder about privacy and who should listen to us. And, like I said, I think this fits in with the celebrity or the notoriety questions. Who gets to see your private life and kind of spectate you and treat you like somebody to be consumed like a movie star even though you’re just like, their neighbor or like, their colleague. Or whatever.
[00:13:07] So, really, now we’re in this landscape where many of us are entangled in social media. Our politics are entangled in social media. We’ve had these horrific kind of information apocalypse moments with like the Cambridge Analytica scandle on Facebook. Ongoing problems on Google. Terrifying things happening on YouTube. We don’t have decent ways of regulating abuse on these systems. There’s algorithmic solutions that don’t work.
Charlie Jane: [00:13:36] And, actual mass murder has been kind of linked to social media. Like, over and over again, from the genocides in Myanmar to the shooter in New Zealand.
Annalee: [00:13:47] That’s right. We’re seeing violence in the real world erupting out of these so-called peaceful meetings, comment sessions in social media. Now, going into the upcoming presidential election, you have people like Elizabeth Warren saying, we need to regulate social media. We need to use anti-monopoly laws to disassociate platforms from content. She really took aim at Amazon in some of her stump speeches, but she also kind of wraps Google and Facebook into that. She thinks that the purveyor of the information should not also be the provider of the information.
Charlie Jane: [00:14:22] Right.
Annalee: [00:14:22] It’s going to be hard to codify that in law but I think she’s picking up on a zeitgeist that really exists. That people feel like it needs to be regulated. Here in California, where we’re recording this, we just passed a law that’s a data privacy law that regulates any company—and think about this. Any company that is making more than 50% of its revenue on selling personal data. So, there are enough companies out there that are doing that. More than 50% of their revenue is coming from that. That we need a law to regulate them. And what the law says is that consumers have the right to know what data is being harvested and they also have the right to opt out. So they have the right to tell the company to stop harvesting and selling that data. So, sorry, the company can continue to harvest the data, but they can’t sell it. Because they may need that data to do some kind of functionality, but they can’t give it to a third party.
[00:15:15] So, this is a huge political question and we’re just kind of at the beginning of trying to solve it.
Charlie Jane: [00:15:24] Yeah, and some of it does come down to whether social media companies should be regulated like media companies. Like, we have all these complicated rules about like, how many newspapers you can own in a particular area. In theory, there’s supposed to be two competing newspapers in every city, which, good luck with that. You’re not allowed to own like more than a certain percentage of TV stations in a particular market. And there’s all these rules that have evolved over decades regulating the percentage of media that you can own and none of them are being applied to Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, Google, whoever else. Those companies have like, basically zero oversight and zero controls over their reach. And they’re also kind of still not treated as publishers. They still have all these like, loopholes under the DMCA and the CDA which basically allow them to wash their hands say, well it’s not our problem. We’re just providing a platform, which is an increasingly bogus rationalization.
Annalee: [00:16:17] It really is. Especially because a lot of them have solicited relationships with media companies so that they can be hosting some media. So, I think what we’re seeing when we talk about social media in real life, oftentimes we—many newspaper articles, many commentators describe it as kind of a science fictional world that we’re in. And there’s several reasons why we call it science fictional. One is this weird idea, this kind of Andy Warhol idea that we’ll all be famous for 15 minutes in the future.
Charlie Jane: [00:16:46] The future.
Annalee: [00:16:46] And we now are in that future where anyone can really become either famous or notorious for a short time, or even a long time. Even if the’re just ordinary people. There’s also the fact that there are all these data brokers who are taking our personal information and doing who the hell knows what, maybe building an AI with it. In fact, in may cases, they are building AIs with it. So there’s that. And then there’s this final piece, which is that our media is becoming super extra manipulative. It’s basically becoming like mind control at this point. We have all these examples now of political manipulation, but of course Facebook has done experiments trying to lift people’s moods by showing them certain kinds of content and so, we know now that we live in this science fictional landscape. But, what’s really interesting is when we actually turn to science fiction, the stories we’re telling are not quite the same ones that we’re telling in the real world.
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Charlie Jane: [00:17:57] So, what does science fiction say about social media and how did science fiction predict the world of social media that we’re living in now?
Annalee: [00:18:05] So, we don’t have a lot of science fiction that predicted ssocial media as such, as we experience it now. There is a lot of science fiction, however, that predicted the kind of celebrity culture that has grown out of social media—
Charlie Jane: [00:18:21] Right.
Annalee: [00:18:21] And this is what was super interesting to me as I was thinking about stories now, science fictional stories or semi-science fictional stories about social media, the all, not all of them, but most of them are about the horror of celebrity or kind of the things that go along with celebrity. So, let’s start by tuning into a very important work of science fiction, the MeowMeowBeenz episode of Community.
Community Clip: [00:18:50] MeowMeowBeenz lets you say how much you like, who you like, when you like, all from a standard non-boost mobile phone. Let’s see how it works? Pixel, what did you think of the way the dean introduced us?
I thought he did great. That’s why I’m giving him five MeowMeowBeenz.
Well, Bixel, I’m sorry, but I thought his intro was just okay. That’s why I’m gonna give him two out of five MeowMeowBeenz.
With MeowMeowBeenz, students can rate teachers. Teachers can rate students. Everyone and anyone can rate each other. MeowMeowBeenz.
Annalee: [00:19:31] So that is a very famous clip from the show where these guys invent an app called MeowMeowBeenz and it’s an app for rating other people. And as a result of this app being released at the community college, they turn into this kind of Logan’s Run-esque dystopia where they’re all performing for each other and trying to gain more MeowMeowBeenz, and if you have five beenz you get to live in this like, beautiful world of like weird dancing and wearing leotards. And if you’re—if you only have one been, you get cast into the outer lands, which again, is kind of a Logan’s Run reference. And so, this is getting to the heart, I think, of the thing that science fiction is most obsessed with, which I would call rating culture.
[00:20:14] Rating culture comes up constantly in Black Mirror. The series from British satirist Charlie Brooker which has had a number of seasons with short stories in them about all different facets of social media, including people being obsessed with getting, basically more MeowMeowBeenz, or more Whuffie if you want to use the Cory Doctorow version.
Charlie Jane: [00:20:38] Yeah, and like, in Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, he develops this elaborate reputation economy where people gain or lose Whuffie, which is kind of reputation points. That basically determines their quality of life and determines how they’re treated in society, and you can ping someone else’s Whuffie and find out if they’re popular or not popular. And it is very similar to MeowMeowBeenz in a way. And in his more recent novel, Walkaway, he kind of shows the beginnings of that because you have this nice cooperative economy where everybody’s just working together and nobody’s judging anybody, but then these people show up and they’re like, well. What if we have a reputation economy, and it’s kind of like it’s this horrible thing that’s being introduced that you know is eventually going to take over everything.
Annalee: [00:21:19] Dark, dystopia.
Charlie Jane: [00:21:21] Yeah.
Annalee: [00:21:21] And, one of my favorite Black Mirror episodes, which is actually movie-length, is called Hated in the Nation. And it’s about a lot of things. But at its heart it’s about an app that an evil disruptive hacker invents which allows people to vote on who they would like to see murdered.
Black Mirror Clip: [00:21:46] One. Pick a target.
Oh my God.
Two. Post their name and photo with hashtag #deathto
Three. Most popular target will be eliminated after five PM each day.
Four. Game resets at midnight.
Annalee: [00:21:46] This combines some of what we were talking before about the fear that violence will erupt out of social media, but also just the inherent horror of rating systems like that. Because this is the ultimate rating system where people are essentially doing the old Roman thumbs up or thumbs down thing.
Charlie Jane: [00:22:22] Right.
Annalee: [00:22:22] And, the story begins with a journalist who is just your kind of classic Huffington Post or Slate journalist who writes stories that are just basically intended to get hate clicks. She takes these very counter intuitive positions to piss people off. So, lots of people hate her, but she’s very valuable to her company because she gets lots and lots of MeowBeenz because people are constantly clicking. And, people want her dead. And then it goes through some politicians. And of course our main characters have to solve it and figure out why all this is happening.
[00:23:02] But, I think that what is happening in this episode is just yet another example of this fear of what if we are all basically celebrities and we’re all constantly rating each other and kind of consuming each other, not as people but as kind of products. You know, you get between one and five stars for your performance and the comedy drama Ingrid Goes West gives that a realistic spin where the main character Ingrid is a wannabe Instagram star and goes to LA to join, basically, the Instagram elite, and so we get this glimpse of the horrifying. And it’s a very heightened reality movie. And she eventually gets involved in violence, again.
Charlie Jane: [00:23:47] It goes a little bit crazy, yeah.
Annalee: [00:23:49] Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:23:49] And it’s Aubrey Plaza, who’s amazing.
Annalee: [00:23:52] Yeah, she plays Ingrid and it’s really interesting. And then, I think, we get this other strand in our pop culture about social media that looks at how celebrity results in things like stalking and people you don’t know being able to find out a bunch of stuff about you the way traditionally stalkers did in the olden times. But now, it’s super easy and the recent Lifetime series, You, which then went on to be on Netflix is all about that. It’s about a guy who’s stalking a woman online and here’s a little clip of him talking about that.
You Clip: [00:24:30] Hello there. Who are you?
Everyone just calls me Beth.
And there you were. Every account set to public. You want to be seen. Heard. Known. Of course, I obliged.
Annalee: [00:24:45] This was a huge hit show on Netflix, I think, because it felt so real. And—
Charlie Jane: [00:24:53] It’s so creepy.
Annalee: [00:24:53] Yeah, it’s so creepy, and like Ingrid Goes West, there’s ultimately a ton of violence associated with this. And I think that You is the show that when I was watching it first made me think about this idea of data rape because there’s a fear I think, in real life, that companies are taking our personal data and using it against us. And in You, that gets literalized as sexual assault. Like, this, getting access to this woman’s data, and he figures out all these ways to get access to data that she thinks is private. Ends up in this incredibly screwed up relationship, which is assaultive and so there’s this kind of… there’s this allegory there where sexual assault and tracking someone’s personal data are kind of shown to be part of the same problem. Part of the same crime.
[00:25:49] And then, there’s also… I had to mention the movie Unfriended because it’s another kind of part of this genre where a teenage girl is filmed at a party and—in the middle of doing a bunch of stuff, like sexual stuff and drinking. And it’s posted online, and it’s basically like, revenge porn posted and so she kills herself. And then a year later she comes back and she haunts her friend’s Skype call. And I just love it because it’s your classic like ghostly revenge story but it’s revenge for revenge porn.
Charlie Jane: [00:26:27] Wow.
Annalee: [00:26:27] And again, I think revenge porn is part of that celebrity fear. Like, if anyone can be a celebrity, anyone can be victimized in the same way celebrities are with sex tapes, basically.
Charlie Jane: [00:26:38] Right, right. And part of what’s so seductive about social media that I think science fiction grapples with and has been grappling with since the beginning of social media is this kind of faux intimacy. The idea that like, if we know someone one social media they’re our “friend” even if we’ve never met them in person or only met them briefly. And, you know, we know what they ate for breakfast. We know what their cat looks like. We see pictures of everything that they do. They share all of their intimate inner stuff, or at least that’s how it appears. And that kind of faux intimacy and faux kind of connection to people can turn creepy. And I think that’s the knife’s edge that a lot of media depictions of social media kind of ride on is the kind of—that line between the nice, oh yeah, this person, I really feel like I “know who they really are” because I know their social media persona. Versus the thing of like, yeah, now I’m just going to be your best friend forever. I’m going to be your best friend.
Annalee: [00:27:35] And the other side of that is that rating culture. The judging and the, you deserve to die part of it.
Charlie Jane: [00:27:40] Right.
Annalee: [00:27:40] And I think that’s why there’s always this kind of violence or sexual assault metaphor working along side these other stories. And sometimes it’s a metaphor and sometimes it’s actually happening in the story.
Charlie Jane: [00:27:53] And I’m going to just point out the obvious, which is that the people making these stories, especially for Hollywood, are generally people who are in the public eye, who are in the spotlight. It’s just like how pop stars always make songs about how they’re treated in the press and being followed and what it’s like to be on tour. You know, people creating media narratives about ssocial media are going to focus on the part that’s about kind of being in the public spotlight and being examined and being scrutinized because that’s their experience of social media as people who are content creators who are already in for a high level of scrutiny, but it’s heightened now under social media.
Annalee: [00:28:31] That’s a really good point. And it’s funny because I think that the precursors to these kinds of stories, including Black Mirror, don’t come from science fiction but come from movies and books about the horror of Hollywood, so. I was thinking about, for example, Barton Fink, which actually is a little bit of a fantasy. But also things like Sunset Boulevard. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Day of the Locust, which is an amazing novel. I really recommend you check it out. It’s all—it was written kind of at the dawn of Hollywood fandom culture in the ‘30s and it reads just like fandom culture now. It’s amazing. And of course it ends with Hollywood—this is not a spoiler—well, actually… There is a—I’m not going to give you the spoiler. It ends with an apocalypse.
[00:29:14] The question I have to kind of finish out this conversation about social media and science fiction is why are we not seeing science fiction that is grappling with all of the issues we were discussing earlier? About basically data brokering, privacy invasion… there’s tons of science fiction that kind of has this scenario.
Clip: [00:29:34] You are being watched. The government has a secret system. A machine that spies on you every hour of every day.
Annalee: [00:29:44] That was from Person of Interest, and that’s about surveillance from the government. From cameras on the street. It’s not—sure, there’s social media kind of in there, but that’s not really about social media surveillance or data brokering.
Charlie Jane: [00:29:57] Yeah, in that opening sequence, where we see the people and he says, you are being watched, we do see somebody maybe texting or tweeting, I would kill for that job. And so, that’s part of what’s being surveilled but the main thing is CCTV, and I think, as new and scary and weird as social media is, the ubiquity of CCTV cameras everywhere is also kind of new and weird and it’s something that we’ve been grappling with at the same time. It’s also much easier to dramatize surveillance through cameras. Like, especially in any kind of visual medium. Like, showing somebody, like, staring at a screen and looking through tweets or whatever is not as cinematic as having a wall of CCTV feeds or whatever, like in the Batman movie or whatever.
Annalee: [00:30:37] I feel like the show—I feel like the series You did a pretty good job with kind of making that exciting. But it was at a personal level. It wasn’t about how all of our privacy is being violated by corporations, it’s like, just the one creepy dude who is stalking her.
Charlie Jane: [00:30:50] Right. Yeah, and we do see occasional things where people use social media for surveillance purposes. Sometimes for good like in the TV show The Flash, Cisco codes some kind of an app which enables him to scan all of social media so that when a supervillain attacks, he can know instantly because someone’s tweeting or Facebooking about it. Help, I’m being attacked by a supervillain, you know.
Annalee: [00:31:13] I was thinking like, the closest thing we have to science fiction that deals with the kind of data brokering fear is actually Minority Report where we see that classic kind of surveillance where we’re watching Tom Cruise walking through the high tech city and he’s being surveilled by cameras and drones and things like that. But, he walks through a mall and he’s also getting these personalized ad like the Gap, which I’m sure paid to be in there. The Gap is like, Hello! Welcome back, would you like your size 30 jeans? How are you today? So, we see that personal data from his shopping data trail that he’s left online is completely connected with state surveillance and so there’s that moment where we see the two things together and it is really frickin’ creepy. But it’s super rare that we see a really fleshed out story that is kind of dramatizing an event like, say, a company getting all of your personal details and using that to persuade you to elect someone for president.
Charlie Jane: [00:32:18] Right.
Annalee: [00:32:18] I mean, maybe there’s conspiracy stories from the ‘70s that dramatize that, not in a science fictional way, and also not with social media, but I’m just saying, like, there’s stories about propaganda but there’s not—I’m just, I’m waiting for some science fiction to really grapple with that terror that we’re grappling with now in our politics that social media companies have all this personal data on us and are using it to create some really terrible biased algorithm or to predict what we’re gonna do. Which is in itself creepy.
Charlie Jane: [00:32:53] Yeah, it’s hard to get to the level of dystopia in fiction that we have in real life now where, for example, when we went to Cambodia, we heard that people were being arrested for just liking the wrong thing on Facebook, and that would be enough to get you locked up.
Annalee: [00:33:07] And Cambodia is not the only place where that happens. Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:33:10] And that level of dystopia is actually kind of next level. It’s beyond most of what we’re seeing in fiction right now and I think that it’s hard to kind of get beyond that. I think Charlie Stross has tried in some of his books to kind of show how much weirder things can get than they already are but I think that he’s been kind of declaring defeat in that because things get terrible faster than he can invent new ways that things can get terrible.
Annalee: [00:33:34] Yeah, Hannu Rajaniemi in his Quantum Thief series, in the first book has this city on—I want to say it’s on Mars? It’s called the Oubliette, and everyone’s memory in this city is saved to the cloud and so you can remember lots more stuff than you would with just your meatsack. And every time that people have an interaction, they have a negotiation over who’s going to be allowed to remember what is said. And so, it’s this hyper privacy aware space which assumes that basically all of the rules of ssocial media that we have are just like, part of everyday life. Like, literally anything you say to anyone could be saved and used and reused and so, in order to talk to someone, you have to negotiate, like, are you going to be allowed to tell anyone else about this conversation? Are you going be allowed to remember it? Can you broadcast it widely? Can you remember it for an hour? Can you remember it just for the amount of time needed to sign a contract? And so, each interaction has privacy controls built into it. It’s kind of like going back to that thing about comments requiring privacy, and so—
Charlie Jane: [00:34:41] Right.
Annalee: [00:34:42] So, basically, that’s their entire life. So that’s, I think, that’s an example of the kind of thought experiment I would like to see more of in science fiction. Dealing with how do we solve this problem where everybody is a potential notorious scum or amazing celebrity and how do we control how people use our personal information?
Charlie Jane: [00:35:03] Yeah, and another interesting story about, like, ssocial media being used in a way to surveil people or in a way kind of predict them, is Caprica, the Battlestar Galactica spinoff.
Annalee: [00:35:15] Oh, yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:35:15] Where, basically, you have these two girls who both get turned into like—they both die and get turned into cyber avatars or whatever, in VR. And the first one of them, I think Zoey Greenstone is her name, she creates her own virtual avatar by basically scanning her own brain waves, I think, and by basically putting everything of herself into the machine so that the avatar of her that’s created is an exact copy of her brain in cyberspace and her body, and everything.
Annalee: [00:35:42] But it is cobbled together from her social media.
Charlie Jane: [00:35:45] But then, the second girl who is killed without having a chance to scan her brainwaves or do anything, she’s just retroactively created. Like, her avatar is retroactively recreated after she’s already dead and there’s nothing to salvage of her meat brain. So, all they do is scan all of her social media posts and they take every single post she ever did on social media, throw it into this algorithm and boop, you’ve got, like, an avatar of her in virtual reality that is incredibly accurate to who she was as a person. And one of the conceits of the show is that that’s as good as scanning her brainwaves. Like, taking her social media posts and just smooshing them through the algorithm—
Annalee: [00:36:21] Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:36:21] —will result in an accurate rendering of her as a person.
Annalee: [00:36:25] Whereas the Black Mirror episode—
Charlie Jane: [00:36:28] Right!
Annalee: [00:36:28] —about exactly the same thing is very much troubling that idea, and we see how when this woman’s husband dies, she’s super lonely for him and this company kind of preys on her loneliness and says, oh well, we can recreate your husband from his social media posts and you can like, talk to him on the phone and text with him.
Charlie Jane: [00:36:48] Right.
Annalee: [00:36:48] And, we’ve already seen, in that episode, how the self that he projects on social media is not who he really is? Like, his self on social media is always funny, always happy, always on. His real life self, he’s like moody and occasionally romantic and like, messy. And so the person that she’s getting from his social media is not really him. You know, it’s this kind of curated celebrity version of him. And so, we see how that would ultimately fail. But of course in Caprica the fantasy is that it wouldn’t. And maybe that’s because they have so much more ubiquitous social media that everything she ever said is available to them.
Charlie Jane: [00:37:28] They’re already inventing Cylons, so their social media has to be pretty freaking good, I guess.
Annalee: [00:37:31] Maybe. I mean.
Charlie Jane: [00:37:34] I don’t know.
Annalee: [00:37:34] See, is there—see, I think that. Maybe we can end by thinking about this. Is social media kind of an inevitable technological development or is this just—are we basically in the technological communication equivalent of like, medicine with leeches? Like, everyone’s going to look back on this and be like why the fuck did you do that?
Charlie Jane: [00:37:55] Why did you put everything online? Why did you put all of your everything you were doing, everything you were thinking, why did you just put it all out there in this, like, unmediated way? I used to think about what’s the next social media thing that’s going to replace Twitter and Facebook when they inevitably die and there’s going to be some other form of social media that’s going to come along and replace Twitter and Facebook, and increasingly, I think of it in terms of what’s going to replace social media? Like, what are we going to have that’s instead of social media, because I feel like—
Annalee: [00:38:24] Not what’s gonna replace, like… Friendster was replaced by Facebook, and not like that. But like, literally, all social media just goes away.
Charlie Jane: [00:38:32] Yeah, or becomes marginalized or becomes a thing… like, Usenet still exists, I guess, but nobody uses it very much anymore. What’s the next thing that’s going to replace social media and are we going to find a different format that enables us to have more siloed conversations, more layers of privacy for our interactions? More kind of just ability to interact without quite so much nakedness, I guess? And without quite so much—
Annalee: [00:39:00] The bad kind of nakedness.
Charlie Jane: [00:39:01] Yeah, the bad kind of nakedness.
Annalee: [00:39:02] Not the happy kind of nakedness.
Charlie Jane: [00:39:03] The kind of like, naked in public and everybody’s pointing at you nakedness, kind of.
Annalee: [00:39:08] Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:39:08] I don’t know what form that’s gonna take. I feel like that is a kind of futurism I would be very interested in seeing and that’s the kind of science fiction I’d be very interested in seeing. After people finally get sick of Facebook and Twitter, what does come after that and what kinds of models will people come up with? And I think part of it is, obviously Facebook and Twitter existed before the smart phone but the smart phone is part of what made them as supreme as they are now. So, it’s also just trying to imagine what the next technological, the next device we have that kind of is the post smart phone device that we use to interact.
Annalee: [00:39:40] And I think that is the key because the issue with social media, I think, is less how much information we’re putting online although that is a whole issue, but it’s how that information is being organized and displayed and how little control we have over that.
Charlie Jane: [00:40:00] Right.
Annalee: [00:40:00] I think the real horror of places like Facebook and YouTube and Twitter and many others that we could name is that we give them all of this valuable data, we give them our selves and then it’s displayed back at other people through these creepy filters. Through these, you know, ways of organizing the information to make all of us appear a certain way, or to—
Charlie Jane: [00:40:27] Without the same context, yeah.
Annalee: [00:40:29] Without context and also we’re encouraged to engage in activity with each other that isn’t necessarily natural. The whole idea of engagement. The whole idea of clicking and what does a click mean versus a share. All of those are things that we are being encouraged to do that no one’s really sure what they mean and companies are interpreting them to mean people like this. If they share it, they must like it.
Charlie Jane: [00:40:55] Or they don’t care if people like it or not as long as they share it, you know.
Annalee: [00:40:58] That’s right and I think there’s not enough fine-grained understanding. Basically what we need are a giant passel of sociologists and political scientists to be helping to design these kinds of public spaces. We need somebody who is an expert in democracy, for example, to go to Facebook. Or maybe, like, a thousand people who are experts in democracy.
Charlie Jane: [00:41:19] A thousand at least, yeah.
Annalee: [00:41:20] To be regulating this. It shouldn’t be something that people who have an expertise exclusively in software development are planning. Because, you know? You can design software that is terrific and it could be an antisocial nightmare like Facebook. It’s a brilliantly designed antisocial nightmare.
Charlie Jane: [00:41:40] Right.
Annalee: [00:41:40] And, if they’d had people from the beginning who understood how human culture works they might have had… well, they might have had a worse nightmare.
Charlie Jane: [00:41:48] Right?
Annalee: [00:41:48] But they probably would have gotten something a little bit better.
Charlie Jane: [00:41:52] Yeah, and I think that, you know, possibly with virtual reality, possibly with other kinds of breakthroughs, we may come up with ways of intereacting that are more empathic. That enable us to understand who we’re talking to as a person, not just like as a blip that we can—
Annalee: [00:42:08] A collection of decontextualized statements.
Charlie Jane: [00:42:11] Yeah, exactly. And, you know, either something that has us interacting in a more holistic way than just through statements. Or something that pushes us back into interacting in person. And you know, you and I think, have both been listening a lot to that La Tigre song, “Get Off the Internet” because it is a powerful statement of like, get out into the real world and interact with people in the real world because those interactions. I don’t know, long before we had social media I found that when I talked to people online we would have misunderstandings. We would get our dander up. We would get into communication black holes and as soon as I saw the person in meat space we sorted it out in like 30 seconds because it was just a product of communicating without all those other signals. So, we need to find ways to put those other signals back into the interaction.
Annalee: [00:42:59] And, like you said, we need to get off the internet and meet up with people in real life.
Charlie Jane: [00:43:05] Get off the internet!
Annalee: [00:43:07] Yeah. I mean, not to say that meeting online doesn’t lead to amazing friendships. We need both.
Charlie Jane: [00:43:12] Yeah.
Annalee: [00:43:12] You can have your online friends but you’ve gotta have offline friends. And hopefully there’s some overlap. Hopefully we can encourage friendship to spill out as opposed to violence to spill out from these social networks.
[00:43:24] You’ve been listening to Our Opinions Are Correct. You can find us on all of your favorite podcast places. Please review us on Apple Podcasts because that helps people find the podcast. You can follow us on Twitter at @OOACpod. And, we have a Patreon and we would love it if you would consider supporting us. Any amount helps. We prefer Gold Latinum but if you must give us some other form of currency, that’s totally fine. And we record all of our episodes at Women’s Audio Mission with our awesome producer Veronica Simonetti.
Charlie Jane: [00:44:02] Yay!
Annalee: [00:44:02] Yay Veronica! And, thank you to Chris Palmer for providing the music.
Charlie Jane: [00:44:07] And thanks for listening! See you in a couple weeks. Bye!
Annalee: [00:44:09] Bye!
[00:44:09] Outro music plays. Drums with a bass line including bass drops.