You know those Facebook posts that you think better of and delete before posting? Facebook records them.
You read that right. They also hate them, because in censoring yourself they take a direct hit to their bottom line, calling it lost advertising content.
Instead Facebook wants you to express yourself unfettered, posting all your private wants, desires and needs, the better to find advertisers and companies to meet them. When you stop for a moment to censor yourself you may prevent them from doing so. You make Mark Zuckerberg sad.
In his inspirational and sometimes troubling new book "More Awesome Than Money" (Viking), Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer, 57, charts what happens when a group of idealistic young computer hackers decide they want to create an alternative social network, one that instead gives users the power to decide what information is shared about them online.
On the face of it it seems like such a simple idea, but in practice it’s revolutionary. In an Internet age where most people click “accept” on terms and services before they even reflect on the privacy they’re surrendering, to build a social network that puts the consumer rather than the corporations in charge is about the most radical thing you can do.
But Dwyer’s timely new book didn’t come about as a rabble-rousing call to arms. Instead it arrived the way many positive life changes do, as a result of listening to his wife.
“My wife Cathy was getting ready to do her doctoral studies in computer science and information systems and she decided to write about privacy management on Facebook and (the now defunct) MySpace,” Dwyer tells the Irish Voice.
At the time – around 2005 – it was a prophetic and visionary project and she was one of the first in the field.
“In the beginning she wrote about how many tracking bugs there were on the 10 most popular websites,” Dwyer explains. “Then she found out how many they would put into your computer. She made me very aware of this larger ecosystem of surveillance.”
Being Irish, one of Dwyer’s favorite novel titles is Brinsley MacNamara’s "Valley of the Squinting Windows," the notorious 1918 book about the dangerous and destructive power of gossip. In a way the Internet has replaced the small Irish village as the place where individual privacy is constantly invaded for the benefit of others, he suggests.
“It’s staggering what has happened in the past 15 years,” says Dwyer. “We’re witnessing the collapse of cultural mores that have existed for centuries about privacy. If you go onto the web now you’re in the valley of the squinting windows. With every turn you’re being watched, and more than that you’re almost being colonized.”
In the book Dwyer quotes the ever complacent Mark Zuckerburg: “It’s a f***ing land grab,” he tells a Facebook employee.
Own the medium and in a sense you own the man. Facebook started out as a college Internet page, but by 2014 it has colonized cyberspace.
“Cathy’s discoveries were remarkable – and they were also contagious. She first brought the Diaspora group (the subject of Dwyer’s new book) to my attention,” Dwyer recalls.
“They were four college kids all aged about 20 who were interested in building an alternative to Facebook. She was at a privacy seminar at NYU and someone had said, ‘Wow, these kids just doubled their Kickstarter goal – they wanted $10,000 but they got $20,000.’”
It turned out there were countless well-heeled backers looking for an alternative to the glass houses that Facebook users must live in. And that’s how Dwyer encountered the four remarkable young men behind the new social network Diaspora and their valiant attempt to take privacy back from the machine.
“They had very distinct personalities,” says Dwyer. “Dan Grippi had a terrific eye for design. He was also a striking looking guy who worked as a model. Max Salzberg was an entrepreneurial backslapping business type who got an enormous amount done on the logistics of the thing.
“Raphael Sofaer despite being the youngest was the most clear-headed of them. And their inspirational charismatic evangelizer was Ilya Zhitomirskiy, who was a Russian émigré, a maths prodigy, a competitive ballroom dancer, a dumpster diver, a hang glider, a radical thinker and in my layman’s opinion a manic-depressive. He was so engaging and overwhelmingly present in his interactions with people that most of them were unaware of his darkness.”
The pressures of the project – a David vs. Goliath struggle that included the inner turmoil of nerdy undergraduates and a huge degree of public scrutiny – found its way to Ilya’s weak spots, which were pretty serious, says Dwyer. Unfortunately he took his life in November of 2011.
“I wasn’t going to write a book about a boy killing himself. It was devastating to everyone associated with him. It was not a subject I was capable of writing on usefully,” Dwyer says.
“I essentially abandoned the book for a while and then the remaining guys picked it up again and eventually turned it over to a community of free software hackers, who are continuing to build and iterate on it. Diaspora is still live in at least the nerd world and one day may emerge to the rest of us non-nerds.”
What finally dawned on Dwyer as he wrote about the rise and fall of Diaspora and the four brilliant young men who made it happen is that we are still in the Big Bang moment of the digital universe.
“Where things are going to end up we don’t know yet,” he explains. “It’s evolving at warp speed. To draw too much panic or despair from the conditions of this moment is the wrong lesson. Because things will change. MySpace was an internet juggernaut 10 years ago. It doesn’t even exist anymore.”
Dwyer says he is not predicting the demise of Facebook in 10 years, but he does think there will soon be social networks that will be much more discreet.
“Discreet in terms of your ability to maintain a semblance of privacy. It’s clear from the initial response to the Diaspora project that human nature has not changed. We still want to have control over who we say we are and how others see us.”
And it seems especially appropriate that an Irish American has written this celebration and threnody for a high water moment in American cultural life, one that is as irrecoverable now as MySpace or Atlantis, since gifted Irish American writers have been doing this for centuries.
The ability to see the little guys’ progress in a system that ranges to consume him is a distinct cultural inheritance, after all.
“My parents emigrated in the late 1940s,” he explains. “Money was the thing that drove their emigration and it was tight, but they showed me it was not what life was about. They didn’t judge people based on their wealth or possessions, perhaps because they had very little themselves.
“I was one of four brothers and I think they were able to raise us in Manhattan without any sense that we didn’t belong there. We lived between Park and Madison Avenues on 95th Street, yards away from the grandees of Park Avenue and the stately homes of Fifth Avenue, but we never felt that this was anything but our own place.”
When his parents moved out in 2002 the rent was still under $500 for their small rent controlled three-bedroom apartment.
“The fabric (of Manhattan) had a lot more threads then. Not to get nostalgic in any way, but our economic status didn’t shape our own sense that we were integral to it.”
So neither Facebook or Twitter or any other mighty social network will withstand his Irish capacity to determine himself. It turns out there really are things more awesome than money.
Dwyer’s new book is a curtain raiser for the restoration of our privacy. A revolution that’s overdue.