For many of us who routinely use the Internet, our lives extend into online social spaces. A handful of social media platforms play a major role in daily online activities. Young people tell us that they ‘cease to exist socially’ if they do not have a Facebook profile. They speak of an inability to maintain relationships when they leave the site. Users from a wide range of age groups stress similar problems, claiming that opting out is not always an option. Still, there are certainly those who have abstained from social media, some of whom admit feeling ostracized or worry about staying connected to younger family members. Increasingly, our online presence can also be vital from a professional perspective and, for many organizations, it is simply impossible to avoid.
Yet, popular social media platforms are not merely spaces for socializing and networking. The social space offered is embedded within a corporate space and ‘governed’ by a group of executives, staff members and even outsourced employees who interpret Terms of Service documents and police users accordingly. Consider the following examples from Facebook: images featuring women breastfeeding and men kissing have been removed from the site, while pages promoting Holocaust denial and rape have not. Public outrage and mainstream news coverage about interpretations of these policies is commonplace, with an underlying message that social media platforms should be responsive to public concerns and desires. What’s more, it seems that many implicitly expect corporate social responsibility.
Certainly the fact that so many people are surprised to find offensive and inappropriate content on social media platforms speaks volumes. First, this means that the public is fiercely invested in online social spaces. Second, their surprise is linked to the widespread, yet erroneous, assumption that online and offline spaces are mutually exclusive. Our online lives are intimately connected and embedded within our offline lives. When our social media feeds reveal that a party occurred and we were not invited, it can impact our offline interactions. When female bloggers are endlessly targeted by misogynistic trolls spewing hateful and threatening abuse (consider, for instance, the #mencallmethings campaign), they are emotionally impacted. When teenagers attend a sleepover and stay up late, huddled around a computer screen, group dynamics can provoke uncharacteristic comments, leaving unsuspecting targets wounded.
It is important that we are informed and mindful of the corporate bedrock upon which our interactions occur. Social media platforms are not created in a vacuum. The standpoint of developers inevitably influences a platform’s trajectory. There has been a great deal of publicity surrounding Facebook, with a Hollywood movie and two best-selling novels illuminating developer Mark Zuckerberg and the popular narrative surrounding Facebook’s beginnings. A clearly gendered context is constructed that includes a number of programs developed by Zuckerberg in the lead-up to Facebook that enabled his users to effectively stalk fellow classmates or rate appearances in a ‘hot or not’ competition. Of course ‘creeping’ and ‘stalking’ have since become commonly accepted norms on Facebook, not to mention ‘fraping’ (‘Facebook-raping’: falsely impersonating a user).
Zuckerberg and his colleagues frequently declare that the mission of their corporation is to make the world more open and connected. While this may be the case, it is a perspective that does not take into account the specific needs of their heterogeneous users. Consider the following example: users are frequently shown a list of other users in a box labeled ‘People You May Know;’ while the algorithm is based on the sharing of mutual friends, survivors of violence have noted that their attacker has suddenly appeared, severely impacting their experience. Certainly Zuckerberg’s ‘mission’ is advantageous to the political economy of Facebook – low privacy settings lead to more opportunities to expand one’s network, which equates to more reasons to log on and more opportunities to collect and sell user data and targeted advertisements. Despite a lack of consent from users, it makes sense that Facebook’s ever-changing privacy policies reset users’ settings to defaults that favored minimum controls (until public outcry interfered).
Social media platforms offer interactive social spaces but, crucially, they do so while maintaining a profit orientation. We should not be surprised to hear about cyberbullying or abusive partners expanding their control through social media. What we can do is work to embed the online world into our conversations about root causes, just as it is embedded in our lives. We can also advocate for and migrate towards social media platforms that offer us the same networking capabilities while allowing us to take control of our data and our social spaces.
Rena Bivens is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow and an Adjunct Professor in the Pauline Jewett Institute of Women’s and Gender Studies.