A new social media aggregate—Onto—is poised to redefine your view of digital popularity. It automatically aggregates your entire online existence into one place, creating beautiful visual overviews of your social standing. The data comes from every online service where you or your posts have received a rating, including FaceBook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Tumblr, and Tinder.
Our population has now passed the 7.6 billion mark. We are living in a ubiquitously cross-global culture and an often-toxic online environment. We are in desperate need to know others in as complete—and rapid—way as possible, and for that information to be updated and available in real time.
The Harvey Weinsteins and Roy Moores won’t fix themselves, and a less toxic, friendlier society won’t happen overnight. However, we can make positive steps forward by integrating ongoing accountability and positive recognition into our online social interactions. That’s precisely the reason behind the creation of Onto. Every like contributes to your overall reputation score, and every troll-identified comment is flagged as a mark against its poster. Think of it as a credit score, but for social interaction, that becomes reviewed when you ask someone out on a date, apply for your next job, or ask for a mortgage.
The above is a piece of speculative fiction. It’s meant to provoke a response, whether it’s discomfort, excitement, or fear. It’s a thought experiment that’s been gaining momentum, finding space in industrial design graduate projects and popular entertainment. In a Black Mirror episode called Nosedive, we observe a desperate woman’s attempts at boosting her social media score so she can get a better apartment. In a recent episode of the Orville, the crew are ordered to investigate the disappearance of two scientists researching Sargus Four, a planet very similar to 21st century Earth. They discover a society with no formalized legal system. Instead, every person must wear a badge through which their actions can be up or down voted. With enough down votes come severe consequences.
Fiction Imitates Life
In 2014, a State Council of China document called “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System” contained the following radical idea: a national monitoring system, expressed through a trust score that rated all citizens. Included in the score are ranking activities many of us already take for granted: what you buy, where you go, what you search for, and how many friends you have. The Chinese-proposed Citizen Score would “forge a public opinion environment where keeping trust is glorious.”
The Black Mirror and the Orville episodes described above are meant to be dire warnings against social rating systems — their over simplification and tendency towards group think—but they aren’t radical ideas. Neither is the proposal made by the Chinese government. Have you ever found yourself declining a FaceBook invitation from someone because they didn’t have enough “friends”? How quickly do you swipe left based on a profile pic? How large is the leap from up-voting competencies on LinkedIn to applying a popularity rating when deciding between two job applicants?
So, what’s the difference between life and fiction? Where do we draw the line between indicators of enjoyment or appreciation and social determinism?
There is overlap between my FaceBook friends and my Instagram community, but I also have mutiple, unlinked Instagram accounts, two different Twitter accounts, and several online personalities that (I hope) would be hard to connect to one another. Currently, I have no one easy way to track my interactions across all these platforms (efforts at this abound, but they haven’t—yet—become the norm). I can maintain the illusion of many, seperate lives. I also appear to have choice in how much those in my “physical-world” know about my online life, and vice versa. I can exclude certain people from one or all of my online communities. If I choose to, I can limit entirely my online presence. However, all of this control is a matter of now and of when. Our children are growing up with their identities and activities catalogued since birth, and there’s no way of completely erasing that data.
In LinkedIn, your connection to someone indicates your professional approval of that person, and we are urged to upvote each other on our qualifications. Some recruiters look at applicants’ LinkedIn profiles, and students pseudo-review the performance of their instructors. However, none of these measurements have become directly tied into compensation thus far. And while professional performance tends to stay decoupled from personal performance, the boundary has been blurring.
Made Public +
E. Scott Denison from Ohio State University proposes a world where “75 million pCams™ have been linked together in a continuous network around the world“, providing “comprehensive personal convenience, and security”.
After reviewing Denison’s project, I asked my students to imagine a world where they were watched, at all times, for the sake of their safety. I asked what would make them most uncomfortable. What emerged was an in-depth discussion of identity and privacy. Some spoke of covering their computer cameras so that they couldn’t be watched while undressing. Many assumed that they could be listened to through their iPhone’s microphone. Few worried that their data—purchasing and search history, contacts, and images—were collected, then bought and re-sold to the highest bidder. They saw access to their bodies as something they wanted controlled; but their thoughts and actions, much less so.
Some “professional” reviews will follow you for years. This is true of RateMyProfessor.com — an instructor can change academic positions, but as long as their name stays the same, their students’ comments will aggregate into one (potentially massive) public rant. We check ourselves into airports and at events so we can brag the excitement of our lives to our friends and followers. Face recognition will make your movements and presence trackable through street and business surveillance cameras, even when you haven’t explicitly self-identified. Such data, aggregated over time, paints a pretty detailed picture of who you are, what you like and don’t like, the groups you belong to, and your political, social, and cultural affiliations.
My good friend and mentor use to tell me: “we’re most upset when we feel helpless and it’s unfair.” Combine aggregated, public performance over time and you have plenty of opportunity for positive and negative consequences. In fact, there appears to be a public outcry for just that. Remember the douche-nozzle who appears to shove a woman into the path of a London transit bus? The media footage received tens of thousands of views, and hundreds of shaming comments and calls for his arrest. The numerous, publicly-made allegations against Harvey Weinstein resulted in the aptly-named Weinstein effect, where “allegations of sexual harassment and assault against celebrities are publicized and trigger [punitive] responses from companies and institutions.” How many of us wish we had the power to physically down vote our bullies, harassers, and abusers?
What Defines Us
One hundred years ago, most people were known to us through direct contact. This contact, over time, defined our reputations, and letters of introduction and personal reference held significant social weight. In this age of digital anonymity, we still crave to know and be know. We want something to keep track of our good deeds, adventures, and LOLs, and make other people’s miss-steps visible, and their nasty acts part of their, permanent, social record.
I teach, design, and research as a feminist scholar, usually located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. You can see some of my work, or find out more about me, at http://milenaradzikowska.com. I am on twitter as @candesignlove.
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