“Much of people’s experiences in the past was defined by large hierarchical institutions — governments, mass media, universities, religious organizations — that provided stability but were often remote and inaccessible,” Mark Zuckerberg wrote to commemorate Facebook’s 15th anniversary. “If you wanted to progress, you worked your way up the ladder slowly. If you wanted to start something new or spread a new idea, it was harder without the blessing of these institutions.”
Thanks to Facebook, Zuckerberg argued — as he has many times in the past — things are now quite different.
“Our current century is defined more by networks of people who have the freedom to interact with whom they want and the ability to easily share ideas and experiences […] Now, you can connect with anyone and use your voice,” he wrote. “While any rapid social change creates uncertainty, I believe what we’re seeing is people having more power, and a long term trend reshaping our society to be more open and accountable over time.”
Zuckerberg’s 15th-anniversary post was the latest example of a rhetorical sleight of hand the Facebook founder and CEO practices regularly. Prompting us to consider legacy hierarchies and vague social structures of bygone eras, Zuckerberg conjures a contrasting modern image of personal autonomy and power. In fact, little has changed. All that’s happened is a new kind of social structure has been erected in place of older ones — a structure based on a flawed assumption of what power means.
Facebook’s dogged promotion of its sharing ethos — that you can’t go online without telling everyone something about yourself — has turned every connected device into a confessional screen. We all want to talk, even if we can’t be sure who we’re talking to. Many of us want to be seen; everyone wants to be heard. We want an audience.
With that comes the understanding that we will have eyes on us, and over the past 15 years our comfort with that audience has grown. At first, we wanted it to be our college friends. Then, we were okay with it being our family and acquaintances. Gradually, we gave consent to being watched by an audience of people we barely knew or didn’t know at all, or an audience that wasn’t even made up of people, but companies wanting to sell us things.
Now, we are completely accustomed to this reality. It’s not just our picture or our words that are the show; our personal identifying information is just as much a part of the performance.
Sharing is power.
The idea that it was possible to share everything about ourselves was, when Facebook began, just a possibility. In the culture that Facebook helped normalize, it’s now considered mandatory. Sharing, connecting, being a part of the network was once a choice. Now, these activities are required to function in modern life, to take part in society, and — if we take Zuckerberg at his word — to help society progress in a meaningful way.
To share, in other words, is to have agency. Sharing is power.
But along the way, this idea has given rise to another one: If you’re not sharing everything, you must be hiding something. Since the turn of the century, this idea has run parallel to Zuckerberg’s sharing mantra. It’s often regarded as the “nothing to hide” argument, and it’s been put forward countless times in the last decade-and-a-half — including by one of Zuckerberg’s peers in Silicon Valley, Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google. He mentioned it in a 2009 interview on CNBC. “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” he said. Turn that statement around, and it’s the perfect endorsement for the confessional, connected culture Zuckerberg claims has granted us new, historic, power: Unless what you’re doing is basically criminal, everyone should know about it.
The next part of Schmidt’s quote is usually forgotten: “But if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines, including Google, do retain this information for some time, and it’s important, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act. It is possible that that information could be made available to the authorities,” he said. In terms of our personal power, the first part of the quote matters most. Google, like Facebook, actually does more than retain information — along with many other tech companies, Google uses that information in ways that shape how we interact with and experience our city, our national politics, our pastimes, and our friends and families.
In the last two years, revelations about how third parties allegedly used data scraped from Facebook to target us with political and commercial messaging have given rise to a backlash. But the real surprise wasn’t that our data was available — it was in finding out how our data was being used. We already knew, to some degree, that these companies could access it. After all, as per the sharing ethos that Facebook (and others) promoted, we were the ones who made it public. We had to.
People are free to disconnect from Facebook or Google, or to not use Uber or shop on Amazon, but as time goes on, it becomes more difficult to do so. In recent weeks, Gizmodo’s Kashmir Hill has rid herself of the big tech platforms — one by one, and then all at once.
“Critics of the big tech companies are often told, ‘If you don’t like the company, don’t use its products.’ I did this experiment to find out if that is possible, and I found out that it’s not — with the exception of Apple,” she wrote. “ These companies are unavoidable because they control internet infrastructure, online commerce, and information flows. Many of them specialize in tracking you around the web, whether you use their products or not.”
This is what happens in the Zuckerberg-ian world. Mandatory connection — which gives us power in our modern world — means everything we do while connected (talking to people, searching for things, downloading books and music, traveling around our city) is scraped and analyzed behind the scenes. We can’t have power — the power to speak to friends or to change the world — without allowing companies to compile our every move. The phrase “nothing to hide” is perhaps already outdated. In truth, if connection is mandatory — which it is, in Zuckerberg’s vision — there is nothing we could hide even if we wanted to.
Privacy, essayist Garret Keizer wrote in 2012, is grounded “in a creaturely resistance to being used against one’s will.” If that’s the case, then we are currently in a situation where we have none. And if resistance to being used is power — in that it lets us retain agency over our own lives — we don’t have much of that, either.
Increasingly, we have no choice but to be part of the connected world Zuckerberg has helped build in the past 15 years. As part of that world, what we do, who we are, who we know — the things that make us individuals and worthwhile targets for marketing — are automatically used to take advantage of us. It is possible to consent, but of course, it is now practically required that we do so — so we do, mindlessly clicking “I agree” to an infinitely detailed and impenetrable end user agreement. Our autonomy and invisibility, two defining attributes of privacy, are gone. We are being used, but we have no other option. We have nothing to hide, because there is nothing we can hide.
Yet, on the 15th anniversary of launching the product that created this reality, Zuckerberg tells us we have power.
Whatever power we think we may have, it is an illusion. It is the power to be connected to everyone and to know all sorts of things, but both are merely pathways to power and not, to again paraphrase Keizer, power in and of themselves. Our real power remains one step before Facebook: It lies in not sharing.
What if we still had the choice to hide?