Latoya Peterson is owner and editor of racialicious.com.
By Jacob Silverman
Harper. 429 pp. $26.99
The Internet changed quietly. Over roughly a decade, the background colors of Web pages slowly lightened from black to white. Text, once a riot of fonts and colors, settled into a serious and respectable black in most places. Advertisements used to be mostly flickering banners at the top and sides of the page. Now brands want to be your friend and constantly ask you to “like” their pages and join their hashtag revolutions.
But the most important evolution has been the shift away from widespread anonymity online to repeated requests for your real name and photos, usually on a variety of social networks. Is the World Wide Web safer with the decline of anonymity, or have we traded one set of threats for another?
In “Terms of Service,” Jacob Silverman delves deep into our new online reality. Silverman produces a comprehensive picture of the massive issues facing citizens of the Internet. On page after page, he sounds the alarm, explaining that the techno-utopia we’ve been sold doesn’t exist and that a secret world lurks beneath each positive, optimized user experience. Behind every seamless interaction with a social network stand thousands of support people: a private army of low-paid laborers across cyberspace removing pornography from Facebook and performing thousands of other necessary adjustments.
To highlight the costs of the corporatized Web, Silverman follows the money. While many digital innovations are presented as the best thing for consumers, the author contends that we are trading our privacy for ease and our time for another person’s profit. Pointing the finger at technological giants such as Facebook and Twitter, Silverman details the calculated business interest behind the shifts and the creeping changes in our culture, oft lamented in magazine features on selfies. Other companies have adopted Net behavior that has raised concern. General Mills, for example, was the subject of wrath in 2014 for changing its terms-of-service agreement to say that if a person “liked” the company’s page, it meant General Mills had delivered “something of value” to the customer and therefore could not be sued for any other reasons.
In a chapter aptly titled “Pics or It didn’t happen,” Silverman argues that “experiences become not about our own fulfillment, the fulfillment of those we’re with, or even about sharing; rather, they become about ego, demonstrating status, seeming cool or smart or well-informed.” He points out that our digital ego-stroking serves corporations, which glean profitable bits of information about us and our habits with every check-in, tag, photo and “like.”
While social-media notoriety is now a perverse form of social currency, it “often descends upon those least equipped to handle it.” But neither are societies or platforms equipped to manage the repercussions. This particular narrative is most troubling for women who have been harassed online for perceived indiscretions. While the names change — video-game executive Jade Raymond, Web developer Adria Richards, Java developer Kathy Sierra, to name a few — the story remains depressingly the same: A woman rises to prominence, and some people decide she needs to be cut down to size. But unlike with real-world reputation management, there is no new town to move to online, no place safe from a Google search. A friend of mine, the feminist writer Lena Chen, was aggressively targeted for years in a manner that would be deemed stalking in the real world. On the Internet, obsessive attention underscored with threats of sexual or physical violence is just part of the cost of speaking publicly — and women are the prime targets of such abuse.
Today’s Internet users find themselves in a tougher, less-forgiving digital universe than those online a decade ago. With so much personal information now available at a keystroke, users face harsher scrutiny of their lives. In the post-Facebook digital landscape, people must live with the perpetual existence of their awkward personal evolution, on display for curious passersby. Whoever I was at 17 is digital dust these days; the message boards I frequented have collapsed, the servers are blank. What’s more, users of the old Internet enjoyed a default standard of anonymity and the accepted use of screennames, all of which helped keep our identities cloaked. Nowadays Eric Schmidt and others suggest that Netizens should consider changing their names at age 18 to thwart searches that could dig up their youthful pasts. But that is not nearly as easy as it was to change our anonymous handles. The stickiness of personal data in the current era is a problem of our own making, Silverman notes, as the business of selling our information generates massive legal and illegal revenue.
While absolutely necessary, this book isn’t perfect. Silverman occasionally indulges in cyber-nihilism and can be tedious as his major points reappear in chapter after chapter. And while it is important to be a mindful user, the rise of social media has allowed many people who were shut out of mainstream conversations to have a voice in matters of national importance. Silverman’s desire to condemn corporate overreach sometimes overshadows the inherent value of the tool — Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and other large platforms have encouraged transformational shifts in who is being heard in society. Social-media platforms extract a heavy toll, to be sure, but they also provide a much-needed counterplatform to the political and cultural gatekeepers that help enforce societal inequality.
After reading the litany of charges against the data robber barons, the casual user may ask, Why not opt out entirely? If our digital lives are defined by constant surveillance, shouldn’t people just log off? But opting out isn’t a true option anymore. There is no 1-800 opt-out number to quickly shield people from big data marketers.
Despite its minor faults, Silverman’s work stays with you. After finishing it, I look at every online interaction with skepticism. Do I really want to log into Quora to read that answer? Why is Twitter sending me dating-app ads that require me to log in with LinkedIn? And is data-mining the reason that advertisers using the Twitter platform send me dating ads but marketers on Facebook (where my marital status is prominently displayed) do not?
“Terms of Service” is the literary equivalent of taking the red pill while inside the Matrix — the reality is hard to swallow, but the call to free ourselves from digital serfdom is too compelling to ignore.