Imagine you live at the end of a cul-de-sac in a subdevelopment that is only accessible by a single gate that leads out to a large, high-speed arterial road.  Your friends, your job, your kids’ school are all outside of this development which means life is lived through and on the road that connects your subdevelopment to the rest of the world. Now imagine that, without warning or any kind of democratic process, the company that maintains that road (private companies are subcontracted to do regular maintenance on public roads all the time) decides to add trees on either side of the road to reduce car speed. It’s a relatively benign design intervention and it works. In fact the trees work so well that the company’s engineers publish in a few journals which directly benefits the company financially, through prominence within the truly boring world of road maintenance. When the residents get wind of this experiment, and demand to know why they weren’t even notified, the owner of the road maintenance company says, “if you don’t like it use a different road.” That mind-bending response actually makes more sense than what has been coming out of OKCupid and Facebook these last few weeks.

If we were to make the above analogy adhere closer to the Facebook or OKCupid studies we’d first need to have the road maintenance CEO preface his remarks with something like “I don’t really know anything about how people drive.” Then, instead of adding trees to slow traffic, the study was about placement of billboards for maximum viewership during rush hour.  Also, the study would have to be ambiguously conclusive, not generalizable to any other road, and yet still be the last in several thousand invisible studies that strove to change motorists’ driving patterns in very small ways. Finally, these thousands of inconclusive traffic studies should be heralded as the biggest thing since internal combustion engines.

In fact, this is only barely an analogy. Millions of people live in the suburban environment I just described and for those that do not have regular access to a car (because they aren’t of driving age or cannot afford one or are somehow differently abled such that cars aren’t compatible with their bodies) social media can bring an out-of-reach world to their fingertips. It can be a portal to your friends and even your source of income. The American car-centric built environment is very unforgiving to the young, old, poor, and differently abled which has made the Internet a truly life-changing invention for the car-less. (That being said, it is worth noting here that social media still has a lot of room to improve when it comes to differently-abled users.) When you consider all the people that rely on digital networks for their social life or their income you can’t help but realize: Facebook and OKCupid are experimenting on captive subjects.

There is still one last way that my road/social network analogy is more than an analogy. The early history of the American suburb had a very similar business model to that of social media.  The business strategy went something like this: you buy a lot of cheap land just outside of a major metropolis and either purchase or partner with one of the electric trolley companies that are operating within the city (Philadelphia had sixty-six operating by 1895). You then put up billboards advertising new suburbs that will have (wouldn’t ya know it?!) fast and efficient streetcar service that will take passengers from their homes right to the centers of industry. Once the suburbs are completed you’re free to jack up the fares, sell the advertising space to make new revenues and (eventually) sell the streetcar line to Ford Motors, Goodyear Tire, or an asphalt company so that they can be pave it and open up a dealership.

Both the Internet and the streetcar have been called century-defining technologies. They drastically altered landscapes and the daily lives of millions of people.To the extent that the history of technology repeats itself, it could be said that we are at the Internet equivalent of peak streetcar. That is, the suburbs are built and sold (many social media companies fear that they’ve hit market saturation) so advertising to those that are already bought into the system becomes more important than ever. Social media companies, if they are to continually increase profits as their shareholders demand, they must find their Ford Motor Company or become more brazen and aggressive in their advertising research. As I’ve written before, Opting out becomes more difficult as you go down the socioeconomic ladder. If you really didn’t like the streetcar company (or our fictional road maintenance company) you could pack up and move. Of course moving, even for the always-growing urban precariat, costs a lot of time and money. A similar thing happens when you give up a social media service. There are friends and family that are difficult if not impossible to reach any other way. It takes time to figure out how to deactivate and delete data while also salvaging the photos and status updates that you’ve amassed on your profile. It isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Of course, history does give us prescriptions as well as warnings. Charles Tyson Yerkes was one of the biggest streetcar robber barons in the United States. His company owned most of the streetcar lines in the Midwest, including Chicago’s transit system. Through some backdoor deals with city aldermen he was able to extend his monopoly contract with the city and was given permission to implement a substantial fare increase. When news of this deal got out, no one said, “Why are you so surprised?” or “Just learn to get around on a bike or maybe save up to buy a car.” Instead, hundreds of Chicagoans descended on city hall with guns and rope demanding Yerkes come out and face his unhappy customers. Yerkes, having no way to make the profits he wanted and live to enjoy them, fled the country and never came back. Chicago’s rail system was municipalized and remains so to this day.

David is on Twitter & Tumblr.

Recommended reading on streetcars (in Chicago-style formatting, obviously):

  • Fishman, Robert. 1982. Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century: Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • Hall, Peter. 1998. “Changing Geographies: Technology and Income.” In High Technology and Low-Income Communities: Prospects for the Positive Use of Advanced Information Technology, edited by Donald A Schön, Bishwapriya Sanyal, and William J Mitchell, 43–68. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • ———. 2002. Cities of Tomorrow : An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the Twentieth Century. Oxford, UK; Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
  • Jackson, Kenneth T. 1987. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press, USA.