Facebook and other social-networking sites subsist on information, though not just any information. These sites have an insatiable appetite for the intimate details of their users’ lives. In fact, your personal information is a sine qua non for social-networking sites on two levels: 1.) People, primarily, use the Web to learn about the people and things they care about (like you). 2.) The same information that draws people to your profile, is useful in targeting advertisements to both you and your visitors.

Because these sites feed on personal information, they develop strategies to elicit such information from users.  For example, you may have to register and build a profile before accessing content.  The result as a sort of pay-to-play system where information is the common currency.  And, in order for this information economy to grow and intensify, it must continuously solicit new information and make more of the existing content public.

This trend toward more and more public information has been an iterative process with small changes occurring every few months or so.  From the perspective of the user, the pressures to make updates are generally subtle.  In fact, we are often not consulted in the process.  Information is added to your public profile through automated posting (e.g., Facebook connect) and through changes in default settings.  The whole process merely requires our acquiescence.  In return, we are able to freely access the range of social-networking services offered by these sites.

One could argue that everyone benefits from this arrangement; however, we must also look at the net effect of all this information-sharing to society as a whole.  The advent of social media has lead to what I am a labeling a culture of hyper-visibility.  The problem is that the effects of such visibility are not neutral to the various subgroups within society.  Instead, the way that the culture hyper-visibility impacts you is largely determined by where you stand at the intersection of socially important categories such as sexual orientation, dis/ability gender, race, and class.  (See, for example, a recent discussion by Nathan Jurgenson about how visibility plays out differently for men and women in the field of politics.)

We must begin to consider, more publicly, who is advantage and who is disadvantaged in this environment, because, while we may be enjoying the fruit of new social technologies, it may also be a sort of Faustian bargain whereby we allow so-called “technological progress” to simply reproduce the inequalities of the past.