(Or: How we’ve come to be micro-celebrities online)

Facebook’s recent introduction of “frictionless sharing” is the newest development in a growing trend: data is being increasingly produced passively as individuals conduct their day-to-day activities. This is a trend that has grown both on and offline. We will focus on the former here; especially “frictionless” sharing that involves syncing Facebook with other sites or apps. Once synced, much of what a user listens to, reads or otherwise accesses are automatically and immediately published on Facebook without any further action or approval.  Users may not even need to “opt into” frictionless sharing because many services are changing their default setting to automatically push content to Facebook. In short, we can say that users play a passive role in this process.

Contrast this to more active sharing: when we “like” or “+1” something (by clicking the eponymous buttons that have spread throughout the Web) it requires the user to make a conscious and affirmative action to share something with others in their network. Nathan Jurgenson (one of this post’s co-authors) previously described these two models as types of “documentary vision:” We actively document ourselves and our world around us as if we have a camera in our hand (“liking”, status updates, photos, etc.), or we can passively allow ourselves to be documented, curating our behaviors along the way (e.g., reading a magazine article so that you can present yourself as the type of person who “likes” that sort of magazine) much like a celebrity facing a crowd of paparazzi photographers.

Let’s make another layer of complexity to this documentary model: In many cases, we not even aware that we are being documented. For decades, A-list celebrities have had to live with the reality that every time they go out into the  world, someone may be documenting their every move from afar.  Today, the experience is becoming universal. The Internet is full of digital paparazzi; that is, invisible data collection mechanisms that track and surveil users. Google has long collected data about users behavior-patterns to improve its page-rank algorithm. Without such data, the algorithm would be largely ineffective in predicting what sites best respond to the users’ inquiry. The paparazzi-like invisibility of the documentation is significant because users have less opportunity play as active of a role is shaping the documentation produced about them. We could come up with many examples of this passive, invisible digital-paparazzi: from Amazon tracking user habits to make recommendations to the iPad tracking your every behavior and location to send statistics to the company and app developers. What is clear is that much of the data we produce comes from something like a paparazzi hiding in the bushes, rather than from the posed self-portrait.

Of course, the subject of invisible digital-paparazzi documentation is not always completely inactive in the documentation process. Many of us know, to some degree or another, that we are being tracked. Celebrities know that paparazzi might be present at any time and place and learn to behave as if they are always being watched. We might think of the residents of the Real World or Big Brother houses: they are engaged in a perpetual performance for an invisible, omnipresent audience, giving new meaning to Shakespeare’s declaration that “all the world’s a stage” (or, at least, a red carpet or confessional room). These tabloid-darlings who stroll through public venues with the express purpose of being seen and documented are no longer a separate caste. All of our lives are increasingly resembling theirs.

Some have argued that social media has turned the average person into a “micro-celebrity,” to use Alice Marwick and danah boyd’s term. Let’s differentiate between celebrities who (1) embrace documentation; the Paris-Hilton-like famous-for-being-famous celebrity who exist to be documentable; and (2) those J.D. Salinger or Howard Hughes types that attempt to avoid the spotlight, (which, of course, makes documentation of them all the more valuable). The former is active while the latter are much more passive in their own documentation. We-micro-celebrities on Facebook have generally been active as own documenters. We choose what photos we post and de-tag ourselves from the non-flattering ones others post of us. The interesting change brought about by this new so-called frictionless sharing is that act of documenting has gone from being active to much more passive. And, at the same time, frictionless sharing has made this passive documentation more visible.

And, as such, we are increasingly aware that we are being documented, and thus increasingly calibrate our behaviors as such.

The issue at stake here is whether social media users are content to accept this newly-assigned role: the Paris-Hilton-like-micro-celebrity who is highly active, visible, but not allowed behind the camera? Are we willing to be the production while handing the role of producer to some paparazzi behind the digital bush?

Perhaps not entirely, as the reaction to Spotify has demonstrated. Spotify, a music-streaming service, can sync to Facebook and passively publish what you listen to on the live-ticker-like space at the top-right of the Facebook screen. When Spotify made it mandatory that all users sign-in via Facebook, users rebelled and more privacy options have been included. Nevertheless, the logic of frictionless sharing remains intact and is likely to expand into other sectors of the Web.

Nathan Jurgenson (@nathanjurgenson) | PJ Rey (@pjrey)