What Facebook knows about you, via the Spectacular Optical tumblr (click for more images)

Rob Horning has been working on the topic of the “Data Self.” His project has a close parallel to my own work and after reading his latest post, I’d like to jump in and offer a conceptual distinction for thinking about the intersection of the online/data/Profile and the offline/Person.

The problem is that our online presence is too often seen as only the byproduct of our offline selves. Sometimes we talk about the way online profiles are passive reflections of who we are and what we do and other times we acknowledge our profiles are also partly performative adjustments to the “reality” of the person. However, in all the discussion of individuals creating this content what is often neglected is how the individual, in all of their offline experience, behavior and existence, is simultaneously being created by this very online data. We cannot describe how a person creates their Profile without always acknowledging how the Profile creates the person.

Let me begin by offering some useful terminology: I use the term profile (lower-case ‘p’) to mean our presence on any specific web service, e.g., our Twitter or Facebook profiles. I use the term Profile (capital ‘P’) to refer to the aggregate set of our entire online presence across all profiles including data we have uploaded or others have gathered.

And let me call the “agentic bias” the tendency to conceptually grant too much power to individuals to create their online Profiles by neglecting the ways in which individuals are simultaneously being created by their digital presence. Lots of social media writing, academic and popular, looks like this:

Many otherwise terrific articles about the self, identity and social media suffer from this bias. In a forthcoming post, I plan on going through a list of some prominent examples. For now, I want to focus on responding to and joining in on Rob Horning’s work on “the data self.” He makes many useful points, but fundamentally conceptualizes “data” and “self” in a manner in which the latter causally precedes the former (I happen to know he doesn’t like that ‘latter-former’ turn of phrase).

In this article, Horning describes how we “convert ourselves into data”; we are “monitoring [our] vital statistics and uploading them for analysis and aggregation.” Further, Horning goes on to say,

“data collection is slowly becoming the ideological basis of the self”

“interactions within social networks are now easily captured

“The assumption is that by letting Facebook capture and process everything, a more reliable version of the self than our own memory can give us will be produced.”

And Horning cites Facebook as saying “the Timeline to be a place for self-expression: A way for users to reveal who they are and what their lives are about”

(all emphases mine)

The “data self” as described here has everything to do with how self creates, produces, collects and revels itself through data. This is indeed an important concern, and, to be clear, there is far more I agree with than disagree with in Horning’s analyses.

However, so far, lots of attention has been given to how the self creates the data, what I called the agentic bias above; but what about when this data also creates the self? Both considerations must be simultaneously taken into account to understand either.

Instead of an agentic bias, I propose a dialectical understanding of the causality between the individual/offline/self and the data/online/Profile:

PJ Rey and I have been arguing something similar since we started this blog. Indeed, the name Cyborgology makes explicit reference to Donna Haraway’s cyborg theory of bodies and technology as enmeshed. Further, I have written extensively on what I call “augmented reality,” the perspective that views the on and offline as enmeshed, opposed to the “digital dualist” bias to view atoms and bits as separate. To fully theorize the self from the “augmented” perspective, one must rigorously take into account the data-flesh-enmeshment from both directions.

For example, in a recent essay I describe how one great power of social media is not just what happens to us when logged in uploading data about ourselves and our lives, but also how sites like Facebook change how we view the world even when logged off and not staring at some glowing rectangle; what I call The Facebook EyeTo only focus on how the self produces data is to miss how data influence our experience of the world; how we behave within it and how data creates that same self that creates the data.

Let’s take some concrete examples:

When listening to music on Spotify, a streaming service that syncs with and publishes to one’s Facebook profile, I am publishing that listening-data to Facebook for others to see. It becomes part of my Profile. But to end the story here is to suffer from the agentic bias. Let’s put the other causal arrow back in and think dialectically: because my Profile contains listening behaviors that I know are being judged by others, I may choose to listen to slightly different music to “give off” the impression I wish to portray. More than just a better-than-accurate presentation of self, the fact that the Profile exists changes my experience and behavior as a person.

If you plan on taking photos while on vacation and posting them to Facebook, might you choose to do slightly different things? Walk different paths?

But we must go further than just potential changes in behavior. What I find most interesting is how the Profile changes our experience of that behavior.

Maybe you wouldn’t change the songs you listen to or what paths you travel when on vacation simply because of social media self-documentation. However, the fact that one can increasingly document their life certainly changes how we experience the world (much more on this point here).

We experience a concert differently when we know we can post photos on Facebook and videos on YouTube; hence the music-venue-plague of glowing document-screens held high instead of hands. We see the food we just prepared differently when we know we can post a photo of an especially delicious-looking meal to Facebook. As I’ve posed before: think of traveling with and without a camera in your hand: the experience is at least slightly different. Today, we are always living with the camera in-hand; we can always document our lives via status updates, tweets, check-ins, photos, videos, etc. Like those on reality TV, social media users are deeply influenced by the fact of near omnipresent documentation potential.

Taken to the extreme, the conceptual opposite of the agentic bias would be a structure-bias that views people as only the result of our Profiles. Once, on a subway, I heard a woman claim that “the real world is the place where we take pictures for Facebook.” But this is probably going to far, right?

To conclude, and to provide a last probe to Rob, the implications of all this is that we cannot continue to view the Person as the temporal and causal antecedent and the Profile as something that is the subsequent result. We have clear evidence that the person is also being co-constructed by the Profile. Experience creates documentation and documentation creates experience.