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Internet Ethics: Views From Silicon Valley

Content versus Conversation

Last month, at the pii2014 conference held in Silicon Valley (where “pii” stands for “privacy, identity, innovation”), one interesting session was a conversation between journalist Kara Swisher and the co-founders of Secret—one of a number of apps that allow users to communicate anonymously.  Such apps have been criticized by some as enabling cruel comments and cyberbullying; other commentators, however, like Rachel Metz in the MIT Tech Review, have argued that “[s]peaking up in these digital spaces can bring out the trolls, but it’s often followed by compassion from others, and a sense of freedom and relief.”
 
During the conversation with David Byttow and Chrys Bader-Wechseler, Swisher noted that Secret says it is not a media company—but, she argued, it does generate content through its users. Secret’s co-founders pushed back. They claimed that what happens on their platform are conversations, not “content.”  Secret messages are ephemeral, they noted; they disappear soon after being posted (how soon is not clear). We’ve always had great, passionate conversations with people, they said, without having those conversations recorded for ever; Secret, they argued, is just a new way to do that.
 
Those comments left me thinking about the term “social media” itself. What does “media” mean in this context? I’m pretty sure that most Facebook or Twitter users don’t see themselves as content-creators for media companies. They see themselves, I would guess, as individuals engaged in conversations with other individuals. But those conversations do get treated like media content in many ways. We keep hearing about social media platforms collecting the “data” or “content” created by their users, analyzing that content, tweaking it to “maximize engagement,” using it as fodder for behavioral research, etc.
 
There are other alternatives for online conversations, of course. Texting and emailing are never claimed to constitute “content creation” for media companies. But texts and email conversations are targeted, directed. They have an address line, which has to be filled in.
 
Tools like Secret, however, enable a different kind of interaction. If I understand it correctly, this is more like shouting out a window and—more often than not—getting some response (from people you know, or people in your area).  It’s hoping to be heard, and maybe acknowledged, but not seen, not known.
 
A reporter for Re/Code, Nellie Bowles, once wrote about a “real-life” party organized through Secret. Some of the conversations that took place at that party were pretty odd; some were interesting; but none of them became “content” until Bowles wrote about them.
 
Calling social media posts “content” turns them into a commodity, and makes them sound less personal. Calling them parts of a conversation is closer, I think, to what most people perceive them to be, and reminds us of social norms that we have around other people’s conversations—even if they’re out loud, and in public.
 
It’s a distinction worth keeping in mind. 
 
Photo by Storebukkebruse, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.
Ethics
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