Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant ConnectionBy Jacob SilvermanHarper, 2015Why do we do it? That's what Jacob Silverman asks at one point in his thought-provoking new book Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, posing what he considers the central question about the swarm of social media sites that surround everybody online. Why do it? If it's so easy to become jaded or overwhelmed or even addicted to the onslaught, why not opt out entirely? He offers a few possibilities:
One answer is that it's a by-product of the network effect: the more people who are part of a network, the more one's experience can seem impoverished by being left out. Everyone else is doing it. A billion people on Facebook, hundreds of millions scattered between these other networks – who wants to be on the outside? Who wants to miss a birthday, a friend's big news, a chance to sign up for Spotify, or the latest bit of juicy social intelligence? And once you've joined, the updates begin to flow, the small endorphin boosts of likes and repins becoming the meager rewards for all that work. The feeling of disappointment embedded in each gesture, the sense of “Is this it?”, only advances the process, compelling us to continue sharing and participating.
Silverman's book is part overview, part history, part jeremiad, and part cautionary tale, a detailed snapshot of the sometimes frightening extent to which social media has infiltrated the lives of its millions of participants. It's written with unfailing energy and a fairly comfortable air of authority, but it's too collusive by half, as might have been tipped off by that concluding “us.” “Given that the offline and online worlds are increasingly intermingled,” Silverman writes dozens of times throughout his book, without pausing to question the premise itself. If you don't question it either, everything in Terms of Service will strike you as both topical and ominous. But if you do question that premise, if you aren't quite willing to buy into the picture Silverman paints of a cyber-world vying with flesh-and-brick reality for dominance, you'll find yourself bridling at some of the sci-fi man-machine singularity scenarios he describes:
Our digital and offline lives are more intertwined than ever, and in some respects, that's a good thing. These two worlds have never been fully separate. Actions in one arena can easily affect us in another, and the notion that the digital is all illusory has often been employed as a justification for trollish behavior online. A conversation on Facebook is no less real than one on the phone, though each medium offers different possibilities of interaction and may produce varying complications. I might prefer one to the other, but they both exist and whatever I learn in one happened to me as surely as in an in-person encounter.
Even in as detailed and intelligent a polemic as this book is, it's important to note how many different things in that above quote are wrong. For example, our digital and offline lives have indeed been fully separate – in fact, they've been fully separate for 95% of the very existence of some variation of “online lives.” You didn't have an online life in 1990, and neither did the vast majority of people on Earth. The vast majority of people on Earth still don't have anything even remotely approximating online lives. The vast majority of people on Earth neither own computers nor have access to the Internet. When Silverman talks about the navel-gazing narcissism of the Cupertino world, he characterizes it as one factor among many in the subject he's discussing, but in fact his book is entirely carved out of exactly that kind of tempest in a tech-cafe privilege.Also, it's not the idea that the digital is “illusory” that gives rise to thuggish trolling behavior - it's of course that the digital is unaccountable. The magic of the theater is also illusory, after all, but people don't troll it – blurting out “U R SO GAY LOLZZZZZ” to the actor on stage playing Horatio, for instance – because they'd be seen doing it, they'd be immediately accountable for their actions. When certain websites – every bit as “illusory” as their online counterparts – demand verified user identification in order for viewers to participate, trolling instantly stops.Also, a conversation on Facebook might be every bit as “real” as one on the phone, but it's overwhelmingly categorically different, as anyone who's ever had both can instantly see. That such easy blurrings could find their way into Silverman's boilerplate is one of the many signs in Terms of Service that our author might be too close to his subject. He writes about the “ad hoc tolerance” that “we've” developed for the social media gestures of the people around us, for instance, and he asks, “Who hasn't stopped an activity mid-stride so that a friend can send out some update about it? Who hasn't done it himself?”I've never done it. Plenty of people I know have never done it, even though they love Facebook and Twitter. Most of the people I know – young and old – pay at worst a very moderate “price” for their constant connection, moderate enough so that they don't even think about it. Reading those allegedly slam-dunk rhetorical questions over and over in Terms of Service was the first indication I had that a) Silverman isn't really writing about the way social media has infiltrated “our” daily lives – he's writing about how it's warped the personalities and behaviors of a relatively small group of genuine addicts, and b) Silverman is himself one of those addicts, noticing his own sickness but diagnosing a plague on all our houses. This is a book allegedly about social media as a broad-spectrum cultural contaminant, something that's wormed its way into the lives and minds of Internet users everywhere; indeed, that's the assumption underpinning its alarm-clock tone. But such an assumption is hardly served if the only people Silverman talks to are tech-compulsives who represent the average social media user about as accurately as a Washington policy-wonk represents the average voter.Silverman can be very astute on all aspects of the online world, from the cognitive shifts too much web-surfing can induce to the incremental growth of 'shadow work' (in which online consumers increasingly do the day-to-day work of marketing miscellaneous items to themselves via compulsive over-sharing and the like), from the commercialization of Twitter's frenetic activity (rumor has it, he reports, that Paris Hilton's asking price to tweet about your product or website is $4,600) to the steady eroding of privacy protections on sites like Facebook to the viral nature of ad campaigns like the current Old Spice pitch-man, where a shift has taken place from impatient enduring of commercials to active engagement with them. “We no longer fast-forward through his commercials,” Silverman writes, “we pass them around and ponder what they mean in chin-scratching blog posts.”But there's that “we” again. It's not “people who spend lots of time online/on social media” who also waste time pondering the meaning of Old Spice ad campaigns – it's “people whose job is to write six blog posts a day about trendy online/social media things” who do that. They're by and large the only ones who do it, and they're very annoying when they do it, and they do indeed lower the collective online I. Q. every time they do it – but they're a tiny minority of a tiny minority. “Twitter is work,” Silverman writes. “Facebook is work. Words are being written, content produced and shared, ads sold against it.” And indeed, most of his prime examples of the “we” he's diagnosing are people who have industry-watchdog jobs – like David Roberts, a climate reporter for the website Grist, who generated links and blog posts on his subject all day long every day and then started to feel burned out and decided to do a “digital detox” - and write an online article about it, of course, for Grist. Silverman mentions that much-trafficked article, in which Roberts reports that he's taken an unpaid year off from his Grist job in order to “unplug” and get back to the simple verities of raising pigs – or whatever the hell – in his Park Slope duplex. Silverman meets with him while he's six months into his “detox” - but during their encounter we learn what Roberts was upfront in admitting from the start: his “detox” didn't include giving up online freelance work, nor giving up online video conferencing, email, or Words with Friends. It also didn't include his cell phone. In other words, it was a Betty Ford Clinic “detox” - a Jonas Brother is flown in on Friday so wasted he's forgotten the two guitar chords he once sort of knew, he's given plenty of bed-rest and gently limited to only one teacup's worth of cocaine per day, and he's flown out on Monday night feeling ever so much rested and really ready to re-connect with his fans. It's a fake solution to an entirely self-induced problem only .000000000003 percent of the Earth's population has ever had.It shouldn't be defensible, in other words, as anything more than a privileged affectation, but Silverman nevertheless defends it:
But here's where I part ways with many critics of digital detoxers, even as I find much to dislike about digital detox. There's a very real need reflected in the practice of digital detox and in writing about it, even if the latter is often a contradictory, or merely excruciatingly self-conscious, play for attention. A widely shared sense exists that our digital tools have somehow become the masters of us. It can feel as if we don't have control over our digital lives – over our data, our privacy, our self-control, our ability to step away from the screen for a while.
One of those three things - “over our data, our privacy, our self-control” - is not like the other two, and it's Silverman's persistent blindness to that fact that betrays the unwitting confession at the heart of Terms of Service. Our data and our privacy have increasingly become the prey of bored hackers, religious maniacs, and malefactors of great wealth, and to the extent that Terms of Service addresses that issue, it's a good and stimulating book. But our self-control is not, never has been, and cannot be co-opted by online manipulators and social media hucksters. We must surrender it willingly.The most amazing thing about Terms of Service is how thoroughly Silverman seems to miss this distinction. He writes about the various things that can crop up to throw his planned day off-track and prevent him from sitting down to work: “Sometimes, because of the peculiarities of my day – if I used the afternoon for meetings or errands or simply frittered it away on social media, e-mails, aimless reading, or some other trifle – I'm just getting started at actually putting words on paper [by nightfall]” - for all the world as though those three things, meetings, errands, and frittering away the entire day on social media, are roughly equivalent. He describes his preoccupations as though they'd been imposed on him by some impersonal directive, and it's clear he's lived with those preoccupations for so many years that he no longer recognizes them for what they are:
I've also spent hours in bed or in line at the grocery store scrolling through my feeds not in search of anything but just because it was there, holding out the promise of something new that seemed, by default, more important than whatever I was doing. This promise of news from elsewhere was more important than talking to someone else next to me in line, or finally closing my eyes and trying to sleep, or just spending time daydreaming, trying to be bored. I've forgotten how to be bored.
Forgotten how to be bored? The behaviors he so consistently describes are those of somebody who's surrendered himself body, mind, and soul to boredom – someone who, as his own examples make clear, has come to equate “boredom” with “being offline.” He quotes social critic Christopher Lasch: “Self-created roles become as constraining as the social roles from which they are meant to provide ironic detachment. We long for the suspension of self-consciousness, of the pseudoanalytic attitude that has become second nature.” And then he approvingly echoes: “We long for the suspension of self-consciousness – yes, that is it.” Speak for yourself, Seymour.To its great credit, Terms of Service doesn't actually end up advocating that everybody start putting their self-consciousness out with the rubbish. Instead, after spending 300 pages proclaiming a deadly epidemic, Silverman concludes by recommending the electronic equivalent of two aspirin and some bed-rest. Digital detox is neither realistic nor necessary, he contends; all that's really needed is the very thing he's seemed most crucially to lack throughout his book: self-restraint. Don't give yourself over completely and unthinkingly to the system, he advises:
Don't do the platform's job. Don't append your location to tweets, don't check in anywhere, don't tag brands and businesses. Disable location services, disable notifications (you'll be more relaxed as a consequence).Take a look at apps you've authorized and remove the ones you don't use or that look suspicious.
All sound advice! And if it's also all stuff the majority of daily online users tend to do already, well, a book with the subtitle “Carry On Being More or Less Sensible” wouldn't have quite the pizzazz as “The Price of Constant Connection,” now would it? That's just basic marketing.____Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.