Week in Digital Drama

by Ben Bienstock, Sarah Clapp, Maria Gerdyman, Annabelle Chace & Theia Flynn

Illustration by Rémy Poisson

published February 1, 2019

"Facebook gains nothing from this meme"

If you haven’t deactivated your social media accounts out of fear of breaches in privacy, then you’ve probably seen something on your feed that could be used to breach said privacy: the so-called “10 Year Challenge,” in which users post photos of themselves from 2009 (flip-phone quality, red-eyed, zits-a-plenty) alongside ones from 2019 (Instagram-filtered, glowed-up, hotter-than-ever). Soon after the images started appearing, an op-ed published in Wired speculated that the convenient juxtaposition of photos taken across a specified timeline could provide Facebook with data to enhance its facial recognition technology, leading web-conspirators to wonder: Could our old mirror selfies really be used to create algorithms that recognize our faces and how they age?

In response to the allegation that Facebook had actually managed to create an effective meme, the Silicon Valley spin doctors released a statement to distance itself from the challenge, saying it “did not start this trend,” while simultaneously admitting that if they wanted to mine the data, they could, adding that “the meme uses photos that already exist on Facebook.” The service furnished an additional reminder that “Facebook users can choose to turn facial recognition on or off at any time.” The company already has the photos we took on our webcams in the dark corners of our adolescent bedrooms with such effects as “Color Pencil” and “X-Ray,” as well as the technology to identify the people in them. It’s one thing to be embarrassed that the snapshots from the Bar Mitzvah photo booths of years past will come back to haunt us; it’s another to be worried that they’ll be used to create the sort of surveillance technology sold to law enforcement agencies.

While Facebook has not yet entered the thriving business of selling facial recognition software to government organizations (an industry that has so far been pioneered by the likes of Amazon and Google), net-connoisseurs have a sneaking suspicion that their favorite social media site might actually be, dare I say, up to no good. It may be hard to believe, given the benign gesture of a humble poke and the whimsically patterned backgrounds one can add to their statuses, but Facebook loves your data more than Mark Zuckerberg sweats when he’s asked about violating user privacy. (That is to say: a lot.) The theory that Facebook might be employing a creative method to reap neatly-packaged data is believable, even if you can’t believe that a photo of you in a terrycloth tracksuit would be useful to anyone. If the data-freaks at Facebook really do see a goldmine of information in our nostalgia-trips, then there is real fear that such an algorithm could “amplify and exacerbate historical and existing bias,” as a letter co-signed by 85 human and civil rights organizations directed toward BigTech companies warns. On the topic of enabling police to surveil marginalized communities, it remains to be seen if Facebook will offer a statement less tepid than its existing stance that they “gain nothing from this meme.”

As the Independent reflects on its own decade-long evolution from notorious rag covertly circulated through the College Hill underground to notorious multimedia conglomerate with its very own website, Twitter handle, and newspaper vending box, we choose not to feed the “surveillance economy” by keeping our transformation sealed in the archives. Mark Zuckerberg is not so lucky. His life was made on the internet, and there it’s kept, because here’s what his 10 Year Challenge looks like: a Wired article from 2019 challenging his business on a record of data misuse and a Wired article from 2009, in which he accurately predicts what people would end up telling him ten years later: “No one wants to live in a surveillance society.”




There's no such thing as a free press

Looking to start the new year fresh—that is, without employees—the benevolent billionaires and parent companies that own American media outlets have in recent weeks redoubled their efforts to save and streamline the news industry. In past years, these magnificent media magnates have innovated new strategies of economizing journalism, from valiantly funding lawsuits, to bankrupting uncouth muckraking blog Gawker, to purchasing troublesome local news sites DNAinfo and Gothamist only to replace them with non-unionized successors. However—and you heard it here first—the hottest media business trend for 2019 is a trailblazing return to classic management techniques: mass firings and increased prices.

This seemingly old-fashioned approach to economizing newsrooms has inspired a diverse group of media companies—some private, some subsidiaries of conglomerates, and even some non-profits—to separate the wheat from the journalistic chaff. More than a thousand costly paychecks did not have be drawn up last week at Buzzfeed News, the Forward, and the Verizon-owned HuffPost and Yahoo after executives efficiently removed such unnecessary roles as “editor-in-chief” and “national news desk.” Now unburdened from the responsibility of paying for the labor of full staffs, these publications have the opportunity to point to a bright future of news, one of half-reported, uncontroversial stories sure to bring in advertising revenues never before seen. These faceless (but, I’m sure, handsome) executives are paving the way to the promised land of unfettered profit growth for investors with no reporters left to expose financial crimes to the public.

Condé Nast, however, is hedging its bets on a different blast-from-the-past idea: having readers pay for journalism. Though the mega-publisher announced last week that it will place paywalls on all of its web titles (which include Vogue, Bon Appétit, and the already paywalled Wired and the New Yorker) by the end of the year, the logistics of applying the policy to Pitchfork, the company’s most popular free title, will be tricky. Before Condé Nast rescued the publication for an undisclosed sum in 2015, Pitchfork was an elder states-site in the archaic world of free, online, independent music publications and mp3 blogs, and today has a vast archive of decades of criticism, interviews, and news. When readers are limited to five free articles per month, a Wayback Machine capture of a negative album review from 1998 that Pitchfork has since deleted to erase any memory of its unhip takes will become an alluring click. As for Pitchfork’s new content, surely there are tens of readers who will pay $15 per month to make sure they can read “Stephen Malkmus Responds to Cardi B Tweet: Report” in full, but they will hardly be enough to keep the site afloat.

Though the publishing world at large is undoubtedly thriving in 2019, the same cannot be said for the Independent. It is this reporter’s fervent hope that this paper is able to right the ship soon, but there is no cause for optimism. At Independent staff meetings, the mere suggestion  that a reinvigorating takeover by a Musk, a Koch, heck, even a Rockefeller would benefit the Independent can spark a campaign of character assassination, that, frankly, is unbefitting of the team running a scrappy startup trying to become the largest alt-weekly in Southern and Northern New England.



Main Bird—Beach Outing by Maria Gerdyman, Annabelle Chace, and Theia Flynn