The Relics of Personhood


How to download your facebook data: 

step 1: go to settings. 

step 2: click on “Download a copy of your Facebook data”

Hidden in the depths of Facebook, two clicks away from your homepage and tucked away in an inconspicuous corner of your laptop screen real estate is a hyperlink that, once accessed, will tell you more information than you ever need to know about yourself. “Download a copy of your Facebook data” comes as a zip file. Once un-zipped it reveals a very basic folder structure, with an index.htm that acts as your offline Facebook homepage, an archive folder of all your past videos and photos, and a folder entitled “html” that contains an immense amount of neatly arranged, intimate information about yourself: a list of everything you’ve liked on Facebook, a list of all your friends (with corresponding dates of when you’ve added them), an archive of all your private messages, your contact information, all the events you’ve clicked attending for, and even a summary of your timeline from the first moment you’ve started using Facebook till the moment you clicked download. Welcome to your digital self. 

If Facebook constitutes part of what it means to have an online presence and an online self - assuming, of course, that we all treat Facebook very seriously, as we ought to - then at the centre of our digital selves lies Ads.htm, a page that contains a whopping list of potential advertising topics personalized specifically according to your taste and preferences. This is the hidden side of Facebook, something that - like high frequency trading - we know exists but have chosen to ignore because life still proceeds smoothly without our knowledge. As a file, it holds an immense amount of information about us. Rather than simply being a sum total of our expressed “likes”, Ads.htm is an algorithmically generated assemblage of Ad topics based on a match between available corporate interest and our expressed preferences in the past. Procedurally, this “algorithmic assemblage” is created via a non-transparent and complex process. First, Facebook has to collect a series of data from you based on what you’ve liked in the past. Then, it lumps your profile along with those of others who have expressed similar interests as you and present them as a coherent set to advertisers. Advertisers then bid competitively for a place on your website real estate (in this case, the Facebook site) within milliseconds while your browser loads the Facebook app. The highest corporate bidder gets to place an ad on your browser.

This fully automated, highly streamlined process is called Real Time Bidding (RTB) in the online advertising industry. When it first arrived in the early naughties, RTB revolutionized the internet. It single-handedly created a new industry (online-advertising/online marketing) premised on the erasure of all market frictions between advertisers and individual consumers. Whilst in the broadcast era advertisers could only cast their net wide and hope to catch whoever that tunes in at specific advertising time-slots, in the digital age advertisers could make sure that their ads reach the exact consumer profile they want, controlling for variables such as age, gender, level of education, previously visited sites, etc. And almost everything on the internet engages with real-time bidding to some degree - from the ads that play before Youtube videos, to Google sponsored ads, to the pop-ups that appear when you click on the play button on Putlocker. RTB erases market frictions by matching supply of ad spots (known as browser real estate) to demand of ad spots (from advertisers) instantaneously. Intricate data about individuals are sent to a sea of advertisers, who would bid for them in milliseconds through this completely automated process. By channeling our attention into ad revenue, RTB effectively sustains the internet. 

As a file, then, Ads.htm is both unique and rare because it provides us with a glimpse into what might potentially be targeted to us by corporations. It illuminates our bioadvertising potential… Looking at our own Ads.htm file is therefore like holding up a mirror crafted by the skillful people at Google Adwords, in which we find both a reflection of ourselves as well as a reflection of our use value. 

Nick Srnicek, in his book Platform Capitalism, argues that twenty-first century advanced capitalism came to be centred upon extracting and using a particular kind of raw material: data. Facebook, as a “platform” that handles and monopolizes data of its customers, relies on selling these data to advertisers as part of their business model. Ads.htm highlights how profits today are extracted from the whole texture of our lives, not just from the labor we perform during specific hours in a factory or an office. Contrasting this to the logics of classical capitalism,where consumption is the moment when value is destroyed: in Platform Capitalism, value is extracted from the moment of consumption itself. In other words, the moment you click Haha react to that funny meme of Taylor Swift, or when you share that Huffpost article on the dangers of the alt-right, you’re creating monetizable value. Facebook, as a “platform” that handles and monopolizes data of its customers, relies on selling this data to advertisers as part of their business model. Each instance of Ads.htm can be constructed, therefore, as a specifically tailored pitch of a commodified version of your selves to corporations. (That’s why opening the file and perusing it feels almost profane, as if you’re in a generic dystopian sci-fi film and you’ve reached the climax where you’ve managed to evade the bad guys and confronted the hidden truth, only to realize that everything that makes you you - Lana Del Ray, Selwyn Rowing and existentialism - are mere manifestations of a broader corporate monolith.)

Even in 2017 (which is arguably an age of relative Facebook decline), there are ways in which Facebook still profoundly alters the nature of the “social” in more ways than we could imagine. As the social media giant of the West (and western-influenced parts of the East), Facebook holds a definitive place in the online public sphere. The public sphere is where social relations are played out for all to see. Performative theorists of identity would also point to the public sphere as a space where identities are created. Rather than seeing our Facebook selves as mere representations, many theorists of the performative would argue that that our Facebook presence actually creates our identity. Daniel Miller, an anthropologist of digital media, argues for instance that our Facebook persona is a better representation of the person we really are. To quote a relatively long paragraph in his 2013 article, An Extreme Reading of Facebook, “As something you have crafted or chosen and not merely been born with, the mask is a better indication of the actual person than your unmasked face. This is why one of my informants states that the true person is the one you meet on Facebook, not the person you meet face-to-face. It follows that the truth about yourself is revealed to you by what you post on Facebook.” It is perhaps unspoken knowledge, but as a society, most of us reassess whether we like a person based on their online presence—we try not to, but we do. In an age where personhood is at least partially digitally constructed through the online sphere, being oneself is no longer simply a matter of living one’s life offline. For most people, the symbiotic relationship between one’s online presence and one’s offline presence creates one’s ontological self. 

This is where the document Events.htm becomes rather interesting. Events.htm is a file that details every single event that we have clicked attending to or interested in. As a file, it contains information that speaks of the socio-biographical history of an individual. Unlike Facebook posts, events typically fixes one to a specific locality—for instance, Londoners typically click attending to mostly London events, whilst Singaporeans in Singapore attend local events. From these events we can of course see the types of cultures or sub-cultures that we belong to. For most people who have used Facebook for more than half a decade, we can even trace the changes to our experiences of the “social” at different stages of our lives through a brief recollection of the kinds of people that you have met at those events. All these constitute the first layer of meaning —primary meaning— that advertisers are interested in. When we click “attending” for an event on Facebook, the secondary layer of meaning conveyed indicates to others of the type of person we want to appear to the online publics. It tells others, for instance, what we want our Facebook friends to know we’re attending, what we might sincerely be interested in, as well as what we might ironically be interested in. All these constitutes social signalling, in which we render a specific inner desire to be seen in a specific way into the online public sphere. Of course, the degree to which actors do this self-consciously varies from person to person—just like how some people are more self-aware than others in “real life”. However, for social agents that are self-aware, they know that their attendance or affiliation with a certain event or page will enable others to see them in a certain way, and therefore understand them to be a specific type of person. FB event attending, or page liking, thus generates social and cultural capital (or uncapital) through rendering visible into the public sphere performative acts of personhood. 

Therefore, from an anthropological perspective, both index.htm and Events.htm are unique artifacts. Friends.htm, on the other hand, is striking in a different way. (Friends.htm is a list of all your Facebook friends, with the dates you’ve added them at the side arranged in chronological order - go see it, it’s in the html folder as well.) On the surface, friends.htm might seem simple, innocuous. But, there is something rather profound and unsettling in the presentation of your friends in such a manner. In some ways, it quantifies for us the unquantifiable, transforming something abstract and emotive into simple social facts. It allows us to cognitively map our social histories in a linear manner, which is, incidentally, rather antithetical to how we typically think of relationships (as feelings, memories, or desires). As a repository of our social history, Friends.htm inevitably creates cognitive dissonance. 

As anthropological documents, or primary sources of knowledge, these three files occupy a curious place in the public/private divide: they are neither purely public nor entirely private. The fact that I can’t access anyone else’s friends.htm or events.htm attests to the private character of these files. Theoretically, however, (or at least to Facebook), it is “public” information, for we all have clicked “agree” to the terms and conditions. Yet it is not “public” in the same way that a statement made by a politician is “public”. The difference lies in access. Public statements made by politicians can be accessed by anyone with the relevant means, for instance with a computer or a television set. Ads.htm, along with files like friends.htm and events.htm, are only accessible to three broad category of individuals: the individuals themselves, advertisers, and Facebook. This is one instance where the meaning of “public” - at least in the Facebook context- has transformed in the age of platform capitalism to take the form of “semi-public”, or at least, “corporate-mediation”, where the only third party entities we trust with complete biographical information of ourselves are platforms and advertisers. 

In many ways, looking at these three files can be quite a life-changing experience. It almost feels like you are looking at an avatar of yourself in Second Life, except that you know that this is not a game: this is you, your experiences, and your “real” social life. Your downloadable Facebook data invariably creates a different form of self-knowledge. Whilst highly abstract, this mode of understanding has practical bearings for how we understand and deal with the day-to-day. Essentially, we are confronting the same social facts from a different angle—perhaps one might say we are confronting these facts from a structural angle— since friendship and events, which are typically recollected as a mixed bundle of feelings and memories, are rendered into an “objective” format for us to understand. And from its Excel-like neatness and sweeping coverage we gain a certain clarity and self-understanding that normal uses of Facebook doesn’t provide. We approach a step closer to (what might be conceived of as) our digital essence.