What Do Metrics Want? Facebook Demetricator and the Easing of Prescribed Sociality
The Facebook interface is filled with numbers that count users’ friends, comments, and “likes.” By combining theories of agency in artworks and images with a software studies analysis of quantifications in the Facebook interface, this paper examines how these metrics prescribe sociality within the site’s online social network. That prescription starts with the transformation of the human need for personal worth, within the confines of capitalism, into an insatiable “desire for more.” Audit culture and business ontology inculturate a reliance on quantification to evaluate whether that desire has been fulfilled. These conditions compel Facebook’s users to reimagine both self and friendship in quantitative terms, and situates them within a graphopticon, a self-induced audit of metricated social performance where the many watch the many. The theoretical analyses presented are further considered and examined in practice using the author’s artistic software, Facebook Demetricator. In use by thousands worldwide since late 2012, this software removes all metrics from the Facebook interface, inviting the site’s users to try the system without the numbers and to see how that removal changes their experience. Feedback from users of Facebook Demetricator illuminates how metrics activate the “desire for more,” driving users to want more “likes,” more comments, and more friends. Further, the metrics lead users to craft self-imposed rules around the numbers that guide them on how, when, and with whom to interact. Facebook Demetricator, through its removal of the metrics, both reveals and eases these patterns of prescribed sociality, enabling a network society less dependent on quantification.
I’m happy to share that I’ll be giving a panel presentation at Theorizing the Web 2014 in Brooklyn, NY this April. The title of my paper is “What Do Metrics Want? Facebook Demetricator and the Easing of Prescribed Sociality.” Theorizing the Web is an interdisciplinary annual conference that “brings together scholars, journalists, activists, and commentators to ask big questions about the interrelationships between the Web and society.” It’s a great group of people, and I’m very much looking forward to meeting a number of them in person.
The panel I’m on is titled “Remix: Refashioning the Web Through Art” and is being held at 10am on 26 April. In addition to the talk, I’ll also be presenting Facebook Demetricator as part of a gallery component of the conference. More on this soon.
I’m very happy to share that I’ve been named a finalist for the Arte Laguna Prize in Virtual and Digital Art! After two rounds of judging, I’m one of eight still left on the list in the category. I entered two works, ScareMail and Facebook Demetricator, and both were named on the announcement. As a result, I’ll be exhibiting both works during the Arte Laguna Finalist Exhibition being held at the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, Italy. I also have a shot at the 7k euro prize. The show opens on 23 March and is up through 6 April. Entrance is free and the venue is open from 10a to 6p.
My work ScareMail, a browser extension that makes email “scary” in order to disrupt NSA surveillance, was reviewed in the 20th anniversary issue of Neural. From the review, written by Aurelio Cianciotta:
The project aims to uncover defects in surveillance based on analysis of keywords wide-ranging, such as those found in the Black Book of the NSA. Many terms that could hypothetically indicate a message exchange between terrorists are extremely common and de facto make everyone subject to monitoring. ScareMail responds to this attack on the confidentiality of personal information by proposing a model of privacy diametrically opposed to the common concept: privacy that emerges from the multiplication of words in plain sight rather than from encryption and subterfuge.
Another project of mine, Facebook Demetricator, was previously reviewed in Neural as well.
I’ve been meaning to post these great animated GIFs of my work Computers Watching Movies made by Prosthetic Knowledge for a post he did about the project last January. If you don’t already follow Prosthetic Knowledge, you should. He’s often the first to find and post about interesting works, is considered an essential blog to follow by Wired, and he also writes for Rhizome.
My 2014 exhibition and presentation calendar is already shaping up to be a busy one.
Both Facebook Demetricator and ScareMail will be part of the Arte Laguna Prize Finalists Exhibition in Venice, Italy. My category, Virtual and Digital Art, will be on view at the Telecom Italia Future Centre from 23 March to 6 April. Entrance is free and the venue is open from 10a to 6p.
Facebook Demetricator will be on display in the gallery component of Theorizing the Web. The venue is Windmill Studios in Brooklyn, and the dates are 25-26 April. I’m also presenting about Demetricator as part of the conference panel sessions. [link]
ScareMail is currently on view in Buffalo as part of Yoko Ono Fan Club, at the University at Buffalo Art Gallery, through 29 March. Next up for ScareMail is Exuberant Politics, put on by the University of Iowa, and held at Legion Arts in Cedar Rapids from 6 Mar to 1 Apr.
The Electronic Literature Association conference (ELO2014) at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, includes a media art show component (separately refereed). ScareMail will be part of that show, and I’m also presenting about ScareMail and algorithmic text generation as an artistic strategy on a conference panel. [link]
I have a solo show at the newly created Web-Space, curated by Simon Bowerbank out of New Zealand. This show, focused on Computers Watching Movies, will include a never before released sketch clip from that work. This show will run during the month of April.
Finally, I neglected to mention here that Computers Watching Movies was part of the recently concluded COLLISION20 at the Boston Cyberarts Gallery. It was great to work with curator Will Tremblay.
And an extra: there’s another show in the planning stages that I’m very excited about! Check back (or subscribe to my feed) to keep up to date.
My work Computers Watching Movies was the subject of significant international press during January and February of 2014. Following are links to the major sources.
Articles About Computers Watching Movies
- Wired: This Is What a Computer Sees When It Watches The Matrix
- El País: También los ordenadores miran los clásicos del cine
- FastCoDesign: Watch Computers Watch Famous Movies
- Wired (UK): This is what a computer sees when it watches The Matrix
- Gizmodo: What computers see when they watch movies
- The New Aesthetic: Computers Watching Movies
- The Creators Project: This Is How A Computer Sees Movies
- Triangulation Blog: Computers Watching Movies by Benjamin Grosser
- FlowingData: What a computer sees while watching movies
- CHUD: What Happens When A Computer Watches THE MATRIX?
- Flavorwire: Computer Turns Worst Scene in American Beauty into Elegant Fridge-Art
- Kill Screen: Watch this talented robot do abstract sketches of your favorite movies
- Prosthetic Knowledge: Computers Watching Movies
- Animal NY: This is your computer watching The Matrix
- Laughing Squid: Visualizations of Famous Movie Scenes as Interpreted by Computational Systems
- Brainstorm9 [Brazil]: Como um computador assiste a um filme
- LOG [Turkey]: Filmler bir makinenin gözünden nasıl görünüyor?
- Neue Zürcher Zeitung [Switzerland]: Dame mit datenverarbeitendem System
- Filmink [Indonesia]: Menonton Komputer Menonton Film
- Cablook [Russia]: Компьютеры смотрят фильмы
- Bright [Netherlands]: Dit is hoe computers naar films kijken
- HiComm [Bulgaria]: Ето какво „вижда” компютърът, когато гледа филм
- Look At Me [Russia]: Художник показал, как компьютер «видит» фильмы
- Nerdcore [Germany]: Computers Watching Movies
- Digital Qatar [Qatar]: Your computer is watching movies. Just not the way you do!
- Regards sur le Numérique [France]: Ce que voit un ordinateur lorsqu’il regarde un film
- Vs. [Hungary]: Így néz filmet a számítógép
ArtBookGuy has named me a “Super Hot Artist for 2014.” I’m honored to be recognized by ABG this way. Last summer, he interviewed me about my work, and through that process I learned some essential things about him. For example, he is passionate about art and those who make it. He expresses this passion with his in-depth interviews and tireless promotion of those interviews. But most interesting to me is his desire to demystify the artistic process and the work it produces. He aims to get at what artists do, why they do it, and what their work does in the world. He does this with artists across genres and styles, and he does it all on his own time. There is too little of this in the world, and ABG is doing more than his fair share.
Since launching ScareMail a couple weeks ago, there has been a significant amount of media coverage. I’ve been thinking a lot about how ScareMail has been discussed across various types of media, including articles, comments, commentary, and social media sites like Reddit. I expect to post some writing about this soon. In the meantime, here is a list of a few interesting quotes. Following that are links to the major articles themselves.
…creative civil disobedience in the digital age. –Slate
Grosser … is the unrivaled king of ominous gibberish. –Chicago Tribune
…don’t blame us when the feds knock on your door. –FastCoExist
Articles About ScareMail
- The Atlantic: The Art Project That Wants the NSA to Read Your Email
- The Guardian: ScareMail plugin will flag all your email to the NSA
- Slate: The Gmail Extension That Aims to Drown the NSA in Nonsense
- Der Spiegel: So liest die NSA auch Ihre E-Mails [Germany]
- Chicago Tribune: Art project adds tinge of terror to everyday email
- FastCoExist: ScareMail Gets the NSA’s Attention By Mixing Some Terrorism Into Your Mundane Emails
- VentureBeat: Nerve gas, riot, & Al Qaeda: ScareMail stuffs e-mail with ‘scary’ keywords to confuse NSA filters
- Silicon Angle: ScareMail: The Ultimate Plan to Overwhelm the NSA
- Kaosenlared: Scaremail: Usando el sinsentido en la Lucha contra la Vigilancia en la red [Spain]
- VilaWeb: Farenheit 451 contra l’espionatge americà al vostre correu [Spain]
- De Standaard: E-mailplugin brengt NSA-afluisterfilters in de war [Belgium]
- HP/De Tijd: De NSA terugpesten: maak je e-mails terroristisch [Netherlands]
- RT: ‘ScareMail’ seeks to confuse NSA programs with nonsense [Russia]
- Radio 24syv: Aflyttet, Uge 41 (radio) [Netherlands]
- LaTeleLibre: L’Acte Subversif de Manifestation Numérique [France]
- Korben: Coucou la NSA! [France]
- Daily Dot: Want to get the NSA’s attention? Try ScareMail
- Big Think: Scaremail: Using Nonsense to Fight Surveillance
- eTeknix: ScareMail Browser Extension Seeks to Confuse and Overload NSA Monitoring Systems
- ALT1040: Ya puedes burlarte de la vigilancia de la NSA con ScareMail [Mexico]
- Bustle: ScareMail Gmail Extension Designed to Confuse NSA Spies
- BestVPN: ScareMail takes a different approach to NSA snooping
- Amusement: Want Some NSA Fun? Install ScareMail On Your Browser and Confuse the Agency [France]
- Insights and Rants: ScareMail is a fun way of showing the NSA the middle finger [South Africa]
- Opposing Views: ScareMail Plugin Designed to Flood NSA With Gibberish
- Reddit /r/privacy: Fill NSA servers with junk — ScareMail adds unique “scary” stories to email signatures in order to disrupt NSA surveillance
A newspaper columnist at the Chicago Tribune asked me this week if ScareMail is “potentially dangerous,” and whether it is “somewhat similar to jamming legitimate eavesdropping devices.” My response follows:
No, ScareMail is not dangerous. It’s an artwork about how systems interact with systems, about the role of language within those systems, how software enables surveillance, and about the challenges to privacy and free speech in the current political climate. On this last point, ScareMail draws attention to a flaw in the NSA’s thinking—that words in an email are the same thing as intent. Further, ScareMail proposes a model of privacy built on visibility and noise as opposed to one built on encryption and silence.
ScareMail also demonstrates that very few people feel comfortable challenging the NSA; after thousands of visitors to the ScareMail website and international press attention, ScareMail has had few downloads. The number of people still using it after that initial download is probably much smaller. Clearly people are interested in challenging the NSA in some way, but not by attracting too much attention to themselves.
Whether one could be private within ScareMail’s model is debatable. What is less debatable is that those with nefarious intent are unlikely to use ScareMail. They don’t want to attract NSA attention. They’re more likely to use encryption and to avoid commercial email services based in the USA. In other words, the NSA’s mass email surveillance isn’t catching who they want anyway.
Before the Internet, surveillance was a targeted operation, based on probable cause and the result of a warrant signed by a judge. This makes sense as it fits our due process clause of the Constitution and maintains appropriate checks and balances on police power.
What doesn’t make sense is taking advantage of new communications technologies in order to conduct mass unchecked surveillance on everyone without any sense of probable cause or due process. Searching our electronic text for keywords draws all kinds of people into government focus without any cause. ScareMail demonstrates this clearly, as any mail caught because of its ScareMail signature is an email whose “scary” words have no meaning.
On October 4–6, 2013, Eyebeam will host the first event of its kind, PRISM Breakup, a series of art and technology events dedicated to exploring and providing forms of protection from surveillance. This event came about in part from Eyebeam’s mission to support the work of artists who critically expose technologies and examine their relationship to society, as well as offering continued support to its alumni following their residencies. The gathering will bring together a wide spectrum of artists, hackers, academics, activists, security analysts and journalists for a long weekend of meaningful conversation, hands-on workshops, and an art exhibition that will be open October 4–12.
This is the kind of thing Eyebeam excels at—if you’re in NYC between Oct 4-12, I highly recommend you stop by! The show is coordinated by Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Allison Burtch, Aurelia Moser, and Ramsey Nasser.
This summer I was interviewed by Michael Corbin, also known as ArtBookGuy. It was a great conversation, and we covered a variety of topics including new media, software, Facebook, presentism, artistic labor, why we always want more, robots, and the point of art. If these topics sound intriguing, take a look at Ben Grosser: New Media.
If you aren’t familiar with ArtBookGuy, he has amassed an impressive collection of artist interviews. They don’t have the stilted, formal feel of many of the genre, but are instead in a conversational style that follows threads wherever they go. There’s lots to learn here! ArtBookGuy has also interviewed a couple of my friends: Patrick Hammie and Flounder Lee.
Many thanks to Michael for the great conversation and for contributing to the artist community in this way.
My work Self Portrait, from my Flexible Pixels Project, will be part of the upcoming show Within: 9th Annual National Self-Portrait Exhibition in Chicago. The show, curated by Sergio Gomez, features small works less than 12×12″ in size. Held at the 33 Contemporary Gallery in the Zhou B. Art Center, the show runs from July 19 to August 10. The opening is on July 19 from 7-1opm.
My work, Facebook Demetricator, will be part of the upcoming show Public Assembly at The White Building in London, UK. Organized by Free Cooper Union UK, the show promises “a one-day free school celebrating alternative forms of knowledge and creative expression in art and technology.”
Facebook Demetricator will be part of the new media protest art section of the program, and is also a featured download on the show’s website. The show will be held on June 30, 2013, at The White Building, 7 Queens Yard, London.