Mothers of Jews who like bacon: Where Facebook meets identity politics

Tom Scott did something extraordinary last week: he typed in searches on Facebook’s new Graph Search feature and posted images of the results on his tumblr, called ActualFacebookGraphSearches.

… which sounds quite un-extraordinary. Except that Scott – something of an intellectual joker – searched phrases like “current employers of people who like racism,” and “Islamic men interested in men who live in Tehran, Iran,” and “married people who like prostitutes.”

The search results spit out a compilation of every person falling into the category of the search query – their names, faces, job locations, friends, family, relationship status, interests, educational background, and anything else listed on their Facebook pages.

Scott’s extraordinary feat basically amounted to wising up the marks – Facebook users – as to the extent to which information about them is available and manipulable by anyone, anywhere, and for any purpose. And, further, the marks have very little control over the who, when, where, and why. In a recent Atlantic article, Megan Garber points out that

ActualFacebookSearches highlights another danger, too — less immediate, but there nonetheless as a harbinger of the way we will relate to and understand each other in a data-driven world: Facebook categorizes us. Or, rather, we categorize ourselves through the mechanism of Facebook. And Graph Search means that people outside of Facebook can re-categorize us according to agendas that have much less to do with “connecting the world” and much more to do with stratifying it.

So if I’m married to a guy who likes prostitutes, that is no longer just a circumstance. That is a category, with all the freight of implication that comes with it. Categories extrapolate. Categories separate. My marital status, and the context of it, and the happiness or sadness of it, may still be an intimate, nuanced, messy thing, a thing so intimate and nuanced and messy that it can be called a fact only in the strictest sense. Under Facebook’s auspices, however, that feature of my life is stripped down and cross-referenced and otherwise transformed into a unit of actionable information — for Facebook, and, as Scott makes clear, for anyone else who makes it their business to benefit from the systematic categorization of society.

It is both funny and ridiculous that we can now find, on Facebook, the population of people who currently work at Tesco and like horses. But it’s also a reminder that Facebook is changing how we think of “populations” in the first place: not just as people who share circumstances, but as data points that share statistics.

What really hits home about this: the systematic categorization of one’s personal identity is a way of branding someone, and this Facebook tool puts the instruments of automatic branding at the fingertips of anyone.

What’s really promising about this: it looks as though Facebook has just introduced an(other?) internal tension. A social interface like Facebook is an excellent means of branding oneself – that is, constructing one’s identity as a unique image of oneself through one’s interactions, such as ‘liking’ certain pages or material and engaging with a particular group of friends. So the tension seems to be between allowing users to brand themselves as well as allowing them to brand others.

But, as Garber points out, this becomes politically – and morally, I would add – suspect when it comes to the social-political implications of external entities asserting branding categorizations over top of our self-constructed identities for the purpose of reinforcing existing category distinctions – that is, between wealthy and destitute, educated and uneducated, democratic and non-democratic, rural and urban; basically, between those who have social and political standing (those on the ‘winning’ side of history) and those who do not (already marginalized or vulnerable populations).

Take the following as an extreme but clear example: the Graph Search results for “Islamic men interested in men who live in Tehran, Iran,” are not just a list of people who may or may not constitute a “target audience” for advertisers; they are also targets of another sort. Returned in the list of results are many dimensions of personal information, including photo identification, lists of their friends, and their current place of employment. In other words, these search results can put people in real danger by enabling existing power structures that aim to dominate, stratify, and oppress.

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