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How to Put Up a Facebook Resistance

by Oliver Leistert — last modified Feb 21, 2012 08:47 AM
Review of Marc Stumpel’s essay, "Mapping the Politics of Web 2.0: Facebook Resistance", in Digital Alternatives with a Cause Book 2: To Think, pp.24-31 by Oliver Leistert.
How to Put Up a Facebook Resistance

The dictatorial invention of Facebook's timeline directly connects with Marc Stumpel's argument about where and how resistance within Facebook is possible.

Facebook is right now in a peculiar situation: the planned IPO bears a lot of risks and puts pressure on the Western market leader of Social Networking Sites. The current discussion about Facebook's timeline is only the tip of the iceberg, a symptom of a larger conflict that lurks behind it: how much direct marketing are Facebook users willing to take? How many drastic top-down changes of the user's Facebook experience are possible unless they understand that their presence on this site and what they do there is in tension with the company's goals that provides this digital environment?

Stumpel addresses Facebook as a communication instance that is subordinated by power lines. He refers to Manuel Castell's notion of power in the network society. This characterization then is expanded to the concept of protocological control as outlined by Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker. While Castell's power concept still very much resonates within conventional power theories of the political sciences, which proclaim that someone holds power while someone else doesn't, Galloway and Thacker open this notion towards the micro-elements within power relations of a networked society. Considering software and protocol as agents of power that proscribe the way how communication flows are possible, they open the black box of technology and understand it, like many other Science and Technology Studies Scholars, as enmeshed into societal relations, as products of societal relations and as production sites of societal relations. Code is law, code is an executable materiality, and code is flawed. The point of design is one possible point of resistance: “the possibilities afforded by Facebook to its users are infinite only as long as they subscribe to the normative operating logic of its design” and thus Stumpel's project, Fbresistance.com, plays with new designs to provoke new use.

Since many debates about Facebook either concentrate on how to use it the right way (i.e. more privacy aware) or ways to leave Facebook completely, Stumpel's proposal is original as it discusses how to empower users within Facebook, which at first glance looks counterintuitive and not so promising. And of course, the effects are limited because the remaining part of a systemic logic reduces the means of resistance to the degree that the key components of Facebook use need to remain operational. This is not a proposal for the n-th new, decentralized and non-commercial geek-affine network. In a sense, Stumpel reconsiders within the realm of an undemocratic regime the kind of bottom-up approaches that both, put pressure on Facebook and make it at least look more like an instance of software that the user has produced. As he writes “control is exercised through predefined options, preferences and possible actions which are imposed onto the user” (28) therefore a line of resistance, and thus empowerment, is to eliminate such predefined options and invent new ones beyond Facebook's regime.

These means are limited technically as the point of interrogation is on the client side. Most effectively, Facebook Resistance as Stumpel envisions it, is a tool [1] to change the User Interface beyond the default lines defined by either browser setting or the user's Facebook options page. The client-sided site of action has a surprising effect that goes clearly beyond what the company wants: because JavaScript is a powerful instance in the machinic process that affects not only how one sees the screen, but can change functionality and processes.

But there is a downside here: as much as Facebook interacts with single users and single users are replicating their subjectivity on Facebook in an opportunistic fashion, to use Greasemonkey [2] as tool of resistance keeps the effects of change limited to the individual user's page and screen. Friends that check a Facebook page that has been changed with Greasemonkey tools will not see these changes. They remain excluded from this resistance. This is because a client-side resistance designed with Greasemonkey cannot be shared and cannot become a common experience. Here, I think, the proposal to challenge Facebook within Facebook's realm reaches its limits and it becomes clear that the protocological regime is stable as long as its servers are not affected. The “exploit” that Galloway and Thacker seek as the contemporary form of resistance within digital environments need to be placed within the network and needs to have a bi-directional communication capacity to reach out. Stumpel argues that applying client-sided Javascript already is a way to exploit the protocological regime [3].

At the core of the rhetorics of Web 2.0 prosumerism is the blurring of production and consumption and the proclamation of the user as a productive entity. Stumpel's argument lies somewhat in between two worlds: rightly claiming that code is the key to digital autonomy and client side code cannot deliver this autonomy, like an alternative Social Networking Site that offers open protocols so that any other code base can connect. Scripting away one's Facebook page is a good start to understand the materiality of one's online presence.

A way out of this systemic dilemma is to publish screenshots of how one sees the page changed with self made scripts. This method has already proven to be a great aid in circumventing censorship [4], which is just another regime of what-you-see-is-what-we-want-you-to-see (WYSIWWWYTS). This as well shows the limits of power of code: image files can transport human centric layers that machines are (still) not capable to decode. Thus, by and large images remain a non-object in the code regime. This is a cheap and useful exploit.

As a lot of people don't feel the agency to leave Facebook altogether because they have invested too much of their social life into the machine, already one can consider this as Facebook's real power: the social lock-in. Thus all considerations to challenge Facebook from within its own domain and regime are ways to irritate Facebook's basic layer: their economy which is based on selling ads and data through standardized forms and sites. If a critical number of Facebook sites would be DIY styled, many clients of Facebook and the huge armada of third-parties behind it would fast be worried about their assumption that with Facebook, communal communications have been successfully commodified in a stable way that allows investments of billions of dollars.


Oliver Liestart Oliver Leistert
Oliver Leistert is a media researcher focusing on mobile, online, and protest media. Currently a research fellow at the Center for Media and Communication Studies at the Central European University, Budapest, he recently co-edited, together with Theo Röhle, the first critical volume about Facebook in German: Generation Facebook. Über das Leben im Social Net. He runs a little blog: http://nomedia.noblogs.org

[1].http://fbresistance.com/

[2].https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/greasemonkey

[3].For a larger list of scripts that are affecting one's view on Facebook, see https://userscripts.org/tags/facebook

[4].The art work of Christoph Wachter and Matthias Jud called Picidae takes screenshots of a site from one node of the internet and sends the view to a user somewhere else: http://net.picidae.net/

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