The Passively Monitored Self and the Death of a “Backstage”

September 27, 2011 at 4:29 am 4 comments

| Gabriel |

Practical advice will follow, but first a rant.

I have previously complained about “social” features that automate how you share information, especially when such features are opt-out rather than opt-in. For instance, I was not enthusiastic about Skype “mood messages” giving your friends and colleagues a play-by-play of what music you listen to, nor was I enamored of a product that would share your browser history.

It’s not as if I’m an introverted recluse either. I have a blog and I correspond pretty actively by e-mail, but the difference is that in these media I actively and deliberately control the flow of information rather than having the prestigious, shameful, and indifferent aspects of my personality and behavior all indiscriminately broadcast to my alters.

I have a fantasy in which Mark Zuckerberg is weeping in his garden when he overhears some neighbor children saying “take and read.” He looks up and notices an old copy of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life sitting on the table. Tolle lege Mr. Zuckerberg, tolle lege.

Barring such an epiphany, I wouldn’t be surprised if next year’s Facebook Developer’s Conference includes announcements that American Standard is going social to automatically let your friends know when you use the toilet. Or perhaps Vivid will automatically tell all your second cousins and old friends from high school what pornography you’ve purchased. Or Gap brands could let all your friends know what size pants you wear. Visa could post a status update giving the vendor, address, and dollar value every time you buy anything. Because, really, everything’s better when it’s social regardless of whether it’s humiliating or just pointless information overload. It’s a brave new world of web 2.0 social media integration!

Anyway, I was most recently aggravated by Spotify which (like most things nowadays) defaults to over-sharing. Spotify describes this to NPR as “Freeing people from the hassle of actively sharing songs they like [which] will help keep people engaged in their friends’ listening habits without effort.” Some of us prefer to have this “hassle” because the alternative is an uncensored view of our listening habits. As I wrote when Apple added its “Ping” social feature to iTunes:

As a cultural sociologist who has published research on music as cultural capital, I understand how my successful presentation of self depends on me making y’all believe that I only listen to George Gershwin, John Adams, Hank Williams, the Raveonettes, and Sleater-Kinney, as compared to what I actually listen to 90% of the time, which is none of your fucking business.

Anyway, the worst thing about Spotify freeing you from privacyhassle is it does so by default and it’s difficult to opt-out. You can edit your profile to suppress playlists, but by default they are all revealed and even if you suppress them, new ones created thereafter are revealed. Worse, editing your profile provides no way to suppress “Top Tracks” and “Top Artists” (at least in the Mac client version 0.6.1). After a fair amount of searching (and coming very close to deleting my account entirely), I discovered that it’s fairly easy to totally suppress all of this through the client’s preferences. Just go to the “Spotify” menu and choose “Preferences . . .” then scroll down and uncheck these boxes:

You may now return to the dignity of crafting a public personae that is only loosely coupled to your backstage behavior. Enjoy.


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  • 1. Jay Livingston  |  September 27, 2011 at 5:13 am

    Thank you for not sharing. I feel the same way.

    After they put Windows 7 on my computer (yes, I know, I should convert to Mac), I found that when I went to store a music file (or was it a jpeg?), I nearly put it in this new folder “Public Music” (or “Public Pictures” or “Public Videos.”), which Mr. Gates had kindly added to my file structure.

    Compulsory sharing seems so kindergarten, but now it’s the default setting.

  • 2. brayden king  |  September 27, 2011 at 8:27 am

    Gabriel – I have to admit, I’m a fan of oversharing of this type. I never really thought of it as a privacy violation (mainly, because I don’t think music tastes are so consequential that they shape my opinion of a person’s character). The way I’ve thought about it, and the reason I kinda like the feature, is that it functions as a search/exploration mechanism – a way to broaden our tastes. We may think we know what others listen to, but by making it public Spotify helps us identify gaps in our own listening habits (e.g., maybe I ought to give Ke$ha a try if Gabriel finds her so appealing). It lowers the shame bar for finding new music.

    • 3. gabrielrossman  |  September 27, 2011 at 8:38 am

      We’ve already suffered rather precipitous declines in cultural capital with the post-1950 birth cohorts and I shudder to think how bad it would be without the finger in the dike that is preference falsification. I mean, is the world really a better place if you discover that I listen to Ke$ha for several hours a day and then figure that if I like her so much that you might as well give her a shot yourself? Far better for such listening to remain furtive and thereby insulate my beloved friends from being influenced by my degradation. To paraphrase, Rouchefoucauld, lying about what’s on your ipod is the tribute that bad taste pays to cultural capital.

      • 4. brayden king  |  September 27, 2011 at 8:42 am

        But Gabriel, degradation of musical tastes is the new cultural capital!

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