Contemporary Social Media:
Facebook and Twitter
Ben Grosser creates interactive experiences, machines, and systems that examine the cultural, social, and political implications of software. Recent exhibition venues include Arebyte Gallery in London, Museu das Comunicações in Lisbon, Museum Kesselhaus in Berlin, and Galerie Charlot in Paris. His works have been featured in The New Yorker, Wired, The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Telegraph, El País, Liberation, Le Monde, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and Der Spiegel. The Chicago Tribune called him the "unrivaled king of ominous gibberish." Slate referred to his work as "creative civil disobedience in the digital age."
Grosser's recognitions include First Prize in VIDA 16, and the Expanded Media Award for Network Culture from Stuttgarter Filmwinter. His writing about the cultural effects of technology has been published in journals such as Computational Culture, Media-N, and Big Data and Society. Grosser is an assistant professor of new media at the School of Art + Design, co-founder of the Critical Technology Studies Lab at NCSA, and an affiliate faculty member with the Unit for Criticism and the School of Information Sciences, all at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Website: https://bengrosser.com
Facebook and Twitter Demetricators
As an artist, I focus on the cultural, social, and political effects of software. How is an interface that foregrounds our friend count changing our conceptions of friendship? Why do we care about how many "likes" we get, and what makes us want *more* (rather than, say, less)? Who benefits when a software system can intuit how we feel? To examine questions like these, I construct interactive experiences, machines, and systems that make the familiar unfamiliar, revealing the ways that software prescribes our behavior and thus, how it changes who we are.
My primary artistic research method -- at least as it relates to much of my net-based work -- is what I call "software recomposition" --> treating existing websites and other software systems not as fixed spaces of consumption and prescribed interaction but instead as fluid spaces of manipulation and experimentation.
A key strategy is erasure. For example, my ongoing work Facebook Demetricator is a web browser extension that removes all quantifications from the Facebook interface. As code, the work sits between user and system, watching for and hiding the Facebook numbers that count everything from "likes" to "shares" to comments and more. This removal then enables myself and others to explore the roles metrics play in prescribing sociality in online spaces. Feedback from Demetricator's users has revealed that hiding social metrics blunts feelings of competition and removes compulsive behaviors. Perhaps most interestingly, Demetricator has helped users realize that they craft rules for themselves about how to act (and not act) within Facebook, based on what the numbers say. Additional works of mine that employ erasure are my other Demetricators (for Twitter and Instagram), as well as Textbook and Safebook. Related works that examine the effects of metrics in software interfaces include Get More, Please Don't Like This, Reload the Love, and More Like This.
Obfuscation is the recomposition strategy in my work Go Rando. This work intervenes in Facebook’s "reactions" (Haha, Wow, Sad, etc.). While "reacting" can help your friends understand how you feel, these recorded feelings also enable an emotional surveillance that fuels government profiling, targeted advertising, and political manipulation. Go Rando not only aims to let users disrupt this data collection, but also to create conversation around the effects of emotional surveillance in personal, public, and civic life. Materially, the work is a web browser extension that obfuscates a user’s feelings on Facebook. Every time a user clicks "Like," Go Rando randomly chooses one of the six reactions for them. Over time, they appear to Facebook's algorithms as someone whose feelings are emotionally "balanced" -- as someone who feels Angry as much as Haha or Sad as much as Love. Beyond the injection of noise into a user's data-based emotion profile, the work employs humor to encourage reconsideration of Facebook’s effects.
In addition to my artworks, I occasionally write and publish articles, and I spend a lot of time in conversation with the media. These conversations -- and the articles they contribute to -- is an intentional outcome for me; I use my artworks as fuel for public discussion about the ways that technology shapes our lives.
I'm happy to talk about any aspect of my practice, from concept to code to discourse -- as well as any related subject (e.g. privacy, surveillance capitalism, etc.) or specific topic (e.g. Facebook as an enabler of disinformation campaigns, Twitter's suggestions they may be recognizing the negative effects of metrics, etc.). Or to just respond to the conversation as it evolves. Happy to be on the panel, and thanks to Judy for assembling it!
Transcript of Ben Grosser's Facebook conversation