Jacob Silverman, by his own admission, has a "jaundiced eye." His first book, "Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection," proves this self-appraisal all too well. "Terms of Service" is a bleak, unsparing and discomfiting critique of a modern life built around Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.
Which makes it essential. Most likely, everyone reading this review has clicked the "agree" button on a software program's terms of service without reading the fine print. Such behavior might be excusable for an individual in a hurry, but it's no way to run a culture.
Silverman has made a name for himself in recent years as a thoughtful critic of our evolving digital lifestyles. In "Terms of Service," he puts it all together, relentlessly documenting the enormous price we pay for constant online connection. We've offered up every detail of our lives to advertiser manipulation, voluntarily embraced a panopticonic existence of constant surveillance, and supinely allowed a bunch of techno-utopian Silicon Valley companies to guide and shape our behavior.
If you can get to the end of "Terms of Service" and feel no qualms about sharing your latest baby pictures on your favorite social network, well, you can't say you weren't warned. "Terms of Service" is a challenge to our new status quo that must be reckoned with.
Silverman is at his best when reporting on how our new ecology of likes and shares feeds the predatory capitalist maw, while exposing the self-serving rhetoric of the likes of Mark Zuckerberg. His introductory manifesto is on point: "Internet giants," he writes, "don't deserve our deference…. Our relationships with them should be adversarial, full of skepticism and critique."
But the pessimism that drenches every page makes this book less successful on the question of what social media users are getting in return for their exploitation. A big fan of the imperial "we," Silverman has a tendency to generalize about how "we" experience social media in a way that makes "us" all seem like unwitting participants in an explosion of superficiality.
Case in point: During a section deriding the explosion of photograph sharing, Silverman writes: "we care less about having fun at a party than we do about checking in on Foursquare and appearing in others' photographs, our bodies and clothes arranged just so, all a means of telling people that we're having fun at a party…"
"Photos become less about memorializing a moment than communicating the reality of that moment to others," continues Silverman, "they are also a way to handle the newfound anxiety over living in the present moment, knowing that our friends and colleagues may be doing something more interesting at just that very moment, and that we will see those experiences documented later on social media. Do we come to feel an anticipatory regret, sensing that future social media postings will make our own activities appear inadequate by comparison?"
Do we? Sometimes a baby picture, you know, is just a baby picture. If social media were as shallow and meaningless and soulless as Silverman argues, then "we" — the billions of people around the world spending so many billions of hours engaging with these networks — are all hornswoggled fools.
Maybe so. But Silverman goes too far, weakening the force of his overall argument when he does things like argue that in venues like Facebook, "life's setbacks, even a death in the family, are presented with such overwrought sentimentality that it's possible to think that such tragedies are welcomed, because they offer an opportunity to share and be embraced by the social media cocoon." This is too dark. It is not wrong to grieve on social media.
What makes our emerging digital culture so interesting is that we are — we must be — getting something real from it. We go on these networks not just to pump up our egos and flatter ourselves with a cascade of "micro-affirmations" — a.k.a. "likes." We go there to play, to joke around, to shoot the breeze, to get a taste of what's happening in a larger world. It's kind of a miracle, this "place" where our friends from high school, from college, from that year or two we spent abroad, our former work colleagues and our scattered families can all come together, can all check in and convene. The serendipity built into something like Twitter, which effortlessly spawns random new 140-character friendships across the globe, is a marvelous thing.
Before social media, you could argue that the modern world specialized in tearing us apart, in atomizing the relationships that once bound societies together. Now we've got something that helps lace the grand tapestry back together. This is not a bad thing.
What is truly unsettling is that our embrace of social media for our own purposes ends up feeding, as Silverman writes, "an environment of mass surveillance in which every action and incidental association is treated as consequential, all grist to be fed through the data-mining mill." Silverman is correct: It is critical that we monitor and understand the consequences of "the data-ization of the digital self."
"Terms of Service" is essential reading for understanding that transaction. But the argument would be stronger if it had room for the valid reasons why we're so quick to click the agree button. Because we aren't quite as dumb as our tweets sometimes make us look.
Leonard is a freelance writer based in Berkeley.
Terms of Service
Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection
Harper: 416 pp., $26.99