Boy Kings

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* Book: Katherine Losse. The Boy Kings: A Journey Into The Heart Of The Social Network. Free Press, 2012.


URL = http://theboykings.com/ [http://books.simonandschuster.com/Boy-Kings/Katherine-Losse/9781451668254)

= "The Boy Kings is a memoir of Silicon Valley from 2005-2010, narrating the rise of social media and the ways it changed the world".


Review

Rob Horning:

"I recently finished reading The Boy Kings, Katherine Losse’s account of what it was like to work at Facebook from 2005 to 2010. It’s not a tell-all, burn-all-bridges exposé by any means, but it is fairly critical of Facebook’s hubris and its personality-warping effects on users. A year ago I wrote an essay that argued that Facebook was a training ground for becoming a neoliberal subject, and lots of Losse’s observations seem to me to confirm that. Connectivity and flexibility for their own sake were valorized at Facebook, even as the site’s architecture was designed to capture and digitize more of users’ behavior. A hacker ethos was glorified while it was also domesticated; rules were for the little people (or the ordinary Facebook users) while the worthy devise “social hacks” to get ahead through heedless defiance and supplicating sweet talk after the fact.


Losse writes:

- Engineers were tacitly encouraged to break rules while the rest of the company had to follow them, unless they had some trick of their own. The people in the company who could get around this paradox were the ones who could social it (the short term for social engineering or hacking one’s way around something using social means) by breaking the right rules and, above all, remaining popular, and in doing so riding all the inherent corporate contradictions as far as they would take them.

This and other passages reminded me a bit of Shoshana Zuboff’s In the Age of the Smart Machine (I wrote about that book here), which explores how computerization made executive privilege even more ineffable and rarefied, as everyone else’s work was deskilled and made subject to quantification. That view makes Facebook’s goal to digitize everything in the everyday life of its users even more sinister, as it suggests it is an attempt to deskill everyone with respect to the sort of “social engineering” Losse refers to as the source of hacker power.

I was sort of shocked to learn that Facebook’s engineers were actually also enthusiastic Facebook users, especially given how callously Facebook tends to treat its users. Losse chalks this up to Facebook’s engineers having a technological mind-set that is indifferent to all things nonquanitfiable, all things not manipulatable as data. But could they possibly be blind to the way Facebook use makes them subject to the same sort of control protocols, the same surveillance and subjugation, depriving them of the space to work social hacks and instead leaving them to have to grind out social capital (just like all the other rubes on Facebook) through ceaseless uncompensated work on the social network? It seems to me that Facebook makes your connections overt and obvious, whereas the connections and the charisma that matter to socialing advantages for yourself are not. When captured by Facebook, that kind of privilege, which often operates in secret and can only be inferred, gets dispersed. Trying to use Facebook connections to get ahead is not a hack; that is just playing the game as it has always been played — getting the right recommendations, sucking up, etc., etc. The real power is in getting people to do you unacknowledged, untraceable favors, and being able to grant them.

What Facebook makes inescapable, Losse notes, is the transformation of all captured information into cultural capital, into currency in a status game. “Instead of making a technology of understanding,” Losse writes, “we seemed to sometimes to be making a technology of the opposite: pure, dehumanizing objectification. We were optimizing ways to judge and use and dispose of people, without having to consider their feelings, or that they had feelings at all.” Feelings are for the social hackers; for Facebook’s user base, feelings don’t count — they’ve been recast as likes and been dispensed with.

Basically, Losse restates the idea that social media mainly prompts not “openness” but judgment, poseurdom, defensiveness, and resentment. It serves to guarantee that information is used to articulate hierarchies rather than dismantle them. The best we can hope for is the coexistence online of multiple hierarchies, some of which we might be able to dominate. (“Dominate,” incidentally, turns out to be a favorite word of Mark Zuckerberg’s.)

In social media the point of information is always status, all the time. Nothing is for its own sake. This means,as Losse frequently claims, that using Facebook robs you of a sense of spontaneity and compromises your sense of personal authenticity. Everything becomes self-conscious, somewhat desperately strategic — and the more intense the social surveillance through Facebook and other social media is, the more this is the case. Without any space outside to develop identity autonomy, we have no space to try out tentative beliefs (as philosopher Tom Sorell argues here); instead much of what we try is immediately fed into algorithms and social-judgment mechanisms and has gravity and persistence.

Losse points out how Facebook’s News Feed and like buttons led to a company culture in which personality traits and experiences needed a “proof of concept” through appropriate metrics before being embraced as cool. As social media has become more omnipresent, trying out identity without “proof of concept” has become more risky. It begins to make sense to commit to no particular identity in advance and live from within a sort of beta-testing self to see what sort of self the network tells you that you should embrace. Since News Feed relies on algorithms to narrativize our life experiences in terms of what has proved popular with our “friends,” why not let it tell our life story rather than trying to devise one in advance, before the fact?

What Facebook use may be doing is acclimating users to this post hoc self. Users seize as their identity only what they are told is acceptable after the fact — an algorithmically recommended personality. In other words, social media redefines spontaneity as orthodoxy much like it redefines serendipity as automatically generated recommendations. Spontaneity becomes surprise at what algorithms and tracking tell us we should own as the basis of our identity. Oh! That’s who I am!


Toward the end of the book, Losse wonders if Facebook’s engineers are generally so out of touch with themselves that they developed the site expressly with this intention, to make having a core personality somewhat superfluous:

- For all their rabid data consumption, there was a lot the engineers didn’t know. That was partly why Mark made Facebook, and why the boys of the valley were so busy turning our lives into data, as if by doing so, their algorithms could tell them something that their eyes and hearts couldn’t. As Thrax [one of Facebook's engineers] announced triumphantly at his desk one day, “I just wrote an algorithm to tell me who I am closest to!” He went on to show a set of scores that, according to his algorithm’s calculations, revealed how close he was to all his Facebook friends.

Some version of that algorithm is likely powering Facebook’s mechanism for choreographing users’ News Feed, deciding for them what sorts of information they should want about the people they are connected to.

Losse laments several times that Facebook undermines our ability to be “loved for who we really are” by inviting universal judgment of everything we “share.” But a clearer way of putting that may be that Facebook is making “who you really are” a moribund concept. Facebook, in fact, solves the need to be loved for who we really are by dispensing with it. The site lets users garner the far more secure experience of being loved for becoming the algorithmically desired object. If you view algorithms not as rankings but as instructions — not as judging the a priori self but positing one to be that can’t be judged — perhaps you will be set free to become who you really are rather than express some version of it contrived in advance." (http://thenewinquiry.com/blogs/marginal-utility/dominate/)


Profile

Joanna Biggs:

"Katherine Losse, Facebook employee #51 (the company now numbers 4619), would probably count as one of Sandberg’s lean-backs for having quit her job as CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s corporate ghost-writer. The ease of Sandberg’s ascent does something light-headed to her feminism, just as Losse’s experience of being an English major in a company built around the late nights, taste for over-salty junk food and pretensions to world domination of a group of computer nerds does something lumpen to hers. Sandberg and Losse don’t see the world around them as millennial: ‘These things did not happen in 1951. They happened in 2011,’ Sandberg says of T-shirts with slogans like ‘Pretty like Mommy’. ‘You were like Peggy on Mad Men,’ a friend tells Losse the day she leaves the social network, comparing her to the secretary turned copywriter in an imaginary 1950s ad agency.

Losse joined Facebook’s user support team when she got fed up with her job writing labels for cucumber facewash. She was only the second woman to join the company, so on her first day the email address [email protected] was still available. As Facebook’s ur-Kate, she was ‘queen of a world in which every other Kate would be derived from my archetype’. While she wrote answers to users’ questions (‘What does “poking” mean?’), she surveyed the kingdom. Fridges were filled with every type of fizzy drink; ‘stylised women with large breasts bursting from small tops’ were drawn on the walls; engineers whose working day began at 7 p.m. played with gadgets while lounging on human-sized bean bags. But these chillaxing engineers, led by Zuckerberg, were the ones who could bring the site back up with a few hours of frantic coding, and everyone else, considered ‘duller, incapable of quick and intelligent thought’, was there to serve the thing they had created and, therefore, them. ‘Everyone upstairs is dumb,’ they would say when Facebook moved into a bigger building and the engineers got their own floor.

The division of labour seemed mid-century to Losse, who saw that the way to get on was to be one of the boys. She came up with the idea of renting a pool house where they could play Beer Pong (the object is to land a ping-pong ball in a glass of beer that your opponent has to down) while listening to their favourite robot electronica, Daft Punk, in the sunny downtime between coding sessions and answering emails. On the weekly trips they made to Fry’s Electronics – they didn’t want to miss the arrival of a new component – she would occupy herself marvelling at the Wild West theme of the Palo Alto branch. One Sunday morning she found a statue of a gun-toting Annie Oakley with her knee up on a bale of Linux manuals. Though her salary was a great deal lower than those of the boy engineers she hung out with, they would give her a weekend pass for the Coachella music festival or a plane ticket to Vegas, where they would video and photograph themselves shooing away pretty girls and update their Facebook profiles in real time. They had created the News Feed feature in their own image, as ‘a boyishly cold, digitally perfected ego’, so they knew which ‘stories’ their algorithms wanted. Losse adopted a wry, weary postmodern tone and began posting crude horizontal hearts (<3) on every story. Even this, which Losse understands as a quiet protest, showed she understood them, and she was put on an engineer-level salary to manage the translation of the site into French and Spanish and German and Japanese and Italian. Facebook really was conquering the world.

Losse gets closer still to Facebook’s vision when she is appointed Zuckerberg’s voice on earth. The first email she ghosted announced her appointment (‘It’s a good story,’ Zuckerberg said). She was good at it: ‘This pretty much sounds exactly like what I would write,’ he comments, but ‘I never use a comma before a conjunction.’ One afternoon Zuckerberg asked her to start work on a series of longer posts setting out his thinking on where Facebook was headed. The topics were ‘revolutions and giving people the power to share; openness as a force in our generation; moving from countries to companies; everyone becoming developers and how we support that; net-native generation of companies; young people building companies; purpose-driven companies; starting Facebook as a small project and big theory’. When she asked what he meant by companies over countries, he said ‘it means that the best thing to do now, if you want to change the world, is to start a company. It’s the best model for getting things done and bringing your vision to the world.’ Private companies don’t need to worry about getting elected or breaking laws like old-fashioned, unwieldy nation states do. Facebook’s unencumbered, efficient, agile, hackerish style is to make everything seem ‘easy’ – and when you need, in one of Zuckerberg’s favourite phrases, to ‘move fast and break things’, you just shrug. You just shrug when you change the site’s privacy settings overnight to capture lucrative personal information and make Facebook’s IPO one of the biggest in Silicon Valley. Losse didn’t write the posts accidentally on purpose. A few months later she sold her equity and moved to Marfa, Texas, where the coverage is so bad you can’t even check Facebook on your phone.

The ur-Kate was at Facebook long enough to see the arrival of its real queen, or perhaps its queen mother. Zuckerberg introduces her at one of their company-wide Friday meetings; Losse remembers him commenting that Sandberg had ‘really good skin’ and announcing that ‘everyone should have a crush on Sheryl.’ Sandberg endeared herself to Facebook’s women as well as its men. ‘Tell me everything,’ she said to Losse, and when she’d heard everything, got the colleague who kept suggesting a threesome discreetly demoted. Sandberg’s desk is neat and expensive gifts keep arriving – Louboutin shoes, Frette candles. It wasn’t just that she was story-worthy enough to deflect attention from Zuckerberg (the 2010 movie The Social Network was in development when Sandberg arrived in 2008): she runs the company in such a way that questions are ‘already answered’ and ‘efficiency is assumed.’ (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n07/joanna-biggs/tell-me-everything)


Interview

Frequently Asked Questions about The Boy Kings

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: The years 2005-2010, during which social media exploded, transformed human experience. We all began living our lives largely online, through our devices, broadcasting to a vast audience of people distant from us, yet virtually connected. I wrote to reflect on this: how this change felt and what it may mean.


Q: Is this book funny, though? I only like to read things that are funny.

A: Yes, it’s funny. It’s a dark comedy of sorts.


Q: What is misunderstood about this book?

A: This is not a book about Mark Zuckerberg; it is about social technology and its impact on the world. And while The Boy Kings narrates Facebook's rise, the main character in the book is power itself. Wherever you see a power struggle, something interesting is happening: people are competing to determine the future and what it looks like.


Q: Why is everyone always talking about Facebook?

A: Facebook has made itself central to many people's lives. Millions of people route their personal data and relationships through the site, giving the company the ability to shape the world in deep ways as our lives become increasingly virtual: determining how we connect to the world, what we learn about it, what we see and don’t. The Boy Kings explains how Facebook came to have the power to shape the world.


Q: Why is Thrax a star of this book and not Mark? I thought Facebook was about Mark.

A: Facebook is about Mark’s wishes and product vision. The character of Thrax is a metaphor for the type of hacker valorized by Silicon Valley in the late 2000s. At the dawn of the social media age, the hacker needed to be a character as well as a coder, because social media is essentially about broadcasting oneself to the world.


Q: It seems like you never get really emotional in the book, even though you are describing all these complicated situations. Why?

A: One of the things the book is about is the way in which social media asks us to create characters for digital consumption. Occasionally at work I felt upset or anxious, but generally I had to stay calm and "in character" in order to stay focused on the goal of figuring out how the story of Facebook was unfolding and what would happen next. And just as when you are using Facebook you watch patiently as information scrolls by, in real life I found myself watching as events happened, thinking about how it all fit together.


Q: Why did you write a book about your time at Facebook instead of sharing your experience on Facebook?

A: Social media is one way of sharing experiences. Books are another good way to share experiences and analysis, when you want to go deeper.


Q: What are you doing now?

A: I am writing a play with my friend Ashley, in which each character in the play embodies a different mode of connection and connectivity issues. I travel a lot and spend time with friends. I am sort of in <3 with everything right now." (http://theboykings.com/faqs/)