Transmediale 2011: The Right to Exit

artistic director Stephen Kovats

Focus Discussion (Track 2)
Participants: Les liens invisible (it), Alessandro Ludovico (it), Paolo Cirio (it), Nathaniel Stern(us), Scott Kildall (us), Jens Best (de). This blogpost focusses on two of the projects presented: Seppukkoo and Face to Facebook and on the overall theme The Right to Exit.

Introduction

Moderator Daphne Dragona (gr) introduced the focus discussion on The Right to Exit by asking how do you configure yourself if you are outside of the exit? What are the contemporary forms of exit in the network paradigm we are living in? For Virno, exit is about changing the conditions and the context:

Nothing is less passive than the act of fleeing, of exiting. Defection modifies the conditions within which the struggle takes place, rather than presupposing those conditions to be an unalterable horizon; it modifies the context within which a problem has arisen, rather than facing this problem by opting for one or the other of the provided alternatives. In short, exit consists of unrestrained invention which alters the rules of the game and throws the adversary completely off balance.1

A second important question is who is leaving and why? Who is leaving?

Why are they leaving?
It is often in a direct response to changes or to an envisioned future web that is not being accomplished. The Quit Facebook Initiative states on their website that they “care deeply about the future of the web as an open, safe and human place. We just can’t see Facebook’s current direction being aligned with any positive future for the web, so we’re leaving.” Why are they leaving now after ten years of Wikipedia and over five years of Facebook? There are different expectations on the direction of the platform or the service, or in some cases people wonder what to do with all these followers they have gained after years.

Where to?
They are often moving to decentralised networks like Diaspora, Appleseed, Thimbl and Status.net.

This session also aims to address what changes an exit may, or may not, bring. For example when the Spanish editors left Wikipedia (known as The Spanish Fork), the Wikipedia organization decided not to have ads, changed to a .org domain name, upgraded their software and set up the Foundation.

Exit as… exodus, defection, engaged withdrawal, disobedience, dissolution. Related to: quitting, leaking, expelling, migrating.

Seppukoo by Les Liens Invisibles

Seppukoo is a service built on top of Facebook that helps you to commit a virtual identity suicide. This has been done by many artists in the past, for example by Cory Archangel who announced his Friendster suicide on his blog in December 2005.2 This is a different idea as it does not concern an individual action in Friendster, but instead the idea is applied on a collective dimension. It is not based on an individual choice but on the premise that other suicides could follow the first one. This is enabled by the mass popular and friendship container.

Transmediale 2011

The Right to Exit: Les liens invisible (it)

The project addresses three different dimensions:

  1. The identity cage. Facebook can suspend fake accounts so there is a pressure to create a real identity which is identical to the one in real life. In the early internet age there was the idea that you can be anyone online but you are now pressured to represent exactly your offline identity.
  2. Property and data. The user data is not owned by the user but by Facebook. In the beginning Facebook did not offer the ability to permanently delete an account. One could only disable an account. If I can’t have full access to my data then who owns my data? On a sidenote: Facebook now allows you to download your own data, but this does not mean that you can take your data with you when you decide to leave, it stays on Facebook’s servers. On top of that there is the mercifulness of Facebook itself: You can easily activate your disabled account simply by logging in again.
  3. The economic value of our data body: each user has an individual profile filled with detailed information.

In 2009 Seppukoo received a cease and desist letter based on “violating Facebook’s service” but the logins were given voluntary. Within the theme of the right to exit Seppukoo depicts that a mass collective exit can make a difference, an individual exit goes unnoticed.

Face to Facebook by Alessandro Ludovico and Paolo Cirio

Ludovico and Cirio officially launched their new project Face to Facebook at Transmediale as the final part of The Hacking Monopolism Trilogy featuring Google, Amazon and Facebook. They scraped one million images of public Facebook profiles and put them on the custom-made dating site Lovely Faces. They wanted to address the economy of faces by showing how public your profile picture is. As they mentioned later in their artist statement the project is a “hommage” to Facemash, the hot or not website that was put together by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg by scraping images from colleges. The data is not used for personale financial gain, rather, the purpose is to use the stolen data against the company itself.

Transmediale 2011

Paolo Cirio (it) and Alessandro Ludovico (it)

At the Transmediale festival they received a cease & desist letter from Facebook to which Paulo responded that “Facebook is a legal company that must be regulated, not us.” During the Right to Exit track several projects proudly showed a cease and desist letter which seems to function as a form of recognition, or the success measure of a project.

Transmediale 2011

Face to Facebook at Transmediale

After the session there was the official artist statement by Alessandro Ludovico and Paolo Cirio on their project Face to Facebook:

Face to Facebook, artist statement from transmediale on Vimeo.

Thoughts

Q&A: The exit or exodus question is not so much about should we stay or should we go, but about the borders and the traps. It is about data control and data deletion. What is the economy of the game we are all playing?

To what extent can we talk about the right to exit if Facebook is turning every web user into a Facebook user through its plugins?3. It is no longer based on the premise of active participation and inclusion. How does one exit a space of which the boundaries are permeable and being constantly stretched by the platform? The right to exit also becomes the right to escape. If one is not being asked to be included then how does one resist? There are so-called anti-social plugins that block Facebook’s tentacles but then it becomes hard to browse the web. Of course one can delete Facebook’s cookies but one would have to do it every single day, or every single hour, considering the spread and reach of Facebook through it’s social buttons. It is an advanced resistance mechanism which not only requires that the user is aware but also technically capable of resisting.

  1. Paolo Virno, Grammar of the Multitude. p.70[]
  2. More on virtual suicides by Geoff Cox in Virtual Suicide as Decisive Political Act (PDF) []
  3. This is an issue I am currently addressing in a forthcoming paper with my colleague Carolin Gerlitz[]