Snowden and hegemony of social media

Updated: 2013-06-19 06:55

By Jony Lam(HK Edition)

  Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

The whole Edward Snowden episode is intriguing for a number of reasons, but whether Beijing or the courts will have the final say on the future of the whistleblower if the US demands his extradition or whether he is a hero or not are not among the more important questions. Therefore, of course, we are having exactly these angles in the newspapers.

It is revealing that "activists" and "pan-democrats" who would have cried foul if it was China that spies on its social media (such as QQ, WeChat or Renren) now remain largely silent. They succeeded to a certain extent to make the issue merely personal, that's why the quotes all read like "we support Snowden," or better yet, "Hong Kong's rule of law protects Snowden." The truth is, Hong Kong can protect as many Snowdens as they please, but the Big Brother will still be checking our e-mails.

Let's look at the bigger issues. In certain business circles, the buzzword this year is "big data". According to IBM, we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data everyday - so much that 90 percent of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone. This data comes from everywhere: sensors used to gather climate information, posts to social media sites, digital images and videos, purchase transaction records, and cell phone GPS signals to name a few. This data is what they call "big data".

"Big data" is a quantitative methodologist's dream come true. It is not that a person has produced more data, but now all that data is digitized, more or less standardized, and stored. Before, only my close friends knew I am a Buddhist, now this piece of information is in a standard field in my "Facebook profile" easily retrieved by Big Brother and others. In the past, only my girlfriend knew my whereabouts around the clock, now my GPS data, my Google calendar information and my Facebook "check-ins" will broadcast where I am almost 24 hours a day.

It does not matter how I set my share settings or security levels, folks like Snowden are hired exactly to crack these safeguards and mine the data.

Every student of the social sciences would know that a world where quantitative methodologists prevail is a nightmare. Methods like interviews and self-administered questionnaires all have their limitations, especially when you are asking the kind of questions such as "have you ever cheated on your spouse", - that's why all scholarly research qualifies its findings. Ultimately, these irregularities reflect the research subjects' resistance - the relationship between the researcher and the researched is one of power, and the researched does not yield readily.

Now "big data" changes the rule of the game. Researchers no longer have to ask "have you ever cheated on your spouse"; all they need to do is look at the "meta-data" - who you are calling, and the frequency and duration of the calls. This is pure objectivity, and big business, and it is frightening.

This leads us to the other important question: why aren't we revolting against this nightmare. Ten years ago, we were all cautious about revealing personal data in cyberspace. We are told to create unique passwords for different accounts. These strategies were possible because in the Web 1.0 era information was not customized and everyone only had a few accounts (perhaps just a hotmail account).

In Web 2.0, all service experiences are customized. I create, on average, an account every other day (have a look at the channels at to have an idea how many services a person can utilize), and it is just impossible for me to remember all the passwords if they are all unique. Customized services are more convenient, but by definition they also keep track of all your activities.

Social media is one form of customized services, which has the effect of making people conform to their peers. Conforming messages get "likes" and "shares", and messages with more "likes" and "shares" appear in a prominent position on your friends' "newsfeed."

That is to say, social control exerted by social media is twofold. Socially it promotes accepted and conventional messages; technologically it monitors people's behaviors. We accept its technological tyranny in exchange for convenience and the comfort provided by conforming to a social and cultural hegemony.

The author is a current affairs commentator.

(HK Edition 06/19/2013 page9)