Jacob Silverman has a way of making the Internet feel like high school, a place where hope and promise are routinely met with callowness and fecklessness. That feeling makes his new book, Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, seem a little like a reunion where all the superlatives are re-visited. It’s hard to believe, but there is already 25 years of Internet history, so there are many quarterbacks, class clowns, most likely to succeeds, and prom queens to re-visit.
Quite a few Internet personalities get the where-are-they-now treatment from Silverman, often through direct interviews: There’s Lena Chen, who continues to be harassed years after writing about her undergraduate exploits on her blog “Sex and the Ivy,” and David Roberts, the Grist writer who took a year away from the Internet like a digital Thoreau. While profiling these personalities, Silverman also takes stock of the contemporary digital ecosystem, including the role of the rest of us, the digital mob.
“People just submitted it. I don’t know why. They ‘trust me.’ Dumb fucks.”
Seduced by what Silverman calls “the ideology of social,” we surrender our privacy for the euphoria and the entertainment of viral media. Digital spaces aren’t only where we work, but where we socialize and shop, read, and play. Silverman is a careful observer of how we spend our time online, especially how we use these sites and services—the Facebooks, the Googles, the Instagrams, the Twitters, the BuzzFeeds, and the Upworthys—but also how they use us.
The terms of service that we so routinely ignore are interrogated, making Silverman’s book somewhat terrifying from start to finish, beginning with the opening epigraph: A series of instant messages sent between Mark Zuckerberg and a friend, wherein the Facebook founder says, “Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard. Just ask. I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS.” “How’d you manage that one,” his friends asks, only to have Zuckerberg explain: “People just submitted it. I don’t know why. They ‘trust me.’ Dumb fucks.”
“People just submitted it” could be the apologia of the Internet age, especially for cyber-libertarians who trust Internet companies to regulate themselves, a feat no earlier incarnation of businesses managed—even as the data they control becomes more intimate, more personal, more valuable. Silverman’s two strongest chapters, “Pics or It Didn’t Happen” and “The Reputation Racket,” try to explain the impulse to submit, post, share, and all the other verbs we have naturalized over the last few years even while ignoring just how much of our private information has become public, and therefore corporate. The author doesn’t reject these impulses or ridicule those who indulge them; instead he accepts them and suggests they might be better understood in the context of culture, economics, politics, and sociology.
Terms of Service is not an indictment of users; the book is a critical framework for the services themselves, including publishers. Of all the industries affected by technological advances, Silverman is most critical of his own: the kind of journalism he calls “churnalism,” which he defines as “cheap, disposable content re-purposed from press releases, news reports, viral media, social networks, and elsewhere, all of it practically out-of-date and irrelevant as soon as someone clicks Publish.” With all of the churn, it’s no surprise that, according to Silverman, “55 percent of Web users spend less than fifteen seconds on a page.”
Churnalism might be where we waste our time online, but Silverman is also interested in where we go to cherish it: the private photo albums along with the throwaway quizzes, the avenues for social climbing as well as public shaming. He looks carefully at not only what we hope the Internet never forgets, but also at what we wish it would forgive. In that way, Terms of Service isn’t just an Internet reunion, but a measured judgment of its first 25 years and a cautious look at its future.