Back in 2016, Ben Grosser posted a simple Facebook status message: “Please help me make this status a future Facebook memory.” The post gleaned more than 50 responses, most of them involving “congratulations!” or “mazel tov!” or “condolences.” One friend responded: “Wow words of joy. Marriage or Birthday words like that.”
“Everybody knew what to do instantly,” Grosser remembers. “It revealed how deeply ingrained our understanding of algorithms has become; that we have internalized how Facebook decides–or at least our best guess at how it decides–what should be made visible and what won’t be made visible.” His experiment worked; in 2017 Facebook surfaced the same post as a memory.
To Grosser, who is an artist, coder, and professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, code is a material, and social media is a medium. In 2012, he launched a Chrome extension called the Demetricator that scrubbed the social network of any metrics, including “likes” and time stamps, as a response to what he describes as the reigning ideology of Silicon Valley: that more–more likes, more friends, and more posts–is always better. He launched a version for Twitter last month. GoRando, another Facebook experiment, randomizes your reactions on your friends’ posts.
His extension ScareMail throws a similar wrench in another mechanism of the web: government surveillance. The extension attaches a mash of words plucked from a Department of Homeland Security keyword list to each email you send, in an attempt to disrupt NSA programs like PRISM. 2011’s Personal Depersonalization System searches Google for random words from the dictionary, immersing the search giant’s tracking algorithms in a “sea of random noise.”
Install some of Grosser’s work, or listen to him talk about it, and you’ll discover a subtle shift in the way you think about life online. His work wedges itself between your actual identity and your online identity, sometimes creating chaos, other times revealing something about an otherwise inscrutable algorithm.
Though he never intended to maintain the six-year-old Facebook Demetricator for this long, he’s seen a steady, growing interest from a public that is more cautious of the social network–and a huge surge this month, thanks to Cambridge Analytica and a story in the Washington Post. So Grosser had kept up the extension, and pushes new versions as Facebook regularly changes its own code. “I learn more and more about how Facebook is constructed and how it’s changed over time because I’m constantly having to adapt my work to their work,” he says. On his Facebook wall, he posts what look like subtle interface hacks and comments on changes to the user interface–lately, that’s included plenty of colorful backgrounds meant to accompany a status message, the algorithmic impact of which Grosser (like other technologists) is trying to understand.
In the aftermath of Cambridge Analytica, and the surge of users deciding to forego the social network entirely, these interventions suggest a third way–where identity is fluid, and where users can interrogate the premise that Facebook is a direct, 1:1 reflection of each of its 2.2 billion users. “I think we’re taught that sites like Facebook are ‘fixed,’ that they decide what we see and how it works and our role is to consume and to produce in very prescribed ways,” Grosser says. “My perspective is that we should treat these sites as spaces of experimentation–that we should consider them as flexible and manipulatable, places where we can change what we do.”
There’s something suffocating about the internet today, which wraps each of us in a heavy blanket of algorithmically tailored ads and content. You’ve felt it if every TV show Netflix suggests looks just like the last two you watched, or if you’ve fallen down a YouTube hole that ends in conspiracy theories, or if it feels like Facebook will never stop serving you ads for shoes you’ll never buy because of your gender and age. The web is narrower–and it’s hard to know if we can ever go back to the big, universal version. We may never get there. But the work of Grosser and other artists working in his space is a salve.
“You can still experiment by posting things nobody would expect, or posting based on some experimental model you’ve devised,” he adds. “You can use the tools at your disposal to experiment with these systems simply by using them in unintended ways and not doing what they expect from us.”