Of all the tech hijinx I covered while writing for Valleywag (missu), Facebook’s always felt the least inspired. Even in 2006, when Valleywag launched and when Facebook had just barely made itself available to anyone outside an Ivy, there was something antiseptic about it that felt so fundamentally disconnected, like whoever had built it had forgot that their business was actually on the wild, wooly internet.
Of course, it wasn’t. Facebook was in the business of our offline lives, and “frictionless” (right) sharing thereof: the business of generating wealth from and never really for its users.
Except. Except the users under its own roof. In the most recent Dissent, I look at Katherine Losse’s The Boy Kings, her excellent memoir of her time working as one of the first women at Facebook, as a way back into understanding that time, grafted onto my own overlapping years spent in San Francisco, and pointed at the question of, what really makes Facebook go and yet who is still least valued by Facebook but women?
Facebook, we know now, was never meant to be the product; we, its users were. Without us, the “product” would be worthless. Zuckerberg understood this in 2003, when he created the proto-Facebook site Facemash, built from photos of Harvard University women—Zuckerberg’s classmates and peers—and presented to users—presumed to be Harvard men—to vote on their attractiveness. In a Harvard Crimson story published after Zuckerberg beat an expulsion rap for violating students’ privacy in launching Facemash, two campus groups are reported to have opposed the site publicly: Fuerza Latina and the Association of Harvard Black Women. Zuckerberg changed course slightly, creating a site where he would not need to scrape photos off a server. We’d give them to him.
Losse herself was an early Facebook adopter, during the fall of her last year at Johns Hopkins when Facebook launched on her campus. Prior to using Facebook, she never associated her online activities with her legal name. “For women,” she writes, “there is no value in putting yourself online and offering yourself to strangers.” But women have long found ways to reap this worth for themselves, whether as fashion bloggers, porn stars, or attractive TED speakers. In performing some version of themselves online, pseudonymous or not, these women have earned their reputations and their rent.
Thanks to Sarah Leonard, the excellent editor on this, which appears as part of a feature section, The New Feminism, in the magazine and online. You can read her essay on gendered labor and Marissa Mayer in the new Jacobin. Another great pairing for the piece is Sarah Jaffe’s “Cost to Connect,” at Rhizome, which we were writing over the same weeks, and I dig the overlaps in all these very much. You should also see some influence from Sarah Jaffe’s piece in this same issue of Dissent, on being on strike from feminism:
Whether it’s City Council speaker Christine Quinn in New York City blocking paid sick days or Marissa Mayer taking the helm at Yahoo or Shannon Eastin taking the job of a locked-out worker for less money, we have to recognize that some first steps are taken on the backs of workers, many of whom are also women.
And so we are at this point, where all too many feminists see “saving” sex workers as an appropriately feminist activity but not walking a picket line with striking teachers or nurses or hotel housekeepers. When Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of raping Nafissatou Diallo, a hotel housekeeper, feminists rallied to her defense, but that support hasn’t led to increased support for hotel worker unions even as Hyatt hotel workers engage in a nationwide boycott, even though UNITE HERE, the hotel workers’ union, supported Diallo and protects workers like her from being fired for speaking out against abuse. Instead, it led to too many swoons over Christine Lagarde, who took Strauss-Kahn’s place at the International Monetary Fund.
As long as feminists are lauding the ascension of women to boardrooms for equality’s sake and not questioning what happens in those boardrooms, true liberation is a long way off.
The biggest thanks of all, of course, go to Kate Losse for her very sharp book. Besides the tech and boys and fame she made me want to write about San Francisco again, the barely bygone years between 2005 and 2009 – which she absolutely nails, cameras in the air and all.