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Black Sky Thinking

Slaves To The Algorithm: How Facebook Is Throttling Underground Culture
Ollie Zhang , February 6th, 2018 09:00

Mollie Zhang speaks to musicians and artists about how to survive, with or without likes, follows and page boosts

We turn to the art in times of political strife - it helps us to navigate, and alleviate, our troubles. So what happens when one of the causes of that political strife is absorbing more and more of our arts and culture? Facebook has been affecting our political landscape for some time, and of course it's affecting our art too - how we create it, how we discover it, and who can survive financially as an artist. Recently, we’ve also witnessed a number of Silicon Valley’s own disown the technologies they are responsible for. Facebook co-founder Sean Parker, former tech exec Justin Rosenstein (the engineer credited with the Facebook “like”), former Google employee Tristan Harris, and even one of Facebook’s earliest investors have all moved to publicly critique the ways in which Facebook and adjacent technologies shape our lives. Facebook has been denounced for manipulating users and for profiting from users essentially working for free. Vivek Murthy, past U.S. Surgeon General, said that using Facebook “sometimes feels like using heroin”. Smartphone ubiquity has come at a high cognitive cost, with the current generation of adolescents reporting deteriorating mental health.

I spoke to a number of artists about what they think of Facebook, whether they use it, and how they use it. Of the artists I spoke to, only a couple aren't on Facebook at all. All of them had a variety of issues with the platform and, of course, a number of different ways to respond to them.

German composer Antye Greie-Ripatti, or AGF, speaks passionately about the internet - unsurprising for an artist who engages with technology as she does. Her 2002 debut album HEAD SLASH BAUCH played with translating HTML and software handbooks into poetry and pop. She had an ‘artist’s page’ set up without her consent some years ago, and hasn’t used Facebook for her work since. Most of her criticisms of Facebook stem from the lack of user agency and individual privacy, but she also laments the homogenising force of the platform: "I have my own website and I really liked exploring my own ways of communicating online. For example, I have a poem newsletter and people can subscribe to my poems. A few times a year, I them out to everybody, and that is my own way of communicating - to make something social, but not in a huge, marketing way."

Her absence from Facebook has had an effect. "I’ve lost a lot of business, but I'm still online, people can find me - Soundcloud, Bandcamp and Vimeo. No Gmail, no Youtube. I'm not a commercial artist - I do my stuff, and I'm super lucky and happy that I can."

Techno artist Rrose also chose not to have a Facebook page, but a fan created one and then asked them to take it over. They use it mostly for show announcements, and they’re frustrated by the pressure to boost posts, the loss of intimacy and the efforts to monopolise - information about events listed on the platform can’t easily be viewed by anyone outside Facebook. “They want to be the only way to communicate,” says Rrose. “They want to control people's experiences on the internet.”

Like AGF, Rrose laments the loss of quirky or innovative modes of communicating, but their issue always comes back to marketing: “When you log in to an artist's page, Facebook gives you suggestions on how to 'improve' your 'performance'. They give you tools and tips which make it look like they're trying to help, but it’s just pushing you into this marketing mindset. I find myself caring about the response to a post, when I don't want to. I want to focus on my music - that’s how I make a connection to the audience, first and foremost."

This bears some similarities to the sentiment of Vladislav Delay, who had around 10,000 'likes' and plenty of traffic on his Facebook page but found that the voyeurism made him uncomfortable and he left the platform.

But Vladislav Delay and AGF both started making music in the 90s - they were established before Facebook even existed. Rrose started releasing music much later, in 2011, but it was through the well-established and highly influential Sandwell District label, and before its monthly users had shot up to more than two billion. It’s reasonable to argue that these artists had their careers develop before Facebook's reach expanded this far.

For more recently emerging artists, things are different. I spoke to Hunni'd Jaws, the Berlin-based DJ and producer known for her boundary-shattering mixes. She hosts Call Dibs on Berlin Community Radio with Dis Fig. Hunni'd Jaws tells me that having a Facebook page felt necessary once she started to take her music seriously, and that it has put pressure on her in a number of surprising ways. For example, to keep her 'message rating' high, she needs to respond to all the messages she receives, even though sometimes they're weird requests or inappropriate messages from strangers. She finds FB and Instagram useful for sharing flyers, mixes and compilations but she also describes the pressure of being on so many platforms simultaneously as "overwhelming" and annoying: "I just changed my profile in Instagram to make it more business-y and to see what's reaching people. I don't want to be posting lots of selfies, but those get the most likes. I'd rather not get attention through that. I wish that my 'followers' would hear the music I'm producing, but of course it doesn't work like that."

Of the artists that I speak to, Hunni’s Jaws is the only one who brings up Facebook’s supposed first and foremost function: making new connections. Facebook has allowed her to meet likeminded artists and DJs in other parts of the world and forge new connections. Hunni'd Jaws is a co-founder of the No Shade collective alongside Linnéa, Carmel Koster, and Polymaze. They offer a tutorship programme for new female and non-binary DJs, which culminates in a paid gig at their partner venue, ACUD Macht Neu. The initiative began as a Facebook group, and as the project has developed they’ve continued to use Facebook to network and reach new future-DJs. Similar initiatives by collectives such as Siren also use the platform for organising and promoting; smaller nights and collectives with similar aims, like London's BBZ, use social media rather than setting up their own websites.

But on Facebook, artists’ pages need to pay to be promoted, and artists have to work out if this is viable or worth it. William Osiecki and David Mitchell run the Stack Your Roster label and collective together. “In 2013 we 'boosted' a post on our Facebook page,” says Osiecki. “That was the only time we tried that. It did so little I decided it wasn't a worthwhile expense for our little label that doesn't even turn profit anyway."

Of course, many musicians and artists face financial struggles. For those trying to make a living through their creative work, to lose exposure by leaving Facebook would be too great a risk. “But these platforms only offer you free access to their networks because your participation is where their profits come from,” says Osiecki. “Paying Facebook amounts to an approval of their dangerous centralisation of internet traffic. It's been difficult [to gain traction without using it], but I don't think Facebook is particularly useful for reaching people.”

He continues: “We’re compelled to feel that we can't function without it, then it becomes our only source of information, where we don't even control our own newsfeeds. It's ruining local newspapers and journalism […] I don't want a megacorp deciding what I do and do not see. That's obviously dystopian, right?"

But for those who operate on a slightly more commercial plane, Facebook is key. Osiecki’s SYR co-founder, David Mitchell, is in a math-rock band Gulfer: "Facebook has always been the most important social network for us. It's the only one that other members of the band actually post on or look at, and it has always been our more official outlet for news and announcements. We are incredibly reliant on it not only to disseminate information but also as a source of validation, through likes and so on."

The Quietus has its own problems with the platform - ad revenue has been decimated as businesses focus their campaigns on Facebook, and that in turn threatens the site and its support and coverage of independent and non-commercial music. At the same time, Facebook's algorithms have favoured content designed to go viral, rather than the high-quality editorial the site became known for. tQ’s Luke Turner also makes a point that mirrors Hunni'd Jaws’ experience: "Young musicians are expected to be active across all these platforms- it puts a huge amount of pressure on them, on how they look, on how they conform. I'm a great fan of music made by really difficult people, and I wonder if the difficult people making the brilliant art are going to be able to get through the social-media filters. Of course this leads to the other issue that in bleak times for record sales artists look to brands to earn money - are only the most photogenic and pliable going to succeed?"

How much are we willing to sacrifice, how much compromise is ‘worth it’? Musicians, promoters and publishers are caught between artistic freedom and corporate reliance and, for emerging artists trying to start their careers, the game is changing so rapidly that the answers are more slippery than ever. The once liberatory potential of the internet has dissipated into a mirror of inequality, with power massively skewed online just as it is irl. Google handles over 63% of searches (a figure predicted to rise to 80% by next year) while Facebook is apparently taking over media distribution. There are attempts to create alternatives (such as decentralised open-source network Mastodon) but so far it seems that nothing can disrupt the monolithic monopolising force that is Facebook.

Together we've crossed new frontiers of advertising and manipulation, stuck in a web of data brokers, opaque privacy policies and more social media accounts than we can keep track of. As we surrender personal information and soak up dopamine hits, it becomes even more challenging to envision how independent artists can survive. Hopefully, as this conversation keeps moving, we can begin to figure out how the difficult people can continue making brilliant art.