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Tech Companies as Caretakers

What happens when we outsource our emotional and social labor?

By Karen K. Ho

Illustration by Stephen Carlson

Sometimes, I get freaked out thinking about how many companies know what my relationship with my mom is like. Apple, for example, knows how exactly often I call her. Google knows every time we email or fly to visit each other. Amazon knows what I ordered for her birthday, and has a record of the dozens of hotels I booked on our last trip to Japan.

Keeping track of all of these actions used to require piles of letters, notes, or paper receipts. It was emotional labor — often described as “the invisible labor of caring” — that tied families, friends, and colleagues together. Companies at both the startup and $1 billion valuation level have made all that planning, record-keeping and communication easier, but in doing so, they became an integral part of our relationships.

It’s not just Google, Facebook, and Apple. The work of creating a digital archive of personal life experiences has been happening for a long time on blogs, YouTube channels, Instagram, Twitter, and even health tracking apps like MyFitnessPal. Timehop, a mobile app which debuted in 2011, aimed to gather much of this disparate data by helping users create personalized digital archives and sending them alerts of moments that happened one or more years ago. Drawing from photos, tweets, Instagram posts, and Facebook updates, by March 2015 the app grew to 12 million downloads and 6 million daily users. (Timehop’s popularity significantly fell after Facebook introduced its ‘On This Day’ feature in May 2015.)

Across all these platforms, an individual might have thousands or hundreds of thousands of pieces of information about themselves and their lives living in databases — many of which are public.

All of which makes it very difficult to leave. In April, tech writer Sarah Jeong noted one of the largest challenge with trying to leave Mark Zuckerberg’s flagship product: “Facebook had replaced much of the emotional labor of social networking that consumed previous generations.” She cited tedious practices like maintaining address books, mailing news articles, filing business cards, and calling relatives on the phone.”

Yet, those digital pasts are now just as likely to prompt shamesadness, and revulsion as connection or love. We’re seeing the drawn-out effects of privacy concerns, the lightning-quick spread of fake news within platforms, poor treatment of contract moderators, lack of oversight, data breaches, harassment, or simple fatigue. Consequences are often real: when someone’s online posts are spotlighted for containing racisthomophobic, or other offensive content, they might be suspended, or lose their job entirely.

Sarah Jeong herself, who recently joined the editorial board of the New York Times, ended up at the mercy of all this online history when her new job was announced and right-wing trolls pored through thousands of her tweets. Detractors took tweets out of context to incite outrage and support the claim that she was discriminating against white people. What they hoped was that she would lose her job at the Times — a thing that had already happened to the writer Quinn Norton last year.

And now it might be too late. Even if I didn’t opt to use them, these companies would have had incredible power over me based on the ubiquity of their other online services and sister websites. Much like how a small number of companies control all the processed goods consumers buy, many of the major online websites and cloud services are owned by a limited group of companies. Facebook owns and operates Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger — applications that give their users a direct line to the photos, videos, and contact information of family, friends and colleagues. And they’re not doing it out of charity: all those details are stored in the cloud, easily tracked, and used by the company to help develop new products.

In choosing to use them on a regular basis, how much information have we given up for the sake of convenience? And even if we’re not prominent figures like Jeong, how much have we put ourselves at risk of being hurt in the same way?

The technology industry appears to be at a turning point, with many users trying to figure out how to separate their lives from these products, and more companies, engineers and product designers explicitly acknowledge data misusefake accounts, as well as the addictive and complicated ways these products work. But there’s a bind: even if we want to separate, there aren’t good alternatives, and few of them are as free or convenient.

It will be on designers, engineers, product managers, and other individuals in the technology industry to seriously consider alternatives, as well as the worst-case scenario for all the information they already have.

Failing to do so on a continuous basis puts users at risk of fraud or identity theft, and often threatens the companies’ financial performance and level of trust among the general public. If the moral incentive doesn’t convince people in the industry to care, the financial one should — it’s already causing portfolios to suffer large declines. Between August 30 and September 6, Facebook’s stock price fell 9.4 per cent and Twitter fell by 14.1 per cent. This was after top executives from each company testified before Congress on September 5 on how to stop online abuse and election meddling. They also have not recovered much in the past week, except for a brief rally on September 11.

If technology corporations do not do the necessary work to protect the data of their users and actively work to prevent it from being hacked or exploited, one of the possibilities is more government officials finding it necessary to intervene on behalf of their constituents and enact new policies, regulations or severe financial penalties.

Those phone calls will definitely be much more serious than my Facetime appointments with my Mom.

Karen K. Ho is a media, business, and culture reporter. She is a contributing writer to Track Changes and recently completed an editorial fellowship at the Columbia Journalism Review. Her work has also appeared in TIME, GQThe OutlineThe Globe and Mail and many other publications. You can find her on Twitter at @karenkho.

Story published on Sep 17, 2018.