12-12-2011 mag 6 /


Facing Facebook


In our past, we have been judged by our appearances. Using Facebook, an art project shows the power of our physiognomy today.

The IMPAKT Festival 2011 in the city of Utrecht focused on data distribution and storage in the information society. One of the projects presented is Face to Facebook by artists Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico. The art installation at the Academie gallery at 16 Minrebroederstraat consists of two large posters showing a massive amount of stolen Facebook profile pictures and a diagram explaining the process. Not surprisingly, Facebook and several users of the social network objected to this project. 

As a media organization, the digital powerhouse Facebook has an almost political belief in distributing private data: to Facebook: “Publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people”. However, as highlighted by the art project ‘Face to Facebook’ at the IMPAKT Festival, transparency can also deliver adversary effects on your online identity.

When you are using the social network site Facebook, you do not necessarily feel as if you are exposing private information to the world. Many users do not seem to realise that Facebook is not a home. The traditional public/ private dichotomy seems blurry. And according to some scholars and the Facebook staff, this is not dangerous but something to celebrate.

The Internet has positively influenced the lives and of many of its users. Because of Facebook, it is possible to meet old and new friends and create your online identity of choice. But by materializing our Western democratic ideal of the importance of transparency, we have also influenced the Internet. Believers of the utopian democratic dream shape the Internet as exemplified by Facebook. But does transparency create a better society as proclaimed by the social network site or is it time to wake up?

The creators of the art project ‘Face to Facebook’ argue that the social network site is not a “public organization designed to help support social problems” or “to help people create better social relationships or to help them improve their self-positioning”. Instead, it is a private corporation on a mission to make money.

The ‘Face to Facebook’ projects draws our attention to how easily online identities can be stolen and misused. By publishing public data from 250,000 Facebook profiles on a dating web site, the controversial ‘Face to Facebook’ art project challenges the private / public dichotomy and the idealist perception of transparency. Therefore we are compelled to think about the possible consequences of publishing private information. With help of facial recognition software -a modern profiling tool- all scraped profiles were categorized, matched and publicized on the currently unavailable dating web site Lovely Faces. To some, this is a true nightmare. Artists Alessandro Ludovico and Paolo Cirio have been using face recognition software to scan the 250,000 selected Facebook profile pictures. The facial features from the selected and publicly available profiles are used to group the people into six categories; "climber", "easy going", "funny", "mild", "sly" and "smug".

There has been a long history in which facial features were believed to relate to ones character. Physiognomy, or Physiognomonicacan be traced back to the Classical period of Homer and Aristotle. In the ‘science’ of physiognomy, people were judged and categorized based on facial features. And people were judged indeed; in the 19th Century this pseudoscience was used to fight crime. The book L’Uomo Delinquente (1876) by the fascist Cesare Lombroso shows ‘empirical’ evidence that murderers can be recognized by their prominent jaws. The profiling tool proved to be very useful in convicting criminals until the 1930s. The pseudoscience recently had a revival; to make a statement, the ‘Face to Facebook’ grouped people based on similar principles.

Today, our online identity and profile pictures are visible to people all over the world. Physiognomy is an extreme example that shows the adversary effects of how we can be categorized and judged based on the data we provide of ourselves. The information we offer about ourselves on the Internet is not private but public and can therefore be scraped, mined and misused.

Face to Facebook shows, it is time to wake up. You never know when physiognomy will be in fashion again. 

Face to Facebook