Originally published at The Atlantic

For a spell during 2010 and 2011, I was a virtual rancher of clickable cattle on Facebook.

It feels like a long time ago. Obama was serving his first term as president. Google+ hadn’t arrived, let alone vanished again. Steve Jobs was still alive, as was Kim Jong Il. Facebook’s IPO hadn’t yet taken place, and its service was still fun to use—although it was littered with requests and demands from social games, like FarmVille and Pet Society.

I’d had enough of it—the click-farming games, for one, but also Facebook itself. Already in 2010, it felt like a malicious attention market where people treated friends as latent resources to be optimized. Compulsion rather than choice devoured people’s time. Apps like FarmVille sold relief for the artificial inconveniences they themselves had imposed.

In response, I made a satirical social game called Cow Clicker. Players clicked a cute cow, which mooed and scored a “click.” Six hours later, they could do so again. They could also invite friends’ cows to their pasture, buy virtual cows with real money, compete for status, click to send a real cow to the developing world from Oxfam, outsource clicks to their toddlers with a mobile app, and much more. It became strangely popular, until eventually, I shut the whole thing down in a bovine rapture—the “cowpocalypse.” It’s kind of a complicated story.

But one worth revisiting today, in the context of the scandal over Facebook’s sanctioning of user-data exfiltration via its application platform. It’s not just that abusing the Facebook platform for deliberately nefarious ends was easy to do (it was). But worse, in those days, it was hard to avoid extracting private data, for years even, without even trying. I did it with a silly cow game.

continue reading at The Atlantic

published March 22, 2018