Facebook’s public relations department must be a busy place. It is not just the normal run of stories about the negative effects of social media on wellbeing. Such is Facebook’s size that everything it does takes on a kind of societal significance. It stands for all that we fear about life in advanced, digitally mediated capitalism, where corporations that are central to the conduct of life act in an ever more high-handed way. The publicist’s job isn’t made any easier when we learn that Facebook has been successfully manipulating the newsfeed of hundreds of thousands of users in an experiment conducted with researchers at Cornell University.
Facebook sells access to its customers to advertisers. It is in the same business as newspapers and broadcasters. But instead of telling vague stories about the kinds of people that advertisers can reach during particular programmes, or in particular sections of the paper, Facebook and the other big digital players deal in precision.
The information we post on Facebook provides a constantly updated pool of actionable information that has few rivals anywhere on earth. And being unhappy is like being a snowboarder, or single, or a new parent – it is commercially relevant information. Facebook might not be tinkering with our mood to cue us up for particular advertisers, but it shouldn’t surprise us if they are interested in the possibility.
In the current model of social media, others capture the economic (and political) value of the data we generate. The legal owners of the network have a clear motive to extract as much information as possible, and to ensure it is as “high value” as possible. They more they have, the more they can sell. The more detailed and otherwise inaccessible it is, the more they can sell it for.
A co-operative network
But it is quite easy to imagine another structure for social media, in which the members of the network themselves own and control the data they create and together determine the uses to which it is put. Rather than selling information about individuals, such a network could be used to pool individual preferences and help consumers achieve the advantages of scale and coordination normally enjoyed by large producers.
Data could remain, by default, on the individuals’ computers rather than on central servers. We would share only what we wanted to share, on our own terms. As Jonny Leroy at Thoughtworks points out, by denying the centre panoptical insight into all the users of the network, we also make the mass harvesting of data by the state’s security apparatus more difficult.
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There would be material advantages for the participants in a network that functioned as a common pool resource. Members could make more informed choices about how they spent their money, and they could, as I say, achieve advantages of scale. They would also benefit from the peace of mind that comes from knowing how the network operates, what kinds of information are being shared, with whom, and for what purposes.
Once the principle of common ownership is accepted, we can draw from existing scholarship to ensure that the common property of the network is kept safe and productive of individual and collective goods.
Just because something would be materially and psychologically beneficial, it doesn’t follow that it will happen. Venture capitalists and programmers with an Alexander the Great complex aren’t in any rush to design systems that systematically deprive them of power and control. And while spontaneity and the desire to contribute to the common good have achieved extraordinary things in the digital era, they cannot be relied on.
Creating a social network is not technically complicated compared with some of the projects of the Free Software movement. But it involves lots of meetings with people who aren’t, and never will be, software engineers. It involves graphic designers, marketers and countless other people who expect, and need, to get paid for their time. Attempting to create a digital public sphere without reference to economic incentives is not likely to succeed.
Fortunately, the network-in-common does have a natural ally in the existing economy. The consumer co-operative is collectively owned and controlled by its members, who also decide how any surplus is used. Co-operative enterprises could comfortably co-develop and manage social networking technologies that help their members pool information and defend themselves against exploitation by private business. This is, after all, why the co-operative movement was created in the first place.
For what it’s worth, moderate and radical opponents of capitalism would also benefit from such an arrangement. Privately owned social networks are free to shape users’ newsfeeds as they wish. They will only tolerate controversy and conflicting views if doing so serves their overarching purpose. They are not reliable guardians of a free press. A network controlled democratically by its users is likely to be more hospitable to ideas that are unpopular with private and state power. Indeed, by establishing a more equal distribution of knowledge among owner-users, common pool networks will tend to promote economic and political equality.
Working with students
Networks start small, though, and cannot hope to compete with established players like Facebook. So how would a network-in-common overcome that? One way would be to work with students. Thousands of them are studying media and communications in one form or another, so they need to know how social networks operate and how ownership and algorithms shape online experience and individual subjectivity.
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Not only that, students are at a point in their life when they are building close and bounded social networks. Network technology is useful for coordinating what are quite small groups of people in the same year, the same class, the same halls of residence. They don’t need Facebook anywhere near as much as Facebook needs them. Remember that Facebook grew by piggybacking on the prestige, and the real world networks, of the universities.
You can see how it might go. Academics and students in communications and media departments set up a project with their counterparts in computing. They then work with local co-operatives on a mechanism for bulk buying that is transparent and mutually beneficial. More students start using it as an alternative to Facebook that is ad-free and less, well, less creepy. They also use it to stock up on the sorts of things students buy. Porridge, Gatorade, whatever.
The co-operatives make the software available to their other members. These co-ops team up with other groups to create a network of networks. Economic coordination drives the spread of this network-in-common. As circumstances change, users join new co-ops, or create their own, while retaining their existing connections. The benefits of being part of a network that doesn’t manipulate information for their own, opaque, purposes become more apparent over time.
Perhaps that’s how an alternative to Facebook will emerge. Or perhaps it will come from some wholly unexpected combination of actors. I don’t know. Nor do I know what the network-in-common will look like in detail. But it must be obvious that a network designed to serve the interests of its users will look very different from those that most of us currently use.
For all that, the Facebook model of social media will not be replaced through the benevolence of venture capitalists or the magic of the voluntary impulse. It will happen when we all start take responsibility for the structure of the digital public sphere.
Daniel Hind is the author of The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His third book, The Magic Kingdom, will be published in September.
Follow him on Twitter: @danhind