Unlike Us: Understanding Social Media Monopolies and their Alternatives

Invitation to join the network (a series of events, reader, workshops, online debates, campaigns etc.)

Concept: Geert Lovink (Institute of Network Cultures/HvA, Amsterdam) and Korinna Patelis (Cyprus University of Technology, Lemasol)

Thanks to Marc Stumpel, Sabine Niederer, Vito Campanelli, Ned Rossiter, Michael Dieter, Oliver Leistert, Taina Bucher, Gabriella Coleman, Ulises Mejias, Anne Helmond, Lonneke van der Velden and Eric Kluitenberg for their input.

Summary

The aim of this proposal is to establish a research network of artists, designers, scholars, activists and programmers that work on ‘alternatives in social media’. Through workshops, conferences, online dialogues and publications Unlike Us intends to both analyze the economic and cultural aspects of the dominant social media platforms and propagate the further development and proliferation of alternative decentralized social media software.

If you want to join the Unlike Us network, start your own initiatives in this field or hook up what you have already been doing for ages, subcribe to the email list. Traffic will be modest. Soon there will be a special page/blog for the initative on the INC website. Also an independent social network will be installed shortly, using alternative software. More on that later! List info: http://listcultures.org/mailman/listinfo/unlike-us_listcultures.org

Background

Whether or not we are in the midst of Internet bubble 2.0, we can all agree that social media dominate Internet and mobile use. The emergence of web-based user to user services, driven by an explosion of informal dialogues, continuous uploads, and user generated content have greatly empowered the rise of participatory culture. At the same time, monopoly power, commercialization and commodification are also on the rise with just a handful of social media platforms dominating the social Web. These two contradictory processes – the facilitation and the commercial exploitation of social relationships and communications – seem to lie at the heart of contemporary capitalism. On the one hand new media create and expand the social spaces we interact, play and even politicize ourselves through; on the other hand they are literally owned by three or four companies that potentially have phenomenal power to shape such interaction. Whereas the hegemonic Internet ideology promises open, decentralized systems, why do we, time and again, find ourselves locked into closed familiar corporate environments? Why are individual users so easily charmed by these ‘walled gardens’? Do we understand the long-term costs that society will pay for the ease of use, simple interfaces of their beloved ‘free’ services?

The accelerated growth and scope of the Facebook social space, for example, is unheard of. Facebook claims to have 700 million users, ranks in the top two or three first destination sites on the Web on a worldwide basis and is valued at 50 billion US dollars. Its users willingly deposit a myriad of snippets of their social life and relationships on the site, invested in an accelerated play of sharing and exchanging information. We all befriend, rank, recommend, create circles, upload photos, videos and update our status. Their offering of private moments in public virtual lives is orchestrated by a myriad of (mobile) applications that aid the production of an expended virtual world seamlessly embedded in users’ everyday life. Despite its massive user base the phenomena of online social networking remains fragile. Just think of the fate of the majority of social networking sites. Who has ever heard of Friendster? The death of Myspace has been luring over the horizon for quite some time. The disappearance of the Twitters and Facebooks – and Google, for that matter – is only a masterpiece of software away. This means that the protological future is not fixated or stationary but gives space for us to carve a variety of techno-political interventions. The project is developed in the spirit of RSS-inventor and ueberblogger Dave Winer whose recent Blork project is presented as an alternative for the “corporate blogging silos” (Winer). But instead of repeting the enterpreneurial start-ups turning corporate Behemoths process isn’t time to reinvent the internet as a truly independent public infrastructure that can effectively defend itself against corporate domination and state control?

Agenda

Going beyond the culture of complaint about our ignorance and loss of privacy, the proposed network of artists, scholars, activists and media folks will ask fundamental and long-arching questions about how to tackle these fast-emerging monopoly powers. Situating inquiry within the existing oligopoly patterns of ownership and use, issues to be investigated include the support of software alternatives and related artistic practices, and the development of a common vision of how the techno-social world might be mediated in alternative ways.

Without falling into the romantic trap of some harmonious offline life, Unlike Us asks what sort of network architectures could be designed that contribute to ‘the common’ understood as a shared resource and system of collective production that supports new forms of social organizations (such as organized networks) without mining for data to be sold. What aesthetic tactics may be more effective in putting an end to that expropriation of subjective and private dimensions we experience daily in social networks? Let’s code and develop other ‘network cultures’ whose protocols are no longer related to the logic of ‘weak ties’. Why should networks that refuse the (hyper)growth model and instead seek to strengthen forms of free cooperation be ignored as possible alternatives? Let’s turn the tables and ask ourselves what type of social relations we want to foster and discover in the 21st century. Imagine dense, diverse social exchanges, digital and networked, between potentially billions of people throughout the planet, outside of corporate and state control. Imagine discourses and imaginary forms able to return subjectivities to their ‘natural’ status of open nodes within networks based on dialogue and an ethics of free exchange.

To a large degree social media research is still dominated by quantitative and social scientific endeavors. So far the focus has been on moral panics, privacy and security, identity theft, self-representation from Goffman to Foucault and graph-based network theory that focuses on influencers and (news) hubs. What is curiously missing from the discourse is a rigorous discussion of the political economy of these social media monopolies. There is also a substantial research gap in understanding the power relations between the social and the technical in what are essentially software systems and platforms. With this initiative, we want to shift focus away from the obsession with youth and usage to the economic, political, artistic and technical aspects of these online platforms. What we first need to acknowledge is social media’s double nature. Dismissing social media as neutral platforms with no power is as implausible as considering social media the bad boys of capitalism. The beauty and depth of social media is that they call for a new understanding of classic dichotomies such as commercial/political, private /public, users/producers, artistic/standardised, original/copy, democratising/ disempowering. Instead of taking these dichotomies as a point of departure, we want to scrutinise the social networking logic. Even if Twitter and Facebook would implode overnight, chances are big that the social networking logic of befriending, liking and ranking further spreads across all aspects of life. The social networking logic may be traced back to the blogging era, with blogging networks where one ‘followed’ each other’s blogs, the blogroll, and ranking mechanisms and in that sense ‘social media’ are remarkably a-historical. Bathing in the eternal real-time, there is no technological memory.

The proposed research agenda is at once a philosophical, epistemological and theoretical investigation of knowledge artifacts, cultural production and social relations, and an empirical investigation of the specific phenomenon of monopoly social media. This has been done on purpose so that the lessons learned from theoretical research activities can inform practice oriented research and vice-versa. Unlike Us is common initiative of the Institute of Network Cultures (Amsterdam University of Applied Science HvA) and the Cyprus University of Technology in Lemasol.

An online network, a reader connected to a series of bigger and smaller events, initially in Amsterdam and Cyprus (early 2012), are already in planning. We would explicitly like to invite possible other partners to also come on board, if they identify themselves with the overall spirit of this proposal, to organize related conferences, festivals, workshops, temporary media labs and barcamps (where coders come together) with us. The reader (tentatively planned as number 8 in the Reader series published by the INC) will be produced mid-late 2012. The call for contributions to the network, the reader and the event series is going out in July 2011, followed by the publicity for the first events and other initiatives by possible new partners.

Topics of Investigation

The events, online platform, reader and other outlets may include the following topics inviting theoretical, empirical, practical and art-based contributions. Not every event or publication might deal with all issues. We also anticipate the need for specialized workshops and barcamps.

1. Political Economy: Social Media Monopolies

Social media culture is belied in American corporate capitalism, domined by the logic of start-ups and venture capital, management buyouts, IPOs etc. 3-4 companies literally own the Western social media landscape, capitalizing on the content produced by millions of people around the world. One thing is evident about the market structure of social media: one-to-many is not giving way to many-to-many without first going through many-to-one. What power do these companies actually have? Is there any evidence that such ownership influences the user-generated content? How does this ownership express itself structurally and in technical terms? What conflicts arise when a platform like Facebook is appropriated for public or political purposes, while access to the medium can easily denied by the company? Facebook is worth billions, does that really mean something for the average user? How does data-mining really work and what is its economy? What is the role of discourse (PR) in creating and sustaining an image of credibility and trustworthiness, and in which forms does it manifest to oppose that image? The bigger social media platforms form the central nodes such as image upload services and short ulr services. This ecology used to be fairly open with a variety of new Twitter-related services coming into being but now Twitter is taking up these services itself therewith favoring their own product through the default settings. On top of that it is increasingly shutting down access to developers which shrinks the ecology and makes it less diverse.

2. The Private in the Public

The advent of social media has eroded privacy as we know it, giving rise to a culture of self-surveillance made up by myriad voluntary everyday disclosures. New understandings of the private and the public are needed to address this phenomenon. What does owning all this user data actually mean? Why are people willing to give up their personal data, and that of others? How should software platforms be regulated? Is software like a movie to be given parental guidance? What does it mean that there are different levels of access to data, form the partner info brokers, third-party developers to the users? Why is education in Social Media not in the curriculum of secondary schools? Can social media companies truly adopt a Social Network Users’ Bill of Rights?

3. Visiting the Belly of the Beast

The exuberance and joy that defined the dotcom era is cliché by now. IT use is happening across the board and new labour conditions can be found everywhere. But this should not keep our eyes away from the real existing power relations inside the current Internet companies. What are the geopolitical lines of distribution that define the organization and outsourcing that goes on in global IT companies these days? How is the industry structured and how does its economy work? Is there a broader connection to be made here with the politics of land expropriation and peasant labour in countries like India, for instance, and how does this analytically converge with the experiences of social media users? How do the monopolies deal with their employees use of the platforms? What can we learn from other market sectors and perspectives that (critically) reflect on for example techniques of sustainability or fair trade?

4. Artistic Responses to Social Media

Artists are playing a crucial role in visualizing power relationships and disrupt subliminal daily routines of social media usage. Artistic practices provide an important analytical site in the context of the proposed research agenda as artists are often first to deconstruct the familiar and to facilitate an alternative lens through which these media can be understood and critiqued. Is there such a thing as a social ‘web aesthetics’? It is one thing to criticize Twitter and Facebook for their primitive and blend interface designs. How can we imagine the social in different ways? And how can we design and implement new interfaces in such a way as to provide more creative freedom to cater for our multiple identities? Also, what is the scope of interventions with existing social media, as, for example, the ‘dislike button’ add-on for Facebook? And what type practices are really needed? Isn’t it time, for example, for a Facebook ‘identity correction’?

5. Designing culture: representation and software

Social media offer us the virtual worlds we use every day. From Facebook’s ‘like’ button to the user interface of blogs, these tools empower and delimit our interaction. How do we theorize the plethora of social media functionalities and features? Are they to be understood as mere technical functions, cultural texts, signifiers, affordances, non or all at once? In what ways does the design and the different functionalities influence the content and expressions produced over time? And how can we map and critique this influence? What are the cultural assumptions embedded in the design of social media sites, but also, what type of users or communities does they produce? One possible route into the question of structure and design is to trace the genealogy of the functionalities used, to historicize and to look for the discursive silences. How can we make sense of the constant changes occurring in the platform, both on and beyond the interface? How can we theorize the production and configuration of an ever increasing algorithmic and protocological culture more generally?

6. Software Matters: Sociotechnical and Algorithmic Cultures

One of the important components of social media is software. For all the discourse on sociopolitical power relations’ governed by corporations such as Facebook and related platforms one must not forget that social media platforms are through and through defined and powered by software. What is needed is a critical engagement with Facebook as software. That is, what is the role of software in reconfiguring contemporary social spaces? In what ways does code make a difference to how identities are forms and social relationships are performed? How does the software function to interpellate users to its logic? What are the discourses surrounding the software? One of the core features of Facebook for instance is its News Feed, which in its default mode is algorithmically driven and sorted. The EdgeRank algorithm of the News Feed governs the logic by which content becomes visible acting as a modern gatekeeper and editorial voice. Given its 700 million users, it has become imperative to better understand the power of EdgeRank and its cultural implications. Another important analytical site for investigation are the ‘application programming interfaces’ (APIs) that to a large extent have made the phenomenal growth of social media platforms possible in the first place. How have APIs contributed to the business logic of social media platforms? How can we begin to theorize social media use from the perspective of the programmer?

6. Genealogies of Social Networking Sites

Feedback in a closed system is a core characteristic of Facebook; even the most basic and important features, such as the ‘friending’ logic traces back to early cybernetics’ ideas of control. While the word itself got lost during transitions, the ideas of cybernetics have remained stable in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and the biopolitical arena. Both communication and information theories shaped this discourse. How does Facebook relate to such an algorithm shape of social life? What can Facebook teach us about the powers of systems theory? Would Norbert Wiener and Niklas Luhmann be friends on Facebook?

7. Is Research Doomed?

The design of Facebook excludes the third person perspective as the only way in goes through ones’ own personal profile. What does this inbuilt ‘me-centricity’ imply for social media research? Does it require us to rethink the so-called objectivity of researchers and the detached view of current social research? Why is it that there are more than 200 papers about the way people use Facebook the site is “closed” to true quantitative inquiry? Is the state of art social media research exemplary of the ‘quantitative turn’ in new media research? Or is there really a need to expand and rethink the methods of inquiry in social media research. Going beyond the usual methodological approaches of the quantitative and qualitative approaches, we seek to broaden the scope and ways of investigating these media. How can we make sense of the political economy and the socio-technical elements, with what means? Indeed, what are our toolkits for collective, transdisciplinary modes of knowledge and the politics of refusal?

8. Researching Unstable Ontologies

Software destabilizes Facebook as a stable ontology. As software is always in becoming, never really static it is by nature ontogenetic. It grows and grows. Facebook lives of constant input. What does this fluidity and changing nature of Facebook imply for how we can make sense of it and studying it? Logging onto Facebook, one never encounters the same, it is in constant change, both on an algorithmic level and in terms of the platform itself. New features and functionalities are added and taken away on an ongoing basis. Facebook for instance willingly complicates research: 1. It is always personalized (see Eli Pariser). Even when creating ‘empty’ research accounts it never gives the same results compared to other people’s empty research accounts. 2. One must often be ‘inside’ social media to study it. Access from the outside is limited, which reinforces the first problem. 3. Outside access is ideally (for FB and Twitter) arranged through carefully regulated protocols of APIs where access can easily be restricted. Next to social media as a problem for research, there is also the question of social research methods as intervention.

9. Making Sense of Data: Visualization and Critique

Data representation is one of the most important battlefields nowadays. Indeed, global corporations build their visions of the world increasingly based on and structured around complex data flows. What is the role of data today and what are the appropriate ways in which to make sense of the burgeoning datasets? As data visualization is becoming a powerful buzzword and social research increasingly uses digital tools to make ‘beautiful’ graphs and visualizations there is a need to take a step back and question the usefulness of current data visualization tools and to develop novel analytical frameworks through which these often simplified and nontransparent ways of representing data can be critically grasped. Not only is it important to develop new interpretative and visual methods with which we engage with the ubiquity of data flows, data itself needs to be questioned in a much greater fashion. We need to ask about the ontological and epistemological nature of data. What is it, who is the producer, for whom, where is it stored? In what ways do the terms of service that social media companies enforce to regulate data? Be it adopting alternative social media or the perpetual innovations to monopolistic platforms, how are our data-bodies exactly affected by changes in the software?

11. Pittfalls of Building Social Media Alternatives

It is not only important to critique and question existing design and socio-political realities but also to engage with possible futures. The central aim of thi s project is therefore to contribute and support ‘alternatives in social media’. It is simply not enough to celebrate offline romanticism as a lifestyle choice. What would the collective design of alternative protocols and interfaces look like? We should find some comfort in the small explosion of alternative options currently available, but also ask how usable these options are and how real is the danger of fragmentation? How have developers from different initiatives so far collaborated and what might we learn from their successes and failures? Understanding any early failures and successes of these attempts seems crucial. A related issue concerns funding difficulties faced by projects. Finally, in what ways does regionalism (United States, Europe, Asia) feed into the way people search for alternatives and use social media.

12. Showcasing Alternatives in Social Media

The best way to criticize platform monopolies is to support alternative free and open source software that can be locally installed. There are currently a multitude of decentralized social networks in the making that aspire to facilitate users with greater power to define for themselves with whom they want to share their data. Let us look into the wildly different initiatives from Crabgrass, Appleseed, Diaspora, NoseRub, BuddyCloud, Protonet, StatusNet, GNU Social, Lorea and OneSocialWeb to the distributed Twitter alternative Thimbl. In which settings are these initiative developed and what choices are made in their design? Let’s for example hear from the Spanish activists have recently made experiences with the n-1.cc platform developed by Lorea. What kind of community does the platform enable? While traditional software focuses on the individual profile and its relation to the network and the public (share with friends, share with friends of friends, share with public) the Lorea software for instance asks you whom to share an update, picture or video with every time you upload/update. It finegrains the idea of privacy settings and sharing settings to a level of content, not the user’s profile. At the same time, it requires constant decision making and awareness on the part of the user, or else a high level of trust in the community you share your data with. And how are the experiences with the transition from, or interoperability with, other platforms? Is it in this light useful to make a distinction between corporate competitors and grassroots initiatives? How can these beta alternatives best be supported, both economically and socially? Aren’t we overstating the importance of software and isn’t the availability of capital much bigger in determining the adoption of a platform?

13. Social Media Activism and the Critique of Liberation Technology

While the tendency to label any emergent social movement as the latest ‘Twitter revolution’ has passed, a liberal discourse of ‘liberation technology’ (information and communication technologies that empower grassroots movements) continues to influence our ideas about networked participation. This discourse tends to obscure power relations and obstructs critical questioning about the capitalist institutions and superstructures in which these technologies operate. What are the assumptions behind this neo-liberal discourse? What role do ‘developed’ nations play when they promote and subsidize the development of technologies of circumvention and hacktivism for use in ‘underdeveloped’ states, while at the same time allowing social media companies at home to operate in increasingly deregulated environments, and collaborating with them in the surveillance of citizens at home and abroad? What role do companies play in determining how their products are used by dissidents or governments abroad? How have their policies and Terms of Use changed as a result?

14. Social Media in the Middle East and Beyond

The justified response to downplay the role of Facebook in the early 2011 events in Tunisia and Egypt by putting social media in a larger perspective has not put the question of how to organize social mobilizations off the table. Which specific software do the ‘movements of squares’ need? What happens to social movements when the internet and ICT networks are shut down? What kind of spaces do the outsides of digital networks become? How does the interruption of internet services shift the nature of activism? How have repressive and democratic governments responded to the use of “liberation technologies”? How do these technologies change the nature of the relationship between the state and its citizens? How are governments using the same social media tools for surveillance and propaganda or highjack Facebook identities such as happened in Syria? What is Facebook’s own policy when deleting or censoring accounts of its users? How can technical infrastructures be supported which are not shutdown upon request? How much does our agency depend on communication technology nowadays? And whom do we exclude with every click? How can we envision ‘organized networks’ that are based on ‘strong ties’ yet open enough to grow quickly if the time is right? Which software platforms are best suited for the ‘tactical camping’ movements that occupy squares all over the world?

15. Data storage: social media and legal cultures

Data that is voluntarily shared by social media users is not only used for commercial purposes, but is also of interest of governments. This data is stored on servers of companies that are legally bound to the specific legal culture of a certain countries. This material-legal complex is often overlooked. Fore instance, the servers of Facebook and Twitter are located in the US and fall therefore under the US jurisdiction. One famous example is the request for the Twitter accounts of several activists (Gonggrijp, Jónsdóttir, Applebaum) affiliated with Wikileaks projects by the US government. How do activists respond and how do alternative social media platforms deal with this issue?

Contact details:

Geert Lovink (geert@xs4all.nl)
Korinna Patelis (korinna.patelis@cut.ac.cy / kpatelis@yahoo.com)

Institute of Network Cultures
CREATE-IT/Hogeschool van Amsterdam
www.networkcultures.org

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