The other day I was talking to someone who’s been off social media for a year. They listed all the usual benefits, but said this: “The only thing I miss about F███k is being able to find all my friends in one place.”
I think that’s really key to understanding why “social platforms” are so toxic right now. They’re the only place to find the others: the modern agora, the plaza, the public sphere. And like physical spaces, they’re systematically privatized and surveilled. It’s the tragedy of the cyber-commons.
Here in the American West there isn’t much infrastructure for democracy. The indigenous architecture and social systems were trampled by fast-moving settler culture. Unlike the former colonies on the eastern seaboard, the plains and deserts of the West weren’t built to last. They weren’t built for people. They were built to satisfice, to meet some minimal criteria of towniness and provide a foothold for further expansion. They’re more like military forts, or Hollywood sets. They’re made of garbage, thoughtlessly.
I don’t know how different this feeling is in other places. I suspect the cities that border on the Cyber, the tech-frontier towns like Seattle and Singapore and Dubai, aren’t going to age well. They’re all bazaar and no forum. The terminal stage of capitalism: there’s nowhere to go to escape commerce. Libraries are still a bastion of free assembly and free speech (and often free beer), but they’re the exception. The tentacles of enclosure have encompassed their planetary cage and now squirm tighter into any space they overlooked.
###### “The Spheres” at Amazon HQ in Seattle – for employees only, of course
Physical enclosure is almost complete. Now it’s time to extract the intangible.
The hallmark of late capitalism is that it attempts to mediate and monetize every form of human interaction. You don’t have an extended family, you have a babysitter. You don’t surf couches, you rent someone’s extra room. You don’t catch a ride with a friend, you dial up an “independent contractor”.
You don’t have friends. You have followers. You have brand loyalty. You’re an influencer, you have looks and likes and click-throughs. You’re not homeless, kid: you’re living in a van down by the instagram.
So now the only place to find all your friends, to talk birthdays and game nights and cute dog tricks, is “social”. If you won’t sign up for invasive surveillance, well, maybe you don’t want to have friends at all, huh?
Maybe you want to live in a little box you pay too much for, buy lots of petro to get across the city to the job you don’t care about so you can see people you hate, come home at night and watch pirated porn in a dark room by yourself. Maybe you’re just antisocial, misanthropic, a failure. It couldn’t be that the system was designed that way, could it?
Platforms, just like cities, are constructs. Every tree in a city was deliberately planted or left alone. Every fence was built for a reason. Every sorting algorithm, every push notification, every color palette and hamburger menu is the result of human choice.
Oh, sure, there’s no specific villian deciding which video to autoplay after the one you actually chose, but the neural net that makes the call was designed to keep your eyes glued to the screen. The people making these choices are unaccountable, often unidentified, and definitely uninterested in your well-being. They have one objective: sell advertisements. That’s it. Everything else is a byproduct.
In that sense, I guess there are public spaces analogous to Faceblok. But you don’t go to Times Square to have a nice chat with your cousin, or to have a serious debate on the Bill of Rights.
Ad platforms are a terrible place to have real public interaction. No one can be genuine. Like poker night: when money’s at stake, all trust is off the table. How do you know who might be an influencer, a troll, a satirist or a spy? I might go to Times Square to meet up with someone (see my letter on Schelling points ), but I would immediately redirect to some sanctuary, like the library or the park. We need parks on the internet. We need libraries. We need plazas.
If you didn’t see the Community Standards that Faceberg released this week, they’re worth a glance. Never before has any entity had the responsibility, or the power, to set conversational norms for a populace of 2 billion. They’ve made a decent run-up at something like a Universal Declaration of Human Decency.
Of course, the real point is to make it clear to advertisers that their brand won’t get displayed side-by-side with live beheadings or kiddie porn or “thinspiration” models.
Oh, and it’s definitely against the Standards to post anything that “Admits,
either in writing or verbally, to personal use of non-medical drugs unless posted in a recovery context” or “
Mentions or depicts marijuana or pharmaceutical drugs
So if your profile says “Works at: Drug Dealer”, you, uh… you might want to do something about that.
What kind of community standards would we hold for a public platform? What speech is okay? What’s newsworthy, and who gets to decide?
I have a feeling we’ll get to find out. My sources in media are forecasting a collapse of the advertising model, with only a few giants left standing. Facebot is taking all the heat right now, although all the spyware companies are just as guilty. Their rapid backpedaling is pulling the rug out from under the media industry, which just spent the last ten years fastidiously adapting to the ever-changing standards of the Newsfeed. Pandora just released results showing that increased ads cause more people to leave than to subscribe . Something’s gotta give. And when it does, a lot of the current web landscape is going to quake and crumble.
What will replace it? Where will I find my friends? Who will dare to counter the privatization, to re-communize cyberspace, to create the forum of the future?
Where can I find you, when the world goes dark?
Thanks for reading, as always.
Max Anton Brewer
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