[Air-L] Unlike Us: Understanding Social Media Monopolies and their Alternatives

Geert Lovink geert at desk.nl
Fri Jul 15 06:05:58 PDT 2011

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, Morgan  
Currie and Eric Kluitenberg for their input.

The aim of this proposal is to establish a research network of  
artists, designers, scholars, activists and programmers who 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 dominant social media platforms and  
to 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

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 – both the  
facilitation of free exchanges and the commercial exploitation of  
social relationships – seem to lie at the heart of contemporary  
capitalism. On the one hand new media create and expand the social  
spaces through which we interact, play and even politicize ourselves;  
on the other hand they are literally owned by three or four companies  
that 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 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 and simple interfaces of their beloved  
'free' services?

The accelerated growth and scope of Facebook’s 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  
worldwide and is valued at 50 billion US dollars. Its users willingly  
deposit a myriad of snippets of their social life and relationships on  
a site that invests in an accelerated play of sharing and exchanging  
information. We all befriend, rank, recommend, create circles, upload  
photos, videos and update our status. A myriad of (mobile)  
applications orchestrate this offer of private moments in a virtual  
public, seamlessly embedding the online world in users’ everyday life.

Yet 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 looming on the horizon for quite some time. The  
disappearance of Twitter and Facebook – and Google, for that matter –  
is only a masterpiece of software away. This means that the  
protocological future is not stationary but allows space for us to  
carve out a variety of techno-political interventions. Unlike Us is  
developed in the spirit of RSS-inventor and uberblogger Dave Winer  
whose recent Blork project is presented as an alternative for  
‘corporate blogging silos’. But instead of repeating the  
entrepreneurial-start-up-transforming-into-corporate-behemoth formula,  
isn't it time to reinvent the internet as a truly independent public  
infrastructure that can effectively defend itself against corporate  
domination and state control?

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 overarching questions about how  
to tackle these fast-emerging monopoly powers. Situated within the  
existing oligopoly of ownership and use, this inquiry will include the  
support of software alternatives and related artistic practices and  
the development of a common alternative vision of how the techno- 
social world might be mediated.

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 sell. What aesthetic tactics could effectively end the  
expropriation of subjective and private dimensions that we experience  
daily in social networks? Why do we ignore networks that refuse the  
(hyper)growth model and instead seek to strengthen forms of free  
cooperation? Turning the tables, let's code and develop other 'network  
cultures' whose protocols are no longer related to the logic of 'weak  
ties'. What type of social relations do we want to foster and discover  
in the 21st century? Imagine dense, diverse networked exchanges  
between billions of people, outside corporate and state control.  
Imagine discourses returning subjectivities to their 'natural' status  
as open nodes 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  
implode overnight, the social networking logic of befriending, liking  
and ranking will further spread across all aspects of life.

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.  
Methodologically we will use the lessons learned from theoretical  
research activities to inform practice-oriented research, and vice- 
versa. Unlike Us is a 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 and a reader connected to a series of events  
initially in Amsterdam and Cyprus (early 2012) are already in  
planning. We would explicitly like to invite other partners to come on  
board who identify with the 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 goes out in July 2011, followed by the  
publicity for the first events and other initiatives by possible new  

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

1. Political Economy: Social Media Monopolies
Social media culture is belied in American corporate capitalism,  
dominated by the logic of start-ups and venture capital, management  
buyouts, IPOs etc. Three to four companies literally own the Western  
social media landscape and capitalize 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 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 be denied by  
the company? Facebook is worth billions, does that really mean  
something for the average user? How does data-mining 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 central nodes, such as image upload services and short  
ulr services. This ecology was once fairly open, with a variety of new  
Twitter-related services coming into being, but now Twitter takes up  
these services itself, favoring their own product through 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 of myriad voluntary,  
everyday disclosures. New understandings of private and 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, from partner info  
brokers and 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 occurring across the board, and new labour conditions can be  
found everywhere. But this should not keep our eyes away from the  
power relations inside internet companies. What are the geopolitical  
lines of distribution that define the organization and outsourcing  
taking place 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 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 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 disrupting subliminal daily routines of social media usage.  
Artistic practice provides 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 to  
understand and critique these media. Is there such a thing as a social  
'web aesthetics'? It is one thing to criticize Twitter and Facebook  
for their primitive and bland interface designs. How can we imagine  
the social in different ways? And how can we design and implement new  
interfaces to provide more creative freedom to cater to our multiple  
identities? Also, what is the scope of interventions with social  
media, such as, for example, the ‘dislike button’ add-on for Facebook?  
And what 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 blogs’ user interface, these tools empower  
and delimit our interactions. How do we theorize the plethora of  
social media features? Are they to be understood as mere technical  
functions, cultural texts, signifiers, affordances, or all these at  
once? In what ways do design and functionalities influence the content  
and expressions produced? And how can we map and critique this  
influence? What are the cultural assumptions embedded in the design of  
social media sites and what type of users or communities do they  
produce? To answer the question of structure and design, one route is  
to trace the genealogy of functionalities, to historicize them and  
look for discursive silences. How can we make sense of the constant  
changes occurring 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 thoroughly defined and powered  
by software. We need 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 in how  
identities are formed and social relationships performed? How does the  
software function to interpellate users to its logic? What are the  
discourses surrounding software? One of the core features of Facebook  
for instance is its news feed, which is algorithmically driven and  
sorted in its default mode. 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 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  
made the phenomenal growth of social media platforms possible in the  
first place. How have APIs contributed to the business logic of social  
media? How can we 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 'friending', traces  
back to early cybernetics' ideas of control. While the word itself  
became lost in various 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  
algorithmic 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 is through ones own 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, but the site is ‘closed’ to  
true quantitative inquiry? Is the state of art in social media  
research exemplary of the 'quantitative turn' in new media research?  
Or is there a need to expand and rethink methods of inquiry in social  
media research? Going beyond the usual methodological approaches of  
the quantitative and qualitative, we seek to broaden the scope of  
investigating these media. How can we make sense of the political  
economy and the socio-technical elements, and 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 solid ontology. Software is always  
in becoming and so by nature ontogenetic. It grows and grows, living  
off of constant input. Logging on one never encounters the same  
content, as it changes on an algorithmic level and in terms of the  
platform itself. What does Facebook’s fluid nature imply for how we  
make sense of and study it? 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 Facebook and Twitter) arranged through  
carefully regulated protocols of APIs and 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 to critically grasp these often simplified and nontransparent  
ways of representing data. Not only is it important to develop new  
interpretative and visual methods to engage with data flows, data  
itself needs to be questioned. We need to ask about data’s ontological  
and epistemological nature. What is it, who is the producer, for whom,  
where is it stored? In what ways do social media companies’ terms of  
service regulate data? Whether alternative social media or  
monopolistic platforms, how are our data-bodies exactly affected by  
changes in the software?

10. Pitfalls 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 this project is therefore to contribute and support  
'alternatives in social media'. 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.

11. 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 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 for their design? Let's hear from the Spanish activists who have  
recently made experiences with the n-1.cc platform developed by Lorea.  
What community does this platform enable? While traditional software  
focuses on the individual profile and its relation to the network and  
a public (share with friends, share with friends of friends, share  
with public), the Lorea software for instance asks you with whom to  
share an update, picture or video. It finegrains the idea of privacy  
and sharing settings at the content level, not the user’s profile. At  
the same time, it requires constant decision making, or else a high  
level of trust in the community you share your data with. And how do  
we experience the transition from, or interoperability with, other  
platforms? Is it 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?

12. 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  
obstruct 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?

13. Social Media in the Middle East and Beyond
The justified response to downplay the role of Facebook in early 2011  
events in Tunisia and Egypt by putting social media in a larger  
perspective has not taken off the table the question of how to  
organize social mobilizations. Which specific software do the  
'movements of squares' need? What happens to social movements when the  
internet and ICT networks are shut down? 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 relationship  
between the state and its citizens? How are governments using the same  
social media tools for surveillance and propaganda or highjacking  
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?

14. 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 to governments. This  
data is stored on servers of companies that are bound to the specific  
legal culture and country. This material-legal complex is often  
overlooked. Fore instance, the servers of Facebook and Twitter are  
located in the US and therefore fall 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 at xs4all.nl)
Korinna Patelis (korinna.patelis at cut.ac.cy / kpatelis at yahoo.com)

Institute of Network Cultures
CREATE-IT/Hogeschool van Amsterdam

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