Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Editor: Hey folks, I found this article by Cal Newport to be very helpful in making the distinction between social media and the social internet. The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal was only the last straw in a whole series of problems posed by Facebook that I could see coming years ago. I have personally quit Facebook and deleted my account twice before. I only got a new account two years ago because I wanted to be a member of a Gender Diverse Buddhist group that was hosted primarily on Facebook groups, but I regret even that decision. Once it started coming out in the press the role that Facebook played in, not just allowing Cambridge Analytica/the Kremlin to abuse the data of over 87 million Facebook users, but providing active assistance to the Trump Campaign, and the campaign to re-elect Dutarte in the Philippines, who has personally ordered the extra-judicial shooting of thousands of citizens, I knew it was time to #DeleteFacebook yet one more time, and this time for good, Instagram included.
From my prior outrage with Facebook, I had already switched to Twitter for most of my news content, which was much more reliable and accessible from fairly trustworthy media sources such as the Washington Post and NY Times. But here’s the difference: Twitter is an open system. I have a Twitter account, but I don’t have the sense that I own any piece of it. I don’t have a personal Twitter “page” with all my like and dislikes, friends and what have you. Twitter is just an account that let’s me see what I’ve subscribed to on Twitter. I have a few Twitter friends that I have regular exchanges with; but otherwise, Twitter is an open system that anyone can view from outside the Twitter eco-system.
One of the advantages of my earlier divestment from Facebook is that I stopped logging into other websites using my Facebook account, and only use email logins. So now I don’t need a Facebook account to do whatever I need to do on the social Internet. Here’s a tip for those attempting to #deletefacebook, and I know it’s a grueling process because I’ve done it three times already. Make sure you delete all the Facebook log-in passwords stored in your browser or operating system. That way, even if Facebook tricks you into logging in by accident (and this has happened to me, so I know), you won’t be able to log-in because all your passwords and permissions are deleted.
Secondly, for years I have maintained a regular blog of some sort, primarily on WordPress, which is an excellent example of the social Internet v. social media. The article below makes the distinction between social media platforms that enclose you in an walled-in corporate platform that determines everyone you connect with and how you connect with them, what news you get and what other media you are exposed to, and then exploits your network data. As Cal Newport says, the goal of Facebook and other social media platforms is to become a totalizing substitute for the social internet. WordPress is a way for me to connect with people who share my interests, and I subscribe to many other WordPress blogs whose interests I share. Within this social internet, I have recently opened an Engage! forum using GroupMe, which is owned by Skype, as a place to facilitate group discussions raised by the blog. We just don’t need Facebook anymore to engage on the social internet. It’s time to stop lining the pockets of autocratic technorati like Mark Zuckerberg. #DeleteFacebook
As someone who has publicly criticized the major social media platforms for years, I’ve become familiar with the common arguments surrounding this topic.
One of the more interesting trends I’ve observed about this conversation is the split reaction to social media I used to hear from the political left before the 2016 election scrambled everything.
This split was defined largely by age.
Younger progressives were fiercely in favor of social media and were often appalled that people like me might say something negative about these services.
I remember one particularly lively radio debate, held on the Canadian equivalent of NPR, in which one of the other guests fought my suggestion that users should perform a personal cost/benefit analysis for these tools by arguing that even discussing this strategy was problematic as it might trick people into not using social media — a self-evident tragedy.
Older progressives, by contrast, were more skeptical of these platforms. This was especially true of tech-savvy activists like Jaron Lanier or Douglas Rushkoff who were connected to earlier techno-utopian movements.
On closer analysis, this gap seemed to stem from how these different cohorts understood social media’s relationship to the internet.
Two Visions of The Internet
The young progressives grew up in a time when platform monopolies like Facebook were so dominant that they seemed inextricably intertwined into the fabric of the internet. To criticize social media, therefore, was to criticize the internet’s general ability to do useful things like connect people, spread information, and support activism and expression.
The older progressives, however, remember the internet before the platform monopolies. They were concerned to observe a small number of companies attempt to consolidate much of the internet into their for-profit, walled gardens.
To them, social media is not the internet. It was instead a force that was co-opting the internet — including the powerful capabilities listed above — in ways that would almost certainly lead to trouble. (See Tim Wu’s The Master Switch for an interesting take on this inevitable “cycle.”)
I’m introducing this split because I think the older progressives largely had it right. There’s a distinction between the social internet and social media.
The social internet describes the general ways in which the global communication network and open protocols known as “the internet” enable good things like connecting people, spreading information, and supporting expression and activism.
Social media, by contrast, describes the attempt to privatize these capabilities by large companies within the newly emerged algorithmic attention economy, a particularly virulent strain of the attention sector that leverages personal data and sophisticated algorithms to ruthlessly siphon users’ cognitive capital.
I support the social internet. I’m incredibly wary of social media.
Understanding the difference between these two statements is crucial if we’re going to make progress on the issues surrounding social media that have, during the last year, finally entered our mainstream cultural conversation.
If we fail to distinguish the social internet from social media, we’ll proceed by attempting to reform social media through better self-regulation and legislative controls — an approach I believe to be insufficient on its own.
On the other hand, if we recognize that the benefits of the social internet can exist outside the increasingly authoritarian confines of the algorithmic attention economy, we can explore attempts to replace social media with better alternatives.
In my opinion, any vision of a better future for the internet must include this latter conversation.
One Possible Solution: Social Protocols
The tricky question, of course, is how exactly one enables a useful social internet in the absence of the network effects and economic resources provided by the algorithmic attention economy.
One intriguing answer is the idea of augmenting the basic infrastructure of the internet with social protocols.
In short, these protocols would enable the following two functions:
There are few serious technical obstacles to implementing these protocols, which require only standard asymmetric cryptography primitives. But their impact could be significant.
As proponents of this approach have pointed out, social protocols hold the potential to revolutionize the social internet.
In more detail, these protocols could enable a version of the internet that includes a vast and descriptive social graph that’s owned by the users themselves, instead of existing in the private database of a single monopolistic company.
In this ecosystem, many different applications can leverage this distributed social graph to offer useful features to users. By eliminating the need for each such social application to create a network from scratch, a vibrant competitive marketplace can emerge.
Crucially, this marketplace could then offer useful alternatives to the increasing number of people fed up with the excesses of the algorithmic attention economy.
People like Facebook. But if you could offer them a similar alternative that stripped away the most unsavory elements of Zuckerberg’s empire (perhaps funded by a Wikipedia-style nonprofit collective, or a modest subscription fee), many would happily jump ship.
My point with this essay is not to present detailed technical proposals. I’m interested instead in providing a flavor of the types of options that emerge once we begin to realize that the social internet and social media are not the same thing, and that this reality gives us more options than we might have first imagined for improving our digital lives.