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To understand the power of social media, it’s important to understand the medium on which they are built. That means the internet, and the protocols and people that make it work. Protocols are the languages that computers use to communicate with each other, but the internet is more than software and hardware. It’s a living thing, a network of networks that’s kept alive and functioning by the people who care for and maintain it.
Therefore, unlocking the transformative potential of social media is both a political challenge—since protocols must be kept open to enable communication across different networks and platforms—and a personal one: people must forgo the temptation to enclose the internet for their own financial ends. The potential of social media can’t be realized if they are locked-in by proprietary platforms which manipulate them for profit.
There are hundreds of protocols that enable the decentralized networks known as the internet to talk to and connect with one another. For example, TCP/IP won out over others as the core operating protocol in the early days of the internet; SMTP allows email messages to be sent and received between different networks; and HTML makes it possible to markup text on a page and to display it in a way that links to other documents.
The ‘words’ and ‘grammar’ contained in the languages of these protocols determine what they can communicate. In this sense they are political. Algorithms are also political because they shape the information that’s seen on different social media networks.
To understand the full importance of these protocols, one needs to understand the origins of the internet. In the Internet Galaxy, Manuel Castells articulates three founding cultures which originated with the ARPANET in 1962, and which blended together to shape the overall culture of the internet over the next 30 years.
The techno-meritocratic culture was rooted in academia and science. Its goal was free discovery, and the review of information in communities of peers. The culture of hackers was motivated by the search for creativity and innovation in open environments, independent of the institutions which drove the early development of software, much of it open source.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the culture of virtual communities emerged. With their roots in the counter-culture of the 1960s, these communities used open protocols to connect with each other for entertainment, relationships, hobbies, and engaging in political discussions. Today this culture continues on social media, where people are able to connect, share and organize in ways they’ve never been able to do before—creating powerful citizen movements around the globe in the process.
The last and most recent culture to join the other three is entrepreneurial. From the early 1990s, commercial enterprises began to use the mass potential of the internet to seek out business opportunities. This entrepreneurial culture has come to dominate the rest, challenging or disregarding the commons they had created which enabled the internet to grow and thrive.
In a process not unlike the enclosure of common land in England that began in the 1600s, or the abuse of the environmental commons of today like land, air and water by industry, the open protocols that made the internet what it is are being enclosed and abandoned as social media are increasingly developed by commercial platforms. The enclosure of the internet commons greatly limits the transformational potential of social media.
Most of these commercial silos don’t use open protocols. Twitter used to have RSS feeds, an open protocol for sharing and distributing blog posts or tweets, but this was turned off. The reason is that these platforms were created to extract value from users by monetizing patterns of human interaction—what people say on social media, and what they click on and link to in their activities on the internet. Companies sell advertisements and display them to users according to their online profiles.
Can these commercial platforms, with their proprietary protocols and controlling algorithms, ever be the basis for social transformation?
To answer that question let’s take a recent, high-profile example—the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The news of this event spread further and faster via Twitter because people’s tweets aren’t filtered, whereas Facebook uses algorithms to screen news feeds (the updates you see from your friends and the brands that you ‘like’). That means that only some updates are presented to you. These algorithms also work to bring us certain kinds of news—usually positive—while excluding other, more critical messages.
It’s worth noting that Twitter’s Chief Financial Officer Dick Costolo recently said that his company would soon be rolling out a filtered feed to its users, “whether you like it or not.” Even so, we probably won’t know when this happens (if it does), because some tweets just won’t show up. Perhaps in future, the news about certain key events won’t spread so fast, or maybe not at all.
In a way this is already happening through subtle changes on Twitter. It used to be the case that when you searched on a term or a tag, the most recent tweets would appear. Then Twitter created a way to view the “top tweets” related to that search. Now when you use a Twitter application on your cell-phone, only the top tweets show up and you can’t find the others.
But when you’re in a real time situation like a protest it’s not just the top tweets that matter, but all the real time ones. So this simple filter—this choice on the part of a few individuals to present only a selection of tweets—is a subtle algorithmic suppressant to real-time information sharing via mobile social media in a protest or other similar situation.
Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are owned by publicly traded companies, so your identities on those platforms are owned by them too. Your ‘life’ on these platforms is in their hands. They can ‘terminate’ you at any time and you’d have no recourse, or rights. By way of illustration, Facebook started turning off the accounts of Drag Queens in San Francisco in September of 2014. Google+ turned off people’s accounts and erased them from their network (including mine), because they used “Non-name shaped names,” an attack that provoked the “NymWars” as they came to be known.
All these companies are compiling extensive digital dossiers on their users’ online activities: who we are friends with, what we click on, what we search for and read, and where we go in the physical as well as the virtual worlds. This is happening without public knowledge and consent. It’s a Kafka-esque digital world that has gotten exponentially worse since Daniel Solove published the Digital Person in 2004. So what’s the alternative?
If social media are to realize their transformative potential, open protocols that build on top of TCP/IP, SMTP, HTML and the rest are essential. They would enable individuals to express and control who they are across networks by using a ‘portable digital identity.’ The same applies to sharing social objects in the form of words, images and videos.
People, as individuals and more importantly in organized social groups, are the most valuable thing on the internet. So we need to be sure that our power to connect, share and work together is not held hostage to the needs and interests of publicly traded companies who seek to exploit us for maximum monetary value, while limiting the flow of information using algorithms and other filters. That’s just another way of minimizing social disruption whenever it appears to threaten the system in which these companies are embedded, and from which they make their money.
When we get these protocols right, and when we adopt them widely, we’ll be able to use them to turn social media in the direction of deep, meaningful and long lasting social transformation.