and the future of the public social network

I’ve just watched the launch video for the product/project, which is another social media network.  This one, has the attractive distinction of charging a fee for use. The argument is that, by charging a fee, they will be subject to their users alone rather than making users one step removed in the process.  The key claim (which is similar to *diapsora) is that “We will never sell your personal data, content, feed, interests, clicks, or anything else to advertisers. We promise.” This leads them to align all the interests of developing the platform to designing for users rather than advertisers or marketers.

Aside from the rather uninspiring pitch given by their founder, I fully agree with their argument about the problems of commercial-supported culture in general.  Despite the apparent belief that Facebook’s data-driven, “the product is you” approach to social media is the first occurrence of this model, the argument of the audience commodity was made in the early 70s by Dallas Smythe about commercial radio and TV. His article (which I can’t link to directly because now it is a commodity of some publisher and therefore unavailable online) was pitched at critiquing those in the “Western Marxist” tradition – mostly of Cultural Studies and but also Critical Theory – who focused too closely on the ideological role the media played in securing legitimation for the status quo.  For him, a more useful argument was  found if we looked at the commercial media as an industrial force in and of itself.

From this perspective, the question pertinent to advertising supported commercial television and radio was: what are they producing? The obvious first answer is: they are producing media.  Yet when you look at how they made their money, it the production of media actually appeared as more of an expense.  A former head of the FCC (from 1943-48), Smythe knew that when NBC or CBS “sold” their product, their primary consumer was the advertising industry, who were ultimately paying the bills. Instead of producing news or entertainment for the viewer or consumer of news directly, they were producing media, to attract audiences which could then be sold to advertisers.  Of course people in the industry had already known this for many years.  But sometimes the social science community needs to be reminded that their objects of inquiry exist in both the abstract and the concrete.  In this case, instead of recognizing the true production process, Smythe declared that ideological critiques of the culture industry focus only on “the free lunch,” which seems an obvious nod to the predominant neoliberal thinker of his age, Milton Friedman.

In addition, in a perverse form of exploitation, even though the advertiser supported, commercial media corporation may be paying people to produce this free lunch, they were not actually producing the commodity that was sold to advertisers.  Instead, it was the viewers themselves who did the work of watching the advertisements, trading their liesure time for the commodity culture in between.  Smythe found this problematic since, among other things, it meant an effective increase in the working day, well into the time we were supposed to be  resting. Only instead of getting paid, we were merely generating profits for the owners of commercial media in exchange for their production our common popular culture.

Most inquiries into Smythe seem to end here – especially those which try to apply Smythe to the current environment of social media, which is obviously very relevant.  But this misses Smythe’s synthesis which points out that, while the primary role of the media itself is not ideological, it serves that purpose nonetheless. We must be prepared for this form of liesure-consumer-labor through intensive socialization into commodity culture more generally.  In a later essay, in his 1981 collection, Dependency Road, Smythe provides concrete examples of the free labor we provide in our preparation for this dimension of the capitalist economy.  In going to the store with our parents, for instance, we learn how to think about (and to think about thinking about) brands and the other practices of commodity consumption. This creates a baseline of self-education that advertisers, marketers, and the advertiser-supported commercial media itself can all expect consumers on the other end to possess.  And this becomes an ideological support in the full meaning of Althusser’s ideology – it is a practical, material effect which helps reproduce the relations of production.

Smythe doesn’t really supply a solution to this problem, but if the problem is commodification, then one solution is to create a public institution of some sort in order to obviate the commodification of that culture: a socially controlled media that therefore serves society because they are both its controllers and primary consumers. In other words, it recognizes the political, cultural, and economic dimensions of the role of the media and attempts to solve it as an overdetermined totality of contradictions.  As jargony as that might sound, it is actually a worthwhile strategy that tries to take the multiple variables, power relations, technological possibilities, and the historical development of these within the economic landscape of the social formation.  It therefore recognizes that flipping one variable will never be enough – in this case, shifting the costs from the advertiser to the direct consumer is a silly way to run a social network – or, more accurately, it is an utterly conventional way to run one.

Although provides a solution, it is based on a libertarian interpretation of the problem. This, predictably, creates a solution which overlooks the fundamentally social nature of communication.  (In a more business sense it is reinstating the model of internet communication on which AOL was based, hence its conventionality.) More accurately, it elides the social problem in its totality and castes it as an economic problem alone.  They are not alone in their approach – one could argue that peer reviewed publications (Peer J comes to mind) have adopted the same answer to their problem: but this piecemeal approach, pragmatic as it may be under the circumstances, is frustratingly disconnected from any overarching vision, limiting its understanding of the most immediate problem it aims to solve (i.e. to prevent social networks from data harvesting in the first case and overturn all of scholarly publishing in another).  What is charming about these endeavors is that they seem to sincerely believe this piecemeal approach will somehow transform the environment at large in a positive direction – or at least respond to an emergent market demand.  It’s all Pop (economics) and Popper (science).

In terms of social media, claims to be responding to a demand (or, more accurately, a significant damper to potentially greater demand):

Many people have become so cynical about user-hostile, privacy-violating social services that they refuse to participate at all. We can understand why. Earning your trust is the most important thing we can do. It won’t be easy, and we will make some mistakes, but we will do our best to be honest and transparent.
Therefore, their solution is to retain the commodity form of the media, but to pass along the costs of that media to the users themselves.  So it is not a tension between commercial and non-commercial communication, but advertiser-supported commercial culture and that supported by user fees.

In purely pragmatic terms, if  the network consists of only users who have paid a fee, then that significantly cuts into your ability not only to network, but to distribute information.  What this creates is a niche market of social media consumers: “we are the people who have the principles and the financial capacity to demand a social network that is safe and private.” This is fine if we don’t take social to mean public in any way. And in that case, it makes some sense, and might be a useful solution except that it relies solely on the market for its feedback and therefore its ability to respond to the problems users see in the platform.  Albert O. Hirschman (who I’ve discussed before on my other blog in relation to education reform) argues this “taut economy” rationality is a problematic starting point precisely because it allows for the most vocal and “quality conscious” consumers to simply select a different product rather than attempting to improve the one that appears to be failing them. claim that they have enough of a financial cushion to do this with some regularity, but they are also hoping to create a monopoly of sorts (in this case a walled garden where you can have a society free from advertising supported capitalism – and participate in the pure market activity of purchasing a service from a provider); on this point they might be onto something as that is exactly the condition (along with loyalty, obviously another social media favorite) in which Hirschman claims the recuperative politics of voice are energized.

So we can divide this situation into three dimensions: the cultural, the economic, and the political.  I will tackle each of them in turn, but first we should recognize the ecosystem of social media as it currently exists. On the one hand, it is arguably directly related to the ecosystem and economy of the advertiser driven commercial media of the past (and present). For instance, despite the fact that Clay Shirky seems completely oblivious to Smythe, the amazingly productive “cognitive surplus” he discovers once people stopped watching TV is clearly related to the fact that, before they were working for Wikipedia, they were working for The National Broadcasting Corporation (of course, now that NBC is owned by an internet service provider, Comcast, the distinction is increasingly difficult).  In any case, the implication is that people are creating content more directly for themselves – but increasingly they do this on web 2.0 platforms set up to capitalize on this social energy.

For one, as my colleague Rob Gehl has pointed out, the web 2.0 articulation of the von Neumann architecture clearly creates a division between the users as the “affective processors” of information and the social media platform itself as the owner of the archive those users valorize through their labor. These platforms ultimately make money (or, in most cases, hope to make a lot of money) on the data collected and information processed by people on them.   More importantly, they hope to develop profiles of the kinds of engagements people take part in, the kinds of connections they make, and the way information travels throughout social networks. In other words, they are able to engage in a highly sophisticated version of Administrative Communication research so that they can better target advertising messages.  This is especially true of Facebook, though it remains to be seen whether this is something that will actually make them the money they believe they can make.  In other cases- such as Youtube – the traditional advertiser support remains, but there is a broader range of producers remunerated for the media created.  In any case, it is clear that the platform owners have a range of interests competing for their attention, and users are ultimately only an indirect consumer, at least according to Smythe., hopes to short circuit this by making a product only for the users.

But even at one step removed, current “commercial” social media platforms must serve the users.  And in many cases, they are far more sensitive to users than even broadcast media.  Whereas the only index of consumer behavior NBC has to deal with is the number of viewers (and, perhaps the problems of DVRs and channel surfing), the very product Facebook or Google hopes to sell – consumer data – requires almost constant indexing of just how much participation, interaction, and attention they are selling.  In other words, it must be good enough to fulfill a basic social need and the increasing demands and expectations of the public it is serving. Thus, it is particularly sensitive to both the voice and exit function

And, on the other hand, because it is increasingly the only game in the social network business, with upwards of 850 million users, it also makes Facebook particularly sensitive to appearing as if it is an advertiser free-for-all.  If users are turned off or no longer find it a useful part of their life, they will abandon it with the speed of Friendster, MySpace, and all the previous social media leaders. doesn’t appear to have this problem: according to one watcher, although there are about 20k users, about 50% of the posts were generated by only 250 of the people involved.

This makes the platform less value as a venue for “social media” since, well, you can’t really share with all that large a society.  This social problem becomes and economic one at some point, as it many people predict it will for Facebook itself – there are likely significant plateaus in the number of users you can get.  Organizations like PeerJ and, who rely only on user fees will experience this plateau in users much the way a bottom falls out of a pyramid scheme: once you’ve collected all the fees from everyone, how do you pay for sustained improvements on infrastructure or the ability to move onto new communication devices thereby retaining it as a valuable platform for social interaction. And, of course, currency inflation will always force them to charge latecomers to the party more.

The alternative is to begin thinking of Facebook as something other than an advertiser supported social media platform and more, as danah boyd long ago suggested, of a public utility. She makes a lot of the same arguments I do above about the way monopolies are forced to listen to their users in order to stay in business.  The only difference is that this public utility was born privatized and we may have a steeper climb to regulate it in the interest of the public. This suggests that, instead of joining yet another social media platform, you might be better off using the one you already have to organize people around it – and create better rules that are more in your interest. If anyone is successful in doing this, make sure to keep good notes: we evidently need a lot of training in this to fix our public infrastructure, public schools, public libraries, public universities, and, of course, our public servants.  As Hirschman might have said, democracy is messy business: but it is the only way we’re ever going to change things.

It is also worth noting that, like the administrative research of the past – where people like Gallup and Roper were intimately involved in trying to use the same techniques to produce public opinion polls that would inform government decisions – Facebook’s data gathering could serve much more noble ends.  This is highlighted by recent New York Times article on Target’s nascent ability to tell when a teenage customer was pregnant before her father even discovered it, based solely on her buying patterns (a coup only possible because Target served as one of her primary shopping destinations.) The Times highlights the wonderful, insightful social skills that the mathematicians were able to apply to making this amazing discovery even as it points to the utterly banal use the corporation made with this information (i.e. it was able to send a targeted coupon flier, meant to cement her buying habits by encouraging her to think of Target as the place you shop for stuff for your baby.)
In a very different context, Doug Henwood recently interviewed the Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis about his new job at the Valve Software video game design firm. Among the other things Yanis notes in the course of the interview, he wonders at the amazing laboratory of human interaction the games’s market interactions provide. He ultimately notes how the process of regulation is implicit in how these interactions occur – and the data about them are used to shape future interactions. As we refine these kinds of tools, it seems clear that some of what Facebook and Google and Twitter are producing through the aggregation of data about us and our personal interactions could become one of the greatest experiments of social science ever known.  Perhaps hopes to do this in a non-evil way, but as Google long ago learned, defining evil is tricky business: today’s totally normal can be tomorrow’s invitation to invoke Godwin’s law.
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