What's the alternative?

Marc Stumpel is a new media researcher from Amsterdam. His work looks at the political and economic dimensions of digital culture, especially Facebook and other social media. He currently works at the Institute of Network Cultures as a researcher and producer for the Unlike Us research network.* Corporate Watch speaks to him about corporate control of social media and the alternatives to it.


What are the implications of the dominance of corporate social media platforms for society and the individual?

Although popular social media platforms enable users to interact in new, enjoyable and useful ways, there is a lot of criticism of their software constraints and exploitation of user-generated content, as well as concerns over privacy issues.

At a societal level, one could argue that a monopoly like Facebook is a threat to the ability of utilizing the full potential of networked technologies to collectively collaborate. Facebook facilitates the creation of user-generated content in a setting where performing the ‘self’ is too often prioritised over sustainable collective collaboration. Wikipedias will be long forgotten in a future where ‘locked-in’ users are over-obsessed with connecting to people, products and companies on Facebook.

Moreover, it has become increasingly difficult to keep ‘work’ and ‘private’ separate. We are easily seduced by networks that have the intention to be all-encompassing. The need to be part of something bigger is all too easily fulfilled. Users engage so deeply in these centralised social networking structures that it becomes quite difficult to see one’s own responsibility in either opposing or sustaining the private and public blend.

On an individual level, the users of popular social media have to abide by the constant software and Terms of Use changes pushed by corporations, which are not always easy to understand. People might not be aware that everything they do online can be re-channelled through a vast amount of networks. The dominant corporate social networks stimulate intrusive data mining practices. Facebook, for example, tracks non-Facebook users on the web through its ‘social plugins’ such as the ‘like’ button.

One could also argue that Facebook is not making the world more open and connected but, instead, more closed and disconnected. Closed, because users become ‘locked-in’ to Facebook, which is designed merely for user content production according to the corporation’s software rules and laws. Disconnected, because users spend a lot of time and energy on Facebook, de-prioritising the value of real face-to-face human interaction.


How do corporate platforms extract profit from user-generated content, and how does this affect the way we use social media?

Corporate-controlled social media often function like information gold mines. They turn user-generated content into aggregated user data to sell targeted adverts. The productive capacities of users are exploited in this way to generate profits for the sites’ owners. Some theorists refer to this process as ‘the exploitation of immaterial labour’ or the practice of ‘cognitive capitalism’. Profits are anonymously made in online social spaces that accumulate informational capital by commercial corporations that do not share the profits with the content producers. The more corporate-controlled social networks connect to, or take over, other networks (for example Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram), the more opportunities exist for re-channelling user data, which in turn leads to more aggregated user data, sold advertisements and profit.

In my view, the majority of social media users generally do not care about data mining practices and their data being exploited to sell targeted advertisements. Some may consider it as the trade-off for using a ‘free’ service. Furthermore, most commercial companies feel their marketing strategies cannot nowadays do without social media, and Facebook is being treated by some as the holy grail of marketing. Obviously, most marketing managers couldn’t care less that Facebook mines users’ data, and might even applaud it.

A few people are more critical of this process and don’t feel comfortable with contributing to large centralised data silos. There are non-commercial alternatives that are currently being developed to try to cut out the middle man and create non-exploitative digital social spaces.


What are these alternatives? How do they work, and how are they different to corporate platforms?

There are quite a few existing alternatives to corporate social networking platforms. They are, however, pretty much all in their alpha or beta stages. These software initiatives are all about decentralization and highly value privacy, anonymity and security.

In terms of network structure, they are either ‘federated’, which means that individual user data is stored on several trusted servers that connect to each other, or distributed, meaning that you run your own social server with your individual data and directly connect to other peers. It’s hard to explain how each of these alternatives works, since they are quite diverse and technically complex coding projects.

Although these social media alternatives are often thought to be only for geeks who have great knowledge of coding, the Freedombox foundation, for instance, has been working on an easy plug-in software/hardware solution, the Freedombox, which functions as your own secure, anonymous, private social server. The biggest difference compared to corporate platforms is that the goal is not making profit on users' private data. They are also friendlier to activists in oppressive regimes, who need good technology to organise more than anywhere else.

Examples include:

- Appleseed (http://opensource.appleseedproject.org): Describes itself as “the first open source, decentralized social networking software.”

- Buddycloud (http://buddycloud.com): Described as “a completely new way to share online,” it connects users to “the world's realtime conversation” through topic channels.

- Crabgrass (http://crabgrass.riseuplabs.org): Riseup's software for “social networking, group collaboration and network organizing.” It is increasingly used by activist groups for its safety features.

- Diaspora (https://joindiaspora.com): A “distributed social network” based on the free Diaspora software. It consists of a group of independently owned pods which inter-operate to form the network.

- Elgg (http://elgg.org): An open-source social networking engine that provides a “robust framework” to build “all kinds of social environments.”

- FreedomBox (http://wiki.debian.org/FreedomBox): A Debian-based platform for “distributed applications” to ensure “privacy, control, ease of use, and dehierarchicalization.”

- Friendika (http://friendica.com): A "social stream" allows users to interact with various social networks at the same time using “a familiar conversational interface.”

- GNU social (http://foocorp.org/projects/social/): A free software that runs decentralised social networks. Run by Foo Communications, It was originally created as a social networking add-on for the music community site Libre.fm.

- identi.ca (http://identi.ca): A “stream-oriented” social network service based on the free software StatusNet tool.

- OneSocialWeb (http://onesocialweb.org): A project aimed at “defining a language to bridge” the various social networks and make it easy for their users to join “a bigger social web.”

- Thimbl (www.thimbl.net): A free, open source, distributed micro-blogging platform.

- Lorea (http://lorea.org): A "hotbed" of social networks on an experimental terrain. It aims to create a distributed and federated nodal organisation of entities with no geophysical territory, interlacing their multiple relationships through binary codes and languages.


How are social media networks controlled and how can this be resisted?

My argument is that social media networks are controlled through ‘discursive control’ as well as ‘protocological control’. With the former, I refer to discourse - Facebook’s PR is an essential influence on how its software changes are made and received by the users. Particular positive framing, image-making and agenda-setting can sometimes be very misleading and be used as a means to exercise network-making power.

This means that discursive control can support a change in the goals or rules of performance from the network or (dis)connect a network to (or from) the Facebook network in order to make the network more powerful. For instance, when the Spotify and Facebook networks connected to each other, it was presented as a new, enjoyable and frictionless experience, where you would automatically share your Spotify listens on Facebook by default. For Facebook, this would mean there would instantly be more data to exploit. Users of both services had no choice but to auto-share until privacy advocates raised their concerns and started protesting through (micro)blogs.

The second type of control and resistance is more technical. The exercise of protocological control facilitates networks, but also decides the network's logic and how it operates. Protocol enables new modes of agency while, at the same time, concentrating rigid forms of management and control, for example the changing interface which is forced onto Facebook users. If users resist this and tactically implement code to go beyond the logic of the original interface and change the interface entirely, you could call it counter-protocogical control.


What are the possible ways that social media networks could evolve over the next decade or so? Do you think it is likely that Facebook and Twitter will go the same way as Myspace?

The alternatives that do a great job of empowering users in their privacy, security and anonymity will continue to improve, especially in terms of their accessibility. Their user base will grow, albeit not rapidly. There is a great chance that more and more social media niche services will arise (e.g. Stage32): social networks for particular groups of people with particular interests.

I think it’s very unlikely that advertising and data-mining will somehow cease to be part of the social web. That’s why Facebook will continue. Users will become increasingly aware that Facebook isn’t free and that they are the product being sold. Will that make a huge difference? Probably not, since most users consider Facebook as a valuable asset in their social life, with their personal data part of the trade-off.

Twitter won’t go the same way as Myspace either, since its users attribute so much immediate value to the service, and there is no end to news. Although the next big thing may be round the corner, most users are - and will remain to be - comfortable with their data bodies locked into these popular services.

References: * Unlike Us gathers artists, designers, scholars, activists and programmers interested in ‘alternatives in social media’. Through workshops, conferences, online dialogues and publications, the international Unlike Us network analyzes the economic and cultural aspects of dominant social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, and propagates the further development and proliferation of alternative, decentralized social media software. For more information, see http://networkcultures.org/wpmu/unlikeus/.