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[liberationtech] Good Luck Occupiers; Here’s How “Facebook for Protesters” Can Work

Yosem Companys companys at
Thu Dec 29 17:42:34 PST 2011

 Good Luck Occupiers; Here’s How “Facebook for Protesters” Can

this blog, I’ve written about how the next generation social networking
site should be built to help high-risk activists.  If there are any Occupy
Wall Street activists who are working on this project, this previous post
may be of interest. They should also feel free to contact me or others
at Stanford’s
Program on Liberation Technology <>,
who would be happy to assist in any way we can.

In the present post, however, I’d like to comment on Josh Constine’s TechCrunch
post <> on how Occupy Wall
Street’s recent effort to create a Global
a “Facebook for
as first reported by Wired — won’t work. The post strikes me as overly
dismissive with little or no substance.

Josh highlights three points, which I address below in turn:

*1. The Global Square Will Be An Echo Chamber*

How? Why? Josh doesn’t tell us. He just predicts the Global Square will be
so. Without even a layman’s theory of how and why this could happen, it’s
hard to take Josh’s caution seriously.

If we believe Eli Pariser’s
however, Facebook and Google are already echo chambers by means of their
filtering policies.

Moreover, research in political science and psychology also suggests that
people tend to have a confirmation
i.e., they accept information that confirms their worldviews and discounts
information that disconfirms them. It’s not like Facebook users are immune
to this phenomenon, so it’s hard to see why the Global Square would be any

Additionally, if building your own social network and having an echo
chamber is such a bad thing, how come Barack Obama won the 2008 Democratic
nomination and presidential election with such a system in place?

If anything, the cognitive and relational benefits that Occupy Wall Street
and other protest movements could gain from a Global Square may well
outweigh any so-called “echo chamber” costs.

It’s well known in social movement
research<> that,
in order to increase the likelihood of success, the movement’s activist
core needs readily available communication networks to succeed. But
activists also need to count on the support and commitment of others to the
cause and a shared set of symbols and cultural understandings by all those
who are involved. High-risk activists, in particular, suffer from paranoia
about being monitored with reason; if structured correctly, Global Square
could help these activists feel safer about their interactions in dangerous
environments than existing corporate networks. It doesn’t take a rocket
scientist to see how easy it would be for the Global Square brand to
accomplish all these things simultaneously.

Josh also views the decision to use Global Square as a dichotomous choice:
Either you use Global Square or a mainstream network. Yet this is a false
choice. HootSuite <> allows you to send messages to
and receive messages from multiple mainstream social networking sites.
(Diaspora* also allows activists to push messages to mainstream networks
but not pull them from these networks.) By using the API of existing
mainstream social networking sites, Global Square can do the same.

Then, why not just use the mainstream social networking sites, you may ask?
The reason is that you may want to keep your activism private and simply
use these mainstream networks to spread the word, which is their primary
benefit anyway. In social network analysis terms, you’d use Global Square
to cultivate strong ties with fellow activists and use the API of existing
mainstream networks to capitalize on weak ties for the diffusion of
information. That way, private information would remain secure on the
Global Square, while public information would find its way to the dense
social networks that form part of mainstream sites.

*2. There’s Already Diaspora**

Josh also asked why Occupy Wall Street activists don’t use
Diaspora*<> pods.
A better question, in my view, is why not use RiseUp <>,
which was designed with this very purpose in mind: political activism.

As for Diaspora*, one reason is that its code continues to face scrutiny
over security and
In this regard, Diaspora*’s code is probably fine for consumer use. But to
protect high-risk activists, some security experts would recommend
rewriting the code from scratch.

Then, there are questions about whether such a solution is better built on
Ruby on Rails (the Diaspora* solution) or some other programming language,
as is the case with some of Diaspora*’s competitors (such as
 and StatusNet <>, both of which are farther along than

Of course, the Diaspora* code is open source, so Occupy Wall Street hackers
who were so inclined could always improve the security of the master code
or fork it.

My main point is that there are many questions to ask; just because some
alternative exists doesn’t mean you should use it. According to Josh’s
logic, one could have easily asked Mark Zuckerberg back in 2004 why start a
new social networking site when there’s already MySpace?

*3. Still Subject to Subpoena*

Josh is right on this point. But it’s not that hard for Occupy Wall Street
activists to set up the site out of a privacy/security-friendly location,
such as Iceland<>.
Server costs are pretty low these days, so you could set up a site anywhere
in the world where there was a decent Internet infrastructure and the right
kind of laws you want to protect your users. A privacy-friendly location
such as Iceland would frustrate the efforts of law enforcement agencies
seeking to obtain information about Occupy Wall Street accounts from
mainstream social networking

*4. Final Thoughts*

Finally, Josh notes that Occupy Wall Street activists may have difficulties
recruiting Global Square participants. Again, he provides no explanation as
to why this would be the case.

But if the point is to create a global protest network, which by definition
would be a niche network, why should Occupy Wall Street activists worry
about recruiting participants?

Even then, it seems a bit silly to argue that the largest US movement we’ve
witnessed in the 21st century would have difficulties recruiting adherents
to its new network. In fact, an extensive sociological
that social movements typically are the basis for many of the new
industries and markets that drove economic progress in the 20th century.

*About the Author: **Yosem Eduardo Companys is a PhD student in engineering
at Stanford University and a coordinator for the Program on Liberation
Technology at Stanford University.  Yosem also worked as adviser, mentor,
and consiglieri to the Diaspora* founders and as President & CEO of
Diaspora*. He may be reached at companys[at]stanford[dot]edu.*
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