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[liberationtech] Fwd: [Air-L] Unlike Us: Understanding Social Media Monopolies and their Alternatives

Yosem Companys companys at
Fri Jul 15 10:53:39 PDT 2011


---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Geert Lovink <geert at>
Date: Fri, Jul 15, 2011 at 6:05 AM
Subject: [Air-L] Unlike Us: Understanding Social Media Monopolies and their
To: air < at>

Unlike Us: Understanding Social Media Monopolies and their Alternatives

Invitation to join the network (a series of events, reader, workshops,
online debates, campaigns etc.)

Concept: Geert Lovink (Institute of Network Cultures/HvA, Amsterdam) and
Korinna Patelis (Cyprus University of Technology, Lemasol)

Thanks to Marc Stumpel, Sabine Niederer, Vito Campanelli, Ned Rossiter,
Michael Dieter, Oliver Leistert, Taina Bucher, Gabriella Coleman, Ulises
Mejias, Anne Helmond, Lonneke van der Velden, Morgan Currie and Eric
Kluitenberg for their input.

The aim of this proposal is to establish a research network of artists,
designers, scholars, activists and programmers who work on 'alternatives in
social media'. Through workshops, conferences, online dialogues and
publications, Unlike Us intends to both analyze the economic and cultural
aspects of dominant social media platforms and to propagate the further
development and proliferation of alternative, decentralized social media

If you want to join the Unlike Us network, start your own initiatives in
this field or hook up what you have already been doing for ages, subcribe to
the email list. Traffic will be modest. Soon there will be a special
page/blog for the initative on the INC website. Also an independent social
network will be installed shortly, using alternative software. More on that
later! List info:**mailman/listinfo/unlike-us_**<>

Whether or not we are in the midst of internet bubble 2.0, we can all agree
that social media dominate internet and mobile use. The emergence of
web-based user to user services, driven by an explosion of informal
dialogues, continuous uploads and user generated content have greatly
empowered the rise of participatory culture. At the same time, monopoly
power, commercialization and commodification are also on the rise with just
a handful of social media platforms dominating the social web. These two
contradictory processes – both the facilitation of free exchanges and the
commercial exploitation of social relationships – seem to lie at the heart
of contemporary capitalism. On the one hand new media create and expand the
social spaces through which we interact, play and even politicize ourselves;
on the other hand they are literally owned by three or four companies that
have phenomenal power to shape such interaction. Whereas the hegemonic
Internet ideology promises open, decentralized systems, why do we, time and
again, find ourselves locked into closed corporate environments? Why are
individual users so easily charmed by these 'walled gardens'? Do we
understand the long-term costs that society will pay for the ease of use and
simple interfaces of their beloved 'free' services?

The accelerated growth and scope of Facebook’s social space, for example, is
unheard of. Facebook claims to have 700 million users, ranks in the top two
or three first destination sites on the Web worldwide and is valued at 50
billion US dollars. Its users willingly deposit a myriad of snippets of
their social life and relationships on a site that invests in an accelerated
play of sharing and exchanging information. We all befriend, rank,
recommend, create circles, upload photos, videos and update our status. A
myriad of (mobile) applications orchestrate this offer of private moments in
a virtual public, seamlessly embedding the online world in users’ everyday

Yet despite its massive user base, the phenomena of online social networking
remains fragile. Just think of the fate of the majority of social networking
sites. Who has ever heard of Friendster? The death of Myspace has been
looming on the horizon for quite some time. The disappearance of Twitter and
Facebook – and Google, for that matter – is only a masterpiece of software
away. This means that the protocological future is not stationary but allows
space for us to carve out a variety of techno-political interventions.
Unlike Us is developed in the spirit of RSS-inventor and uberblogger Dave
Winer whose recent Blork project is presented as an alternative for
‘corporate blogging silos’. But instead of repeating the
entrepreneurial-start-up-**transforming-into-corporate-**behemoth formula,
isn't it time to reinvent the internet as a truly independent public
infrastructure that can effectively defend itself against corporate
domination and state control?

Going beyond the culture of complaint about our ignorance and loss of
privacy, the proposed network of artists, scholars, activists and media
folks will ask fundamental and overarching questions about how to tackle
these fast-emerging monopoly powers. Situated within the existing oligopoly
of ownership and use, this inquiry will include the support of software
alternatives and related artistic practices and the development of a common
alternative vision of how the techno-social world might be mediated.

Without falling into the romantic trap of some harmonious offline life,
Unlike Us asks what sort of network architectures could be designed that
contribute to ‘the common’, understood as a shared resource and system of
collective production that supports new forms of social organizations (such
as organized networks) without mining for data to sell. What aesthetic
tactics could effectively end the expropriation of subjective and private
dimensions that we experience daily in social networks? Why do we ignore
networks that refuse the (hyper)growth model and instead seek to strengthen
forms of free cooperation? Turning the tables, let's code and develop other
'network cultures' whose protocols are no longer related to the logic of
'weak ties'. What type of social relations do we want to foster and discover
in the 21st century? Imagine dense, diverse networked exchanges between
billions of people, outside corporate and state control. Imagine discourses
returning subjectivities to their 'natural' status as open nodes based on
dialogue and an ethics of free exchange.

To a large degree social media research is still dominated by quantitative
and social scientific endeavors. So far the focus has been on moral panics,
privacy and security, identity theft, self-representation from Goffman to
Foucault and graph-based network theory that focuses on influencers and
(news) hubs. What is curiously missing from the discourse is a rigorous
discussion of the political economy of these social media monopolies. There
is also a substantial research gap in understanding the power relations
between the social and the technical in what are essentially software
systems and platforms. With this initiative, we want to shift focus away
from the obsession with youth and usage to the economic, political, artistic
and technical aspects of these online platforms. What we first need to
acknowledge is social media's double nature. Dismissing social media as
neutral platforms with no power is as implausible as considering social
media the bad boys of capitalism. The beauty and depth of social media is
that they call for a new understanding of classic dichotomies such as
commercial/political, private/public, users/producers,
artistic/standardised, original/copy, democratising/ disempowering. Instead
of taking these dichotomies as a point of departure, we want to scrutinise
the social networking logic. Even if Twitter and Facebook implode overnight,
the social networking logic of befriending, liking and ranking will further
spread across all aspects of life.

The proposed research agenda is at once a philosophical, epistemological and
theoretical investigation of knowledge artifacts, cultural production and
social relations and an empirical investigation of the specific phenomenon
of monopoly social media. Methodologically we will use the lessons learned
from theoretical research activities to inform practice-oriented research,
and vice-versa. Unlike Us is a common initiative of the Institute of Network
Cultures (Amsterdam University of Applied Science HvA) and the Cyprus
University of Technology in Lemasol.

An online network and a reader connected to a series of events initially in
Amsterdam and Cyprus (early 2012) are already in planning. We would
explicitly like to invite other partners to come on board who identify with
the spirit of this proposal, to organize related conferences, festivals,
workshops, temporary media labs and barcamps (where coders come together)
with us. The reader (tentatively planned as number 8 in the Reader series
published by the INC) will be produced mid-late 2012. The call for
contributions to the network, the reader and the event series goes out in
July 2011, followed by the publicity for the first events and other
initiatives by possible new partners.

Topics of Investigation
The events, online platform, reader and other outlets may include the
following topics inviting theoretical, empirical, practical and art-based
contributions, though not every event or publication might deal with all
issues. We anticipate the need for specialized workshops and barcamps.

1. Political Economy: Social Media Monopolies
Social media culture is belied in American corporate capitalism, dominated
by the logic of start-ups and venture capital, management buyouts, IPOs etc.
Three to four companies literally own the Western social media landscape and
capitalize on the content produced by millions of people around the world.
One thing is evident about the market structure of social media: one-to-many
is not giving way to many-to-many without first going through many-to-one.
What power do these companies actually have? Is there any evidence that such
ownership influences user-generated content? How does this ownership express
itself structurally and in technical terms? What conflicts arise when a
platform like Facebook is appropriated for public or political purposes,
while access to the medium can easily be denied by the company? Facebook is
worth billions, does that really mean something for the average user? How
does data-mining work and what is its economy? What is the role of discourse
(PR) in creating and sustaining an image of credibility and trustworthiness,
and in which forms does it manifest to oppose that image? The bigger social
media platforms form central nodes, such as image upload services and short
ulr services. This ecology was once fairly open, with a variety of new
Twitter-related services coming into being, but now Twitter takes up these
services itself, favoring their own product through default settings; on top
of that it is increasingly shutting down access to developers, which shrinks
the ecology and makes it less diverse.

2. The Private in the Public
The advent of social media has eroded privacy as we know it, giving rise to
a culture of self-surveillance made up of myriad voluntary, everyday
disclosures. New understandings of private and public are needed to address
this phenomenon. What does owning all this user data actually mean? Why are
people willing to give up their personal data, and that of others? How
should software platforms be regulated? Is software like a movie to be given
parental guidance? What does it mean that there are different levels of
access to data, from partner info brokers and third-party developers to the
users? Why is education in social media not in the curriculum of secondary
schools? Can social media companies truly adopt a Social Network Users’ Bill
of Rights?

3. Visiting the Belly of the Beast
The exuberance and joy that defined the dotcom era is cliché by now. IT use
is occurring across the board, and new labour conditions can be found
everywhere. But this should not keep our eyes away from the power relations
inside internet companies. What are the geopolitical lines of distribution
that define the organization and outsourcing taking place in global IT
companies these days? How is the industry structured and how does its
economy work? Is there a broader connection to be made with the politics of
land expropriation and peasant labour in countries like India, for instance,
and how does this analytically converge with the experiences of social media
users? How do monopolies deal with their employees’ use of the platforms?
What can we learn from other market sectors and perspectives that
(critically) reflect on, for example, techniques of sustainability or fair

4. Artistic Responses to Social Media
Artists are playing a crucial role in visualizing power relationships and
disrupting subliminal daily routines of social media usage. Artistic
practice provides an important analytical site in the context of the
proposed research agenda, as artists are often first to deconstruct the
familiar and to facilitate an alternative lens to understand and critique
these media. Is there such a thing as a social 'web aesthetics'? It is one
thing to criticize Twitter and Facebook for their primitive and bland
interface designs. How can we imagine the social in different ways? And how
can we design and implement new interfaces to provide more creative freedom
to cater to our multiple identities? Also, what is the scope of
interventions with social media, such as, for example, the ‘dislike button’
add-on for Facebook? And what practices are really needed? Isn’t it time,
for example, for a Facebook ‘identity correction’?

5. Designing culture: representation and software
Social media offer us the virtual worlds we use every day. From Facebook's
'like' button to blogs’ user interface, these tools empower and delimit our
interactions. How do we theorize the plethora of social media features? Are
they to be understood as mere technical functions, cultural texts,
signifiers, affordances, or all these at once? In what ways do design and
functionalities influence the content and expressions produced? And how can
we map and critique this influence? What are the cultural assumptions
embedded in the design of social media sites and what type of users or
communities do they produce? To answer the question of structure and design,
one route is to trace the genealogy of functionalities, to historicize them
and look for discursive silences. How can we make sense of the constant
changes occurring both on and beyond the interface? How can we theorize the
production and configuration of an ever-increasing algorithmic and
protocological culture more generally?

6. Software Matters: Sociotechnical and Algorithmic Cultures
One of the important components of social media is software. For all the
discourse on sociopolitical power relations governed by corporations such as
Facebook and related platforms, one must not forget that social media
platforms are thoroughly defined and powered by software. We need critical
engagement with Facebook as software. That is, what is the role of software
in reconfiguring contemporary social spaces? In what ways does code make a
difference in how identities are formed and social relationships performed?
How does the software function to interpellate users to its logic? What are
the discourses surrounding software? One of the core features of Facebook
for instance is its news feed, which is algorithmically driven and sorted in
its default mode. The EdgeRank algorithm of the news feed governs the logic
by which content becomes visible, acting as a modern gatekeeper and
editorial voice. Given its 700 million users, it has become imperative to
understand the power of EdgeRank and its cultural implications. Another
important analytical site for investigation are the ‘application programming
interfaces’ (APIs) that to a large extent made the phenomenal growth of
social media platforms possible in the first place. How have APIs
contributed to the business logic of social media? How can we theorize
social media use from the perspective of the programmer?

6. Genealogies of Social Networking Sites
Feedback in a closed system is a core characteristic of Facebook; even the
most basic and important features, such as 'friending', traces back to early
cybernetics' ideas of control. While the word itself became lost in various
transitions, the ideas of cybernetics have remained stable in fields such as
artificial intelligence, robotics and the biopolitical arena. Both
communication and information theories shaped this discourse. How does
Facebook relate to such an algorithmic shape of social life? What can
Facebook teach us about the powers of systems theory? Would Norbert Wiener
and Niklas Luhmann be friends on Facebook?

7. Is Research Doomed?
The design of Facebook excludes the third person perspective, as the only
way in is through ones own profile. What does this inbuilt ‘me-centricity’
imply for social media research? Does it require us to rethink the so-called
objectivity of researchers and the detached view of current social research?
Why is it that there are more than 200 papers about the way people use
Facebook, but the site is ‘closed’ to true quantitative inquiry? Is the
state of art in social media research exemplary of the 'quantitative turn'
in new media research? Or is there a need to expand and rethink methods of
inquiry in social media research? Going beyond the usual methodological
approaches of the quantitative and qualitative, we seek to broaden the scope
of investigating these media. How can we make sense of the political economy
and the socio-technical elements, and with what means? Indeed, what are our
toolkits for collective, transdisciplinary modes of knowledge and the
politics of refusal?

8. Researching Unstable Ontologies
Software destabilizes Facebook as a solid ontology. Software is always in
becoming and so by nature ontogenetic. It grows and grows, living off of
constant input. Logging on one never encounters the same content, as it
changes on an algorithmic level and in terms of the platform itself. What
does Facebook’s fluid nature imply for how we make sense of and study it?
Facebook for instance willingly complicates research: 1. It is always
personalized (see Eli Pariser). Even when creating ‘empty’ research accounts
it never gives the same results compared to other people’s empty research
accounts. 2. One must often be 'inside' social media to study it. Access
from the outside is limited, which reinforces the first problem. 3. Outside
access is ideally (for Facebook and Twitter) arranged through carefully
regulated protocols of APIs and can easily be restricted. Next to social
media as a problem for research, there is also the question of social
research methods as intervention.

9. Making Sense of Data: Visualization and Critique
Data representation is one of the most important battlefields nowadays.
Indeed, global corporations build their visions of the world increasingly
based on and structured around complex data flows. What is the role of data
today and what are the appropriate ways in which to make sense of the
burgeoning datasets? As data visualization is becoming a powerful buzzword
and social research increasingly uses digital tools to make ‘beautiful’
graphs and visualizations, there is a need to take a step back and question
the usefulness of current data visualization tools and to develop novel
analytical frameworks through which to critically grasp these often
simplified and nontransparent ways of representing data. Not only is it
important to develop new interpretative and visual methods to engage with
data flows, data itself needs to be questioned. We need to ask about data’s
ontological and epistemological nature. What is it, who is the producer, for
whom, where is it stored? In what ways do social media companies’ terms of
service regulate data? Whether alternative social media or monopolistic
platforms, how are our data-bodies exactly affected by changes in the

10. Pitfalls of Building Social Media Alternatives
It is not only important to critique and question existing design and
socio-political realities but also to engage with possible futures. The
central aim of this project is therefore to contribute and support
'alternatives in social media'. What would the collective design of
alternative protocols and interfaces look like? We should find some comfort
in the small explosion of alternative options currently available, but also
ask how usable these options are and how real is the danger of
fragmentation. How have developers from different initiatives so far
collaborated and what might we learn from their successes and failures?
Understanding any early failures and successes of these attempts seems
crucial. A related issue concerns funding difficulties faced by projects.
Finally, in what ways does regionalism (United States, Europe, Asia) feed
into the way people search for alternatives and use social media.

11. Showcasing Alternatives in Social Media
The best way to criticize platform monopolies is to support alternative free
and open source software that can be locally installed. There are currently
a multitude of decentralized social networks in the making that aspire to
facilitate users with greater power to define for themselves with whom share
their data. Let us look into the wildly different initiatives from
Crabgrass, Appleseed, Diaspora, NoseRub, BuddyCloud, Protonet, StatusNet,
GNU Social, Lorea and OneSocialWeb to the distributed Twitter alternative
Thimbl. In which settings are these initiative developed and what choices
are made for their design? Let's hear from the Spanish activists who have
recently made experiences with the platform developed by Lorea. What
community does this platform enable? While traditional software focuses on
the individual profile and its relation to the network and a public (share
with friends, share with friends of friends, share with public), the Lorea
software for instance asks you with whom to share an update, picture or
video. It finegrains the idea of privacy and sharing settings at the content
level, not the user’s profile. At the same time, it requires constant
decision making, or else a high level of trust in the community you share
your data with. And how do we experience the transition from, or
interoperability with, other platforms? Is it useful to make a distinction
between corporate competitors and grassroots initiatives? How can these beta
alternatives best be supported, both economically and socially? Aren't we
overstating the importance of software and isn't the availability of capital
much bigger in determining the adoption of a platform?

12. Social Media Activism and the Critique of Liberation Technology
While the tendency to label any emergent social movement as the latest
'Twitter revolution' has passed, a liberal discourse of 'liberation
technology' (information and communication technologies that empower
grassroots movements) continues to influence our ideas about networked
participation. This discourse tends to obscure power relations and obstruct
critical questioning about the capitalist institutions and superstructures
in which these technologies operate. What are the assumptions behind this
neo-liberal discourse? What role do ‘developed’ nations play when they
promote and subsidize the development of technologies of circumvention and
hacktivism for use in ‘underdeveloped’ states, while at the same time
allowing social media companies at home to operate in increasingly
deregulated environments and collaborating with them in the surveillance of
citizens at home and abroad? What role do companies play in determining how
their products are used by dissidents or governments abroad? How have their
policies and Terms of Use changed as a result?

13. Social Media in the Middle East and Beyond
The justified response to downplay the role of Facebook in early 2011 events
in Tunisia and Egypt by putting social media in a larger perspective has not
taken off the table the question of how to organize social mobilizations.
Which specific software do the 'movements of squares' need? What happens to
social movements when the internet and ICT networks are shut down? How does
the interruption of internet services shift the nature of activism? How have
repressive and democratic governments responded to the use of ‘liberation
technologies’? How do these technologies change the relationship between the
state and its citizens? How are governments using the same social media
tools for surveillance and propaganda or highjacking Facebook identities,
such as happened in Syria? What is Facebook’s own policy when deleting or
censoring accounts of its users? How can technical infrastructures be
supported which are not shutdown upon request? How much does our agency
depend on communication technology nowadays? And whom do we exclude with
every click? How can we envision 'organized networks' that are based on
'strong ties' yet open enough to grow quickly if the time is right? Which
software platforms are best suited for the 'tactical camping' movements that
occupy squares all over the world?

14. Data storage: social media and legal cultures
Data that is voluntarily shared by social media users is not only used for
commercial purposes, but is also of interest to governments. This data is
stored on servers of companies that are bound to the specific legal culture
and country. This material-legal complex is often overlooked. Fore instance,
the servers of Facebook and Twitter are located in the US and therefore fall
under the US jurisdiction. One famous example is the request for the Twitter
accounts of several activists (Gonggrijp, Jónsdóttir, Applebaum) affiliated
with Wikileaks projects by the US government. How do activists respond and
how do alternative social media platforms deal with this issue?

Contact details:

Geert Lovink (geert at
Korinna Patelis (korinna.patelis at / kpatelis at

Institute of Network Cultures
CREATE-IT/Hogeschool van Amsterdam

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