A World Beyond Facebook: The Research Agenda of the Unlike Us Network

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By Geert Lovink

"Das Ich ist nicht zu retten." Ernst Mach-- Albert Einstein: "I fear the day when the technology overlaps with our humanity. The world will only have a generation of idiots."--"I can buy a Ford, Toyota, BMW or Smart car and drive on the same roads and use the same fuel. Everything is interchangeable about them except the key that gets me in and starts the engine. It's a good model for how our communication systems should work, at all levels." Dave Winer--"Take a position, be an author."--the European concert of networks--"I am inspired by the internet." Johan Sjerpstra—"It is a small step from distributed to dispersion…"--" "Neither information nor a drug fix ever gives any happiness when you have it, but will make you miserable when you don't."  Michel Serres--"I am traveling a lot, online."

Whether or not we are in the midst of yet another internet bubble, we can all agree that social media dominate the use of internet and smart phones. The emergence of apps and 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 on the rise as well with just a handful of social media platforms dominating the social web. Tensions are on the rise what to make of the influence and impact of 'social media'. 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: empowerment & control, freedom & paranoia. 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 in most countries they are literally owned by literally three or four companies that have phenomenal power to shape the architectures of such interactions. Whereas the hegemonic Internet ideology promises open, decentralized systems, why do we, time and again, find ourselves locked into closed, centralized environments? Why are individual users so easily lured into these corporate '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 is unheard of. As of late 2012, Facebook is said to have more than one billion active users, ranking in the top three first destination sites on the Web worldwide. Its users willingly deposit a myriad of snippets of their social life and relationships on a site that invests in an accelerated play of exchanging information. On the different platforms, from LinkedIn to Google+ we are all busy bWe all befriending, ranking, recommending, retweeting, creatinge circles[MR1] , uploading photos, videos and updatinge our status. A myriad [MR2] of (mobile) applications orchestrate this offer of private moments in a virtual public, seamlessly embedding the online world in users’ everyday life. [MR3]

Yet, despite its massive user base, the phenomenon of online social networking remains fragile. Just think of the fate of the majority of social networking sites. Who remembers Friendster? The sudden implosion (and careful recovery) of MySpace is unheard of and comes with a parallel demise of Bebo in the UK, Hyves in the Netherlands and StudiVZ in Germany. The eventual fall 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. 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? One thing is sure: boredom will set in at some pointrulez [MR4] and thanfinally the end of the befriending craze will beis in sight. It will be liberating moment to know that your friends and family will have to come up with new ways to monitor your life. [MR5] After so many updates your status still hasn't improved and we all feel the urge to waste our time elsewhere.

How to study semi-closed ephemeral spaces? PhD students may gain from new insights produced by the newly established 'software studies' discipline but face the risk that their object of study has vanished before they hand in their thesis. It is one thing to formulate a 'black box' theory[i] to study the algorithmic cultures of such social networking websites[MR6] . But what happens if the algorithms indeed remain a black box for us, non-geeks? This may happen not only because of the computer science deficiency amongst arts and humanities scholars, we are also running into very real corporate secrets and related patent wars. To a large degree social media research is still dominated by quantitative and social scientific endeavors that play with APIs and data visualizations.

In the first phase of social media research the social science focus, led by danah boyd, has been on the moral panic around young people, privacy, and identity theft. From the self-representation theories of Erving Goffman's 1959 study to Michael Foucault's Technologies of the Self and graph-based network theory that focuses on influencers and (news)hubs, a range of studies and approaches have become available. What is missing so far is a rigorous discussion of the political economy of these social media monopolies. It remains hard for scholars and experts across the board to get a handle on the money/value flows. What price do we pay for the free use of services such as Facebook and Google? [MR7] 

 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.

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, informal networks/public at large, users/producers, artistic/standardized, original/copy, democratizing/disempowering. Instead of taking these dichotomies as a point of departure, let's scrutinize the social networking logic itself. Even when Twitter and Facebook would disappear overnight, befriending, liking and ranking will only further spread as memes, embedded in software. Unfacebooking each individual user will take a while[MR8] —unless we bet on the speed of the sudden implosions and believe in the Power of the Meme..

Social media platforms are too big and too fluid to research—not only because of the sheer size of users, heavy traffic, closed databases and overkill of metadata. The impossibility to reflect on them is also given by their fluid nature, presenting themselves as helpful gatekeepers of temporary personalized information flows. Would you like to freeze dry them? A day in the life of Twitter? What we need to do is develop ways to capture processual flows (which explains  our obsession with info visualization and cool statistics). The problem here is not one of mutation of the object but one of actual disappearance. Before we have gone through the literature, theorized the field and developed specific critical concepts, written down methodological considerations and compiled datasets the object of study has already changed dramatically. Research runs the risk of producing nothing more than historicaly files filled with network assessments and other ethical considerations. [MR9] In a variation of Einstein's [MR10] quantum theory we could stay that it is not because we observe it objects change but because we research it. But this idealistic notion is unfortunately not the case. The main reason for research futility is our collective obsession with the impact of technology over its architecture. This is also the case with simplified, easy-to-use informal network sites. At first glance social media present themselves as the perfect synthesis of 19th century mass production (in this case of networks) and History in the making (see the 2011 Arab spring). There is surprisingly little 'différance' at work here. In that sense these are not post-modern machines but a straight forward modernist productss of the 1990s wave of digital globalization turned mass culture.

The massive popularity of social media should not be seen as a 'resurrection' of the social after its death. The online system is not designed to encounter the Other, despite the popularity of online dating sites). We remain amongst 'friends'. The faith of social media (if there is any) is rather to design and run defensive systems that can recreate community feelings of a lost tribe: computer generated informality. The social, that once dangerous category of class societies in the process of emancipation, has now gone defensive, facing massive budget cuts, privatizations and the depletion of public resources. The critique of the Situationists is running empty here. In this Society of the Query Facebook is anything but spectacular. In the closed-off social media sphere the critical apparatus of representation theory only has a limit range. Instead we need to further radicalize what Jean Baudrillard wrote about the 'dead of the social'.[ii]  The implosion of the social in the media as he described it happened 20-30 years before the birth of Facebook. This move away from the messy and potentially dangerous street life of the crowds into the regulated traffic flows of the actual clearing of public space in favor of post-Fordistic interactivity inside the confined spheres of apartments, cafes and offices. [MR11] The renaissance of the body fashion concept 'social'[MR12]  inas Web 2.0 wasis not part of a retromania to revive the 20st century Social Question. There is no class struggle here. The very idea of social media is not to return before the Omega Point of History, circumventing Hiroshima and Auschwitz while continuing the Human Story at some other point. In this case the Social is produced for no other reason to extract value. The Social Media Question circles around notions such as aggregation, data mining and profiling. The algorithmic exploitation of human-machine interaction consciously takes the risk that the dark of the social (mob behavior aiming at system suicide) can be managed.

Considering the wide and ambitious effort that is made here, it seems important to narrow down what precisely is meant with the term 'social media'. Some would go back the days of early cyberculture and stress the public domain aspect of these 'virtual communities'. This somewhat catholic term lost its hegemony in the late nineties when start-up firms, backed-up by venture capital and 'silly money' from investment banks and pension funds flooded the scene. In this Golden Age of Dotcommania the emphasis shifted away from the internet as a public domain towards the image of electronic shopping mall. Users were no longer seen as global citizens of cyberspace and were instead addressed as customers. This came to a sudden halt in 2000/2001 when the dotcom crash unleashed a global financial crisis. This coincided with the surveillance crackdown after 9/11 that had major implications for internet freedom.

In an effort to reconstitute its dominance in the world IT market Silicon Valley was forced to re-invent itself and unleash a renaissance movement called Web 2.0. This reincarnation of American entrepreneurial energy put the user in the driver's seat in order to maximize its dominance in the crucial 'mainstreaming' phase of internet culture due to the role out of broadband and the arrival of mobile internet. The central slogan of the Web 2.0 era was 'user generated content', with Google as the main player to make profit of this shift away from the production and purchase of paid content towards the exploitation of user data. From blogging to photo sharing and social networking, the idea was to reduce complexity and user freedom in exchange for easy-to-use interfaces, free services without subscription and large database with free content and user profiles to browse through.

Whereas the Web 2.0 ideology stresses the variety of start-ups through popular news sites from the US Westcoast such as TechCrunch and Hacker News but also Slashdot, Wired, Mashable and ReadWriteWeb, various activities of O'Reilly publishers and conferences such as SXSW (Austin) and LeWeb (Paris), the term social media indicates a next stage characterized by consolidation and integration. When we talk about social media we essentially refer to the main two players Facebook (the social hangout place) and Twitter (for short and fast news exchanges) and perhaps also LinkedIn (for professional networks) and Google+ (for the techies). While this reduction is done in an unconscious manner, it perfectly illustrate the desire agree on a common standard of communication (knowing that this not really possible in this still dynamic environment).

Social media indicate a shift from the HTML-based linking practice of the open web to liking and recommendation which happens inside closed systems. The indirect and superficial 'like economy' keeps users away from basic understanding what the open Web is all about. With info acts such as befriending, liking, recommendation and updating social media introduce new layers between you and others. The result is for instance reducing complex social relationships to a flat world (as described well by Zadie Smith) in which there are only 'friends'. Google + was initiated in response to this positive, New Age world view without antagonisms. This is the contradiction of the democratized internet: whereas many benefit from simple technology, we all suffer from the cost of same simplicity. Facebook is popular because its technical and social limitations. This brings us to the need for a better understanding of interfaces and software that is now stored in the Cloud. We cannot access the code anymore, a movement which could be seen as part of the 'war on the general purpose computer' as described by Cory Doctorow at the 28th Chaos Computer Congress in Berlin (December 2011).[iii]

Whereas we demand open data, use open source browsers and argue over net neutrality and copyright, 'walled gardens' like Facebook close the world of technological development and move towards 'personalization' in which messages outside of your horizon will never enter your information ecology. Another important watershed between Web 2.0 and social media is the arrival of smart phones and apps. Web 2.0 was still entirely PC-based. Social media rhetoric emphasizes mobility: people have their favorite social media apps installed on their phone and carry them around wherever they are. This leads to info overload, addiction and a further closure of the internet that only favors real-time mobile applications, pulling us further into accelerated historical energy fields such as the financial crisis, the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements.

In July 2011 the Unlike Us research network was launched, dedicated to social media monopolies and their alternatives, founded by our Institute of Network Cultures (Hogeschool van Amsterdam) in collaboration with Korinna Patelis (Cyprus University of Technology, Limassol). The launch event took place on Cyprus on November 28, 2011.  A 2 ½ day conference with workshops happened in Amsterdam, March 8-10, 2012.[iv] The events, blog, forum, list, reader and other outlets deal a range of topics (some of them listed below), inviting theoretical, empirical, practical and art-based contributions. Unlike Us anticipates the need for specialized workshops and so-called barcamps, realizing that its agenda is diverse and can take the initiative in a variety of directions—up to the danger of fragmentation.

Let's move on from the question so often heard inside firms, NGOs, government departments and (vocational) education how best to utilize Facebook and Twitter. In contrast with social science scholars around Christian Fuchs discussing the (Marxist) political economy of social media[v], [MR13] Unlike Us is primarily interested in a broad arts and humanities angle also called web aesthetics (as described by Vito Campanelli[vi]), activist use and the need to discuss both big and small alternatives and does not limit itself to academic research. We see critique and alternatives as intrinsically related while both guided by an esthetic agenda. Another Social Network is Possible. However, no matter how understandable the need for practical how-to information is, including the need to spread information about alternative platforms, our research cannot stop there. Expect in this reader to sometimes go back to basics. Should we reassess the centralized model or continue to argue for decentralized models? Is the distributed 'federated social web' some sort of Third Way alternative? For more information on the original intentions of the network we included the Unlike Us research agenda, put together in July 2011 by a group of people who collaborated on this text online in the early stages of the network as an appendix of this reader.[vii]  One and a half years into the history of Unlike Us the agenda is becoming more clear, and focused, but real choices still have to made. Hopefully there is light at the end of tunnel of the fundamental conceptual and strategic debates of the moment. You can feel there is something at stake.

Discussing the latest research trends we can see a growing tiredness over the 'exploitation' thesis of social media in favor of a more detailed analysis of the 'like economy' on the one hand and the desire to design alternatives on the other. The critical mass advantage of Facebook and Twitter is wearing out, but how can alternative platforms become more successful? The monopoly position and related controlmania is becoming too obvious and a banality to present as a research outcome. Power patterns in the IT industry, from IBM, Microsoft to Google and Facebook are becoming well-known. Ordinary users do not want to look uncool and cannot afford to be left out in this informal reputation economy; this is why they feel forced to follow the herd. We all still have to get used to the two faces of the networked reality: networks are both ideal to scale up quickly so that early movers can create new publics, and, cashed up with venture capital take over a technology or application in no time. And, in contrast to this aspect of speed and size, there is always also the distributed and decentralized, informal quasi-private side of networks. Lately, social media companies have emphasized the first and neglected the second, obsessed as they are by hyper-growth at all costs. It is time for designers, programmers and geeks and nerds of all nations to step in, realize the dark sides of corporate-state control and become active. Either the start-up cult will have to be radically reformed or blown up all together. Hopefully, this reader can play a role in this process.

[i] See the PhD thesis of Taina Bucher, University of Oslo, 2012.


[ii] Jean Baudrillard, The Masses: Implosion of the Social in the Media, www.jstor.org/stable/468841, p. 1 (1985).

[iii] Cory Doctorow, Lockdown, the Coming War on General-purpose Computing, http://boingboing.net/2012/01/10/lockdown.html.

[iv] For more information on the Unlike Us network, the related email list, upcoming conferences and workshops, including the blog and (academic) publications, see: http://networkcultures.org/wpmu/unlikeus/.

[v] See: http://www.icts-and-society.net/events/uppsala2012/.

[vi] Vito Campanelli, Web Aesthetics, INC/NAi Publishers, Rotterdam, 2010.

[vii] Contributors to initial Unlike Us call: 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, Eric Kluitenberg and the initiators Geert Lovink and Korinna Patelis.


 [MR1]Ook op FB of alleen Google+?

 [MR2]Twee keer myriad in één alinea

 [MR3]Gaat dit nog steeds over FB? Misschien een voorbeeld noemen. FB koopt dan ook nog eens veel van de populaire apps op, zoals Instagram of de Spotify-connectie

 [MR4]Zo bedoeld? Wat betekent het  - dat iedereen inmiddels onderworpen is aan boredom ?

 [MR5]Is dit nu al het geval? Verderop schrijf je dat het juist nog wel even zal duren.

 [MR6]Dit zegt mij niet zoveel (shame on me?)

 [MR7]Deze vraag ook al gesteld aan het eind van de eerste alinea

 [MR8]Tegenstelling met end of befriending craze in sight

 [MR9]Dubbel met de PhD die een verouderd proefschrift inlevert

 [MR10]Volgens mij was het niet Einstein die dit beschreef

 [MR11]Zin mist een werkwoord

 [MR12]Wat is dit?

 [MR13]Deze referentie is denk ik alleen betekenisvol voor de insider en komt zo een beetje gek over.