Social Media: A Story of Exploitation, Enclosure and Enslavement

This talk was given at the Wagga Nerd Nite event on Tuesday the 24th of November 2015. To give it some context – it was originally planned to be given on September 24th but unfortunately that was the day of The Fire.

Tonight I wanted to present some of my observations about the emergent behaviours of social media companies and peel back the veneer of PR and advertising and take a look at what’s happening behind the scenes.

A couple of quick questions: Who has a Facebook account?

Who’s tagged someone else in a photo or post?

Who’s changed their relationship status? What I’d like you to do is think about those answers and how they fit in the narrative we’re going to explore.

So I want to start this story 25 years ago when this, the pager, was the height of technology – something really big began to emerge.

This year the web is 25 years old, and while that might seem old, its important to understand how relatively young it is.

This is what the web looked like back in 1990. And we’ve come such a long way since, but it’s important to understand that the web is emergent – in the sense that no one really planned on it developing the way it has, nor was there ever a grand masterplan. This has meant that it’s incredibly adaptable to change and has allowed it to evolve along with the technology that powers it.

I want to preface this talk with a few things. I built my first web site 19 years ago while on work experience in Year 10, so I consider myself an early adopter. And since then I’ve myself a resident of the web, conducting my work, professional and social life through this medium. And as such I’m someone keenly interested in exploring it’s possibilities and pioneering its practices. So I believe in the web – this idea of a connected planet, through which we can all share freely and by doing so prosper. And I believe in this idea of a vast, open and distributed network that allows the world to share its knowledge and wealth of information beyond the concept of borders and nations.

But Social Media is not the web. The reality is that the emergence of commercial enterprises operating online as “social media” has perverted that dream. And a lot it comes down to how these systems are built.

The web was designed as a distributed system. Each node connects to each other which creates a resilient and robust system.

In contrast Social Media operates as seperate centralised systems. Connected but dependant on interfacing via this central component. While they sell themselves as enablers of connection you can see that you what you can connect with only occurs within one network. They’ve set themselves up as the middle-man. You also can’t branch out between Facebook into Twitter. This is not how the Web was designed to work.

So what am I talking about when it comes to Social Media?

The key identifier is this concept of “sharing”. This is technology for a group not the individual. It’s not like the apps on your computer or phone that are about personal productivity. They are about the socialised sharing of data, images and communications

So this broader definition includes – messaging applications (twitter, whats app, snapchat), image apps (flickr, instagram) but social media extends to things like LinkedIn and Foursquare and new players like Uber and Airbnb that depend on social and shared data.

And finally there’s Facebook. Aaron Sorkin identified them as The Social Network, and they are the biggest and perhaps most influential company operating in this space so we’ll take a very specific look at what they’ve been up to.

I want to introduce this term of Enclosure to describe what I believe has been happening on the web since the emergence of social media.

Enclosure is a term from the Agricultural revolution and is the term used to descibe the process that ended the ancient system of farming in open fields. It essentially ended the concept of the Commons – community land which was shared in order for everyone to benefit. Enclosure was when the fences were put up.

Property moved from the commons into private hands – and this process generated massive social and economic change. It started the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution but creating new classes of people, some who would become rich and powerful but most who would become exploited as slaves to the industrial machinations of the west.

So how does this apply to Social Media? To me it’s a case of history repeating itself. The original concept of the web was that we all would have our own websites. These would be our own place to create, store and publish. We would create a “commons” in which we share knowledge. And it happened because of the way the web was designed – to be distributed. These centralised platforms are the equivalent of throwing up fences.

So what we end up with is not this great network, but silos. Great big silos but none the less silos that are walled off, separated and controlled. The “network” isn’t open in the way it once was. What we’ve ended up with is a model where we put our stuff into other peoples containers.

We put our photos on flickr, our resume on LinkedIn, our personal lives on Facebook, our location on Foursquare. And from that point on the data doesn’t live in the commons. A part from our direct contribution there are other techniques that are used to enclose our data:

Acquisition of data. Venture capital and the buy-out culture of startups has meant that our data often becomes an asset, often the only asset, worth being acquired.

Controlling the flow and shaping experience. A good example of this is how Facebook deals with video where it slows and reduces exposure if video comes from an external source like YouTube when compared to uploading it directly into Facebook.

Binary choice. This is a reference to the binary choice we are given when faced with the 50 or so pages of legalese in the Terms and Conditions. There’s no oportunity to negotiate, no way to limit or argue. You simply accept and can use the system or decline and be locked out.

Licencing and ownership of digital objects. While none of these sites are quite as bold as to claim ownership of your data, what you’ll often find hidden away in those terms and conditions is the fact that you’re granting these companies a perpetual license to use your data however they want.

And so we have to ask ourselves some really important questions. So who owns your data? Who and how do they define your identity? When you’re no longer in control of your data what’s really going on?

Quite frankly it’s Exploitation. What’s happening is that once you’ve put your data in then these companies they use this to test and experiment on you. You become part of their universe and domain, a resource they can utilise in a purely cynical and exploitative manner.

This is the social graph and it’s Facebook’s attempt to map out all the data it has access to. To map out all the relationships between data and indiviuals, what we Like, who we like, who we are connected to. Every comment, picture, post and like is mined for relationships. And unknowingly or not we don’t just contributes the collection of data, we do their job for them by tagging our location which goes in along side the time stamp of when, who we were with and what we were doing. So what’s the value in that?

It means they can create a means of targeting individuals with a laser like focus… especially for advertising which is the main source of income currently. Mainstream media – newspapers, radio, television – these are scatter gun approaches to engage with individuals, finding your target and appealing to them. This means that into the future advertising on social media will become far more valuable to advertisers.

It’s what’s led to the explosive valuations (July 2015) attached to these companies: Facebook valuation $US250 billion, Uber valued at more than $US50 Billion and AirBnB valued at over $25 billion.

And this value is reflected in the notion of Metcalfe’s Law where the value is all proportional to the number of users connected to the system. Basically the bigger you are the more valuable your are, and Facebook is worth the most because it is the biggest.

It begs the question too – are we “sharing” or “giving”? Have they changed the notion of what sharing actually means? Or do we need to question this notion of what “sharing” actually means on

In 2004, before the rise of social media, McKenzie Wark published the Hacker Manifesto and suggested that what was occurring was the rise of a Vectoralist Class – the owners of the vectors – the various pathways and networks over which information flows.

Rather than capitalists versus proletarians, the central antagonism was between hackers and vectoralists.

Instead of owning the means of productions they own and exploit the means of transmission – the vectors through which data travels. They own the wires and the cables, the platforms through which we consume and share.

Vectoralists commidify information. They exploit information as a resource for capital. Our information, our data, becomes the commodity that they trade with. We are being exploited in order for them to make a profit.

Remember those market evaluations? Well that’s despite the following:

“Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no contenthttp://exhal.es. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.”
Tom Goodwin.

They own virtually nothing that is physical or a tangible good, simply the vectors through which data travels

This is the Vectoralist model in action. It’s not theory. It is our reality.

Uber owns no infrastructure, no equipment. It simply owns the app the connects the driver to the passenger. This is perhaps the clearest example of owning vector between these two points.

It’s the same with AirBnB – they own the vector that joins the room with traveller.

These are the new vectors through which money and power now travels.

And it brings us to Enslavement. If this can get darker, it does. What powers these sites and provide these companies with their power are the algorithms. They are ways of interrogating data in order to make a prediction. And what’s scary is that these algorithms are hidden from view.

And these algorithms then go onto to make predictions – if X knows Y then they should know Z and so heres a suggested friend. That’s nice huh? Or if X is 24, likes Y has more than 100 friends then target him with this ad. And thats great, another happy customer.

At the moment these algorithms are designed for advertising because it’s paying the bills at Facebook. They’re pretty benign and can be quite useful.

But what if those same algorithms got into the hands of the secret police or the military in an oppresive government? What if they got hacked?

So back at the beginning who changed their relationship status? Well that’s not all Facebook knows.

Thanks to the Social Graph Facebook can cross reference that data with the huge array of information they’ve gathered on you. And those algorithms can mine that to determine your sexual orientation, political tendencies and probably a variety of indiscretions you don’t want anyone to know about. Because it knows when, where, and who you were with. And we told them.

Does your best fried know that information about you? When Facebook knows more about you than your best friend – you should be scared. The centralised and enclosed nature of these systems actually facilitate this surveillance to occur, by making it easy for this “big data” to accumulate. They have placed themselves in the middle of every single connection on their network – the ultimate and perfect panopticon.

Algorithms are the dark side of social media because we can’t see how they manipulate what we see. It’s a known unknown – we know that the timeline changes and shifts around what we see and what we don’t – but we don’t know how, nor the motivations behind them. Is it because someone paid them to advertise or becasue a government made a request? These algorithms are the power behind Social Media and they are hidden from us. Jesus this is all pretty doom and gloom…

But Wark mentions another class – the Hackers. His definition is a little more expansive than just notion computer hackers – they are sources of innovation, knowledge, and abstraction — the creators and makers. The people that don’t care about the commodity, they care about the act. They do this out of passion, out of a drive to do it differently, to conceive the new, the future. The Hacker Class generates alternatives to the current state.

The Vectoralists are the new fat cats. They may look young and hip and cool, but they are following the same model of exploitation and enslavement of the industrialists. They make money by exploiting our of data and our effort.

So originally I was going to end here with a stirring call to action. Where we need to throw off the shackles of our oppressors and rebel.

With the banners unfurled and united we stand against the onslaught of social media facists who seek to enslave us. That united and together we can be free!) But…. I don’t feel quite so militant anymore. I think we need change, but for quite different reasons. You see the day of the last Nerd Nite, I was heading home early to practice this presentation when I got a phone call from the police.

I turned into my street to see 3 fire trucks and a cacophony of flashing lights. Someone had broken into our place and then set it on fire. They’d taken the stuff that was worth something to sell and then set fire to the rest of it. We lost photos and memorabilia, toys and our clothes. All of it gone.

But what happened next was amazing. Through social media there was an outpouring of support that neither my wife, nor I, could have ever imagined. Those networks connected us to people more than willing to offer help and support. People gave without question, including those well beyond our own personal networks. And at that point I realised that the reason to rebel, the reason to rethink and reenginneer the ways these systems are structured, is because they’re too important.

Too important to have profit come between our connecrtions and relationships. Too important to sacrifice our identity and privacy in order for a company to sell us fucking ads.

So instead tonight I want to end by saying that the aim of social networks should be on the connections and relationships, not profit. That they should empower the individual to connect with people and ideas and share and give to one another, not for profit. That we need to rethink our relationship, not with each other, but with corporate entities that seek to exploit and enslave us.

Thanks

PS: Would like to get some feedback on whether this format works better for presentations or if videos, like this,  are a better way to go. Feel free to comment below – welcome your feedback.

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9 thoughts on “Social Media: A Story of Exploitation, Enclosure and Enslavement

    • Thanks Elaine, I’m glad that despite the slightly gloomy topic you were able to associate it with something good and positive like Domain of Ones Own! I shared some of this talk as the first half to my dLRN talk https://timklapdor.wordpress.com/2015/10/30/empowering-the-node-avoiding-enclosure/ (which I plan on converting to the above format!), the second half was focussed on what are we going to do about it? In that I discuss the idea of MYOS – a platform built on the concept of a Domain of Ones Own and expanded in order for us to connect, not just store. I was lucky enough to have Jim Groom in the room for that one which led to some really interesting discussions. The hackers are already at work thinking and creating the alternatives which is the ray of sunshine I draw on!

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