Oct 162013

Being creative is important.  A student of mine sent me a link to a 2011 Scientific American commentary the other day, and the blogpost it links to shows us exactly how important creative mindsets really are.  The post in question suggests we can actually improve our cognitive performance: essentially, improve where why we find ourselves on that supposedly genetically-fixed spectrum of traditionally understood intelligence.  The author describes how over a period of three years she was able to raise a child’s IQ score from the early 80s to over 100.  The change was permanent.

You can find the blogpost here.  It’s quite lengthy, but very readable.  I suggest you read it before we continue.

The article is not perfect, of course.  It gives into the plague of list-itis afflicting all online media around the globe at the moment.  We get five ways we need to pursue if we wish to improve our cognitive abilities.  Numbers, of course, are magic on the social web.  Such a web has well-learned the lesson from the real-world publishing of yore: get a number in your title and you’ll multiply your sales a hundredfold.  Or more.

Here’s the list of “primary principles”, anyhow:

These five primary principles are:

  1. Seek Novelty
  2. Challenge Yourself
  3. Think Creatively
  4. Do Things The Hard Way
  5. Network

Each principle is then illustrated constructively with clear examples.  One of these examples really hit home for me: I have noticed how as I depend more and more on sat-navs my sense of direction has gone to pot.  A case of not doing things the hard way – in essence not exercising the mental muscle that is the brain, and as a result losing the edge one used to have.

If a simple gadget like a GPS can do that to us, just imagine what sitting for hours on end in front of a computer and the memory-extension tool that is a decent search engine can do to the mush our brains must surely be turning into.

Yet the arguments given in favour of the final principle – networking – made me think twice about the true nature of social networks and media.  Yes.  Silos do reproduce themselves in the virtual ether too – but that, ie tribalism, is a natural evolutionary tendency of humanity we will always need to consciously learn to fight.  Just because we see it doesn’t mean we must give into the trend.  And probably easier to avert it on the web than in rather more formally-constructed organisational environments offline.

Are posting, tweeting and writing more generally drugs?  They may indeed be: the highs you get from putting virtual pen to paper are undeniable.  But if we care to judge social networking with the degree of objectivity it deserves, perhaps we should not so hastily damn it for taking advantage of an addiction.  In a sense, there exists in the Twitter and Facebook zones which now broadly populate our planet the opportunity to actively practise the five principles outlined in the blogpost I’ve been referring to this morning: to actively aim to improve our supposedly fixed intelligences.

And if there was ever a time we needed evidence and viewpoints such as these, then it’s right here and right now: when retrograde ministers, their media hangers-on and the kind of business-people who give quite the worst impressions of latterday commerce all attempt to rule both the airwaves and the ethers out there with the sort of hierarchical nonsense that once stratified in horrible castes a privileged society of the rankly inefficient.

Oct 062013

I’ve started working recently with a Windows 8 computer.  It has a touchscreen, which makes more sense, but Luddite that I am, I’ve installed Classic Shell to turn it back into the Vista/Windows 7 I was far more used to.  Though to be honest, with its wider screen and the resulting taskbar moved to the side, what it now mostly reminds me of is Ubuntu’s much lambasted left-hand sidebar, a beast I never had problems getting used to.

Yes.  I’m happily getting used to a Windows which now reminds me of Linux!  And that’s some irony, don’t you think?

But something else moving from one computer to another makes you do is evaluate all those websites and social networks your old computer automatically leads you to when you load up the browsers.  And whilst Twitter seems to have made the cut, even though I’ve been off it far more the past week or so, one social network I’ve resisted so far is dear old Facebook.  Yes.  The notifications build up and the baleful emails reminding me I’ve not been on for a while do tug; but at the same time I find myself remembering what it was like, whilst my phone was in for repair, to be without mobile web for a fortnight in February.  It was liberating; it made me look at the world around me again; it even allowed me to recover a sense of privacy.  I was having thoughts which I didn’t find myself able to share, and then from those moments on … well, I began to realise that perhaps I didn’t need to share them any more.

The alternative to an almost obsessive communication where privacy is utterly shorn from human existence is a retiring of our trains of thoughts from the public sphere, and a reassertion of our previous ability and aptitude to continue their processing in private.

We used to do this: in the past, those blessed with greatness did.  They cogitated in the intimacy of their drawing-rooms, their shop floors, their offices and laboratories – and then posted in one properly and singularly authored content their completely framed explanations on a justly surprised world.

No.  I’m not saying it was a better way.  I’m saying that, a priori, the better way is today’s.  But not if Prism and others – for example, the Russian equivalent they say is being prepared for the Winter Olympics, where no one present will be able to escape a total and permanent surveillance for the duration of their stay – manage to get their way.

Which they will.

Hardly bodes well for the spirit of Olympic brother- and sisterhood.

Unless your idea of such relationships implies a total and permanent intrusiveness in siblings’ occurrences.

Not mine, I can tell you.

So if these are the alternatives – a) an efficient sharing and counter-sharing of an incessant engendering of ideas coupled with a zero right to privateness on the one hand or b) a less speedy but far more humane and socially respectful limiting of the public sphere with a greater sense (if nothing else) of privacy on the other – perhaps it is the latter we should head for.  Perhaps my recent experiences – and the resulting conclusions – this year of disconnecting from the interconnectedness of the worldwide web in the face of a total lack of respect for my being – for mine, yours and everyone’s out there – is something we ought to begin to share more widely, even as we begin not to share so much stuff, as much as we have to date.

It’s in our hands.  It’s part of what we can do.  Just like most workers can still withdraw their labour in the face of oppression (though they are, of course, trying to make that illegal too), so we as connected citizens can begin to dose our levels of connectedness.

Not out of a shady desire to be suspiciously secretive.

Rather, out of a very human desire simply to be private.

Perhaps, then, that will be the way forward as we attempt to recover the integrity of the public sphere.

Not by demanding it be made even more public than it is, and then going on to require that our human rights be evermore broadly and correspondingly respected, but – rather – by sagely beginning to make it less accessible to these electronic eyes through a process of careful choice.

Not hiding from the worldwide web our evil thoughts.

Just closing the door – with every historical precedent on our side – to our most intimate moments.

That’s not illegal.

Not yet, anyhow.


Update to this post: this lovely TEDx talk, from Bruce Schneier in all his clarity, defines, conceptualises and pulls brilliantly together where power and its rapidly evolving nature is heading in our latterday world: essentially, the ongoing battle between the old institutional powers finally reasserting themselves versus the early-adopting nimbler distributed powers (both virtuous and criminal), now manifestly finding the going getting tougher all the time.  Short, sweet and worth your next twelve minutes.  (Thanks to Adrian Short on Twitter for bringing this to our attention.)


Jul 312013

Perhaps it’s us who are in the wrong here. Perhaps our expectations of a century of universally-educated civilisations were simply too high.  Perhaps it’s us who’ve got it back to front.  Perhaps the bastards are right to grind us down.

I don’t believe I believe so.  But there’s always a tiny space for a shadow of a doubt.

The issue, essentially, is that Twitter, Facebook and a small number of other social networks don’t only tell us how it is – they also tell us how it always was.  From a right-wing prejudice-based bias at the heart of a supposedly venerable BBC journalism and journalist to long-held Tory attitudes about Northerners and Northern spaces to abusive relationships between men and women, between the powerful and the disadvantaged and between the rich in general over everyone else, all that the last few years of online connectivity seem to have offered us is a consistent falling away of any veils of innocence.

Twitter, Facebook and that small number of other social networks I mention aren’t making a new world: they’re simply, flatly and painfully reflecting a very old one.  When heavy-handed police actions bubble to the surface of our perceptions on such a huge scale, most of us who were taught as children to respect the state’s good faith will question whether something is radically different; will question whether something is radically changing.

Sadly, I don’t think it is.  Sadly, I believe that such networks and media are only informing us more clearly of what we already got up to and did offline; of what we already got up to and did before social came along.

Our politicians a ragbag of corrupt self-serving auto-publicists?  Yes?  And?  So what’s new?

Our business leaders a cabal of establishment-infiltrating fascists?  So?  And?  Need me to explain any more?

Our men and women (mainly men though, it would seem), predisposed to insults and slagging the disadvantaged violently off, given half a virtual chance?  Wow!  And?  Who’d have thought it?

This is the underbelly of life turned over and exposed to the light of online examination.

The underbelly was always there though.

Women were always abused by their partners; by their nearest and dearest.

Politicians always trampled on electorates.

Business leaders always took ruthless advantage of their customers; always hid their dirty boardroom linen.

Nothing’s changed.  Nothing’s changing.  In fact, the only difference I can see is that all of us can see and share more of the shit which they (that is to say, we) used to hide.

Perhaps, then, what we need to propose is something different from this simple reporting, spreading and retweeting of shit.  Perhaps we need to reconceptualise the purpose of social: where the Tories condemn socialism as a tool for the desperately poor – even as they reconfigure and reuse it as a pig-trough mechanism for the scrounging rich – maybe a better use of social would be to reproduce environments of support for the disadvantaged.  Don’t people our timelines with stories of disheartening state and corporate violence – or, at least, don’t people all our timelines with such depressing news as this – but, rather, instead, move to use our connectivity to enthuse and organise parallel environments of a kindly and supportive society of the benevolent.

Yesterday I exchanged a tweet or two on the subject of building a new Berlin Wall around London, with the aim of encircling and enclosing all the prejudiced Tories within.  An underground movement could at the same time be established to help those not of a Tory persuasion to escape their fate.

This was, of course, a joke.  Unfortunately, it didn’t seem very funny.  Unfortunately, it seemed all too attractive to those of us exchanging our evermore bitter comments.

Maybe connectivity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Knowing too much about the underbelly of life doesn’t necessarily make one more powerful any more.  Knowledge isn’t power these days.  The willingness to brazenly lie, on the other hand, is.

And I realise, as I reread the above before publishing, that I was a naive little citizen for a very long time.

I’m not sure I don’t want to continue being so.

The problem with veils that fall away, however, is that once on the ground the evil do proceed with their trampling.

The real corporate purpose of social, if you ask me?  To remove all choice of naivete; to remove all chance of childlikeness.

To remove, ultimately, all possibility that our (once shared) humanenesses may return from the caves in which they currently, frightened, hide out.

But we still have an opportunity.  We still may cast a tiny shadow of a doubt.  We still, even so, may be able to turn the tables on the moneymen.  If only we can make of social a proactive tool for the parallel, perhaps one day we can re-emerge blinking from our caves.  Perhaps one day we can recover our humaneness.  Perhaps one day social won’t just tell us how it always was but, instead, help us define exactly how it really should be.

Apr 262013

Three posts to contextualise the title of this post.  First, from the Drum, reporting the background to some hot-off-the-press alleged censorship cases, where it seems either Facebook itself or the procedures it has created are leading to the abuse of free speech.

Second, we have the Scriptonite Daily saying these kinds of things:

Yesterday I wrote and published the article The Man Who Pushed a Toy Pig to Downing Street to Save our NHS.  It was intended to raise awareness and support for The Artist Taxi Driver’s art based protest of the privatisation of the NHS.

On publishing the article on my Facebook page I was asked (unusually) to fill in a captcha (the little box that asks you to type the letters you see so they know you aren’t a computer).  Shortly after, people were reporting that they were being asked to complete captchas to share it.  People who tried to open the article were warned by Facebook it was spam and the content unsafe, to dissuade people from reading and sharing the piece.  Despite all this, the article spread and had totalled over a thousand shares direct from the blog.  Then something weird happened.  It disappeared.

The article was removed from Facebook, from everywhere it had been shared. It was removed from every personal wall, group and page where it had appeared.  It disappeared from the wall of any user that had posted it.  The comments and conversations underway on people’s pages were erased.  It was like it had never happened.

Then we have Tom saying this:

Yesterday Facebook suddenly decided to flag this blog as spam – effectively censoring it by scaring away anyone who might want to link to it or share it on Facebook.

That was obviously a surprise but I was even more surprised when a member of staff from JobCentre Plus openly boasted to me that it was she who had reported the blog to Facebook as spam after she got annoyed by this particular satirical blogpost critical of ATOS and the DWP:

Fraudster ATOS fined for supplying fake crip detectors for use in fitness for work tests

It’s obvious even from the headline that the article is pure satire – not spam – but it seems Facebook automatically took the word of a member of staff from JobCentre Plus and dutifully flagged it – and indeed this whole site – as one that should be avoided.

Now, understandably in the circumstances, most people are concluding this is a case of Facebook censoring politics.  I’ve noticed myself, when I use particularly charged titles to my posts, that the layout Facebook allows tends not to have a massive headline or clarity around where the link will go to.  I’ve also noticed that in the afternoon and evenings, very few of my tweets ever get through.  I, even, often don’t see my own posts on Facebook on my own blessed timeline.

All of which goes to show, I think, that Facebook operates in truly mysterious ways: it’s become God for a society so secular and scientific in its belief systems that – maybe, just maybe – we need it to introduce such randomising influences into our lives.  As it says at the end of the Drum article linked to above, Facebook’s attitude to transparency doesn’t half smack of the black boxes that are traditional religion (the bold is mine):

A Facebook blog post from Caroline Ghiossi in 2010, an associate on Facebook’s user operations team, about Facebook’s spam prevention systems said that users sometimes “misunderstand” the systems and incorrectly believe Facebook is restricting speech. It said Facebook was trying to be more transparent but could not divulge details on how its systems work.

I do, therefore, understand the challenges of setting up and administering a Web 2.0 site of this nature, but I also suspect with its billions of active users that it could quite easily follow the ways of the late 20th century Catholic Church.  Attempting to run an empire which expands so hurriedly and hierarchically can only lead in one direction: that of obfuscation (whether accidental or deliberate), confusion (whether pointed or diffuse) and a final collapsing from within as its believers and followers really begin to get the savage drift.

If the integrity of this beast – and others like Twitter – becomes absolutely so randomising as to make it impossible to know whether your speech will communicate or not, many of us I fear will disconnect from the tenets of faith that made a broader Web 2.0 so jolly exciting in its first generous phase.

What’s the point of spending so much of your precious time on these systems if whenever you do it becomes clear you can never change anything at all?  I mean that definitely is an example of pissing in the wind.

Talk about Facebook turning into God as a result of its obscure algorithms.  More pointedly, it’s turning the rest of us into irrelevantly medieval jesters of its court.

It will rot from inside out.  Mark my words.

The writing’s on the wall, dearly beloved Facebook.

Except, of course, when you proceed to stupidly remove it.

Mar 282013

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been reading and writing a lot about the squeezed middle, the absolute poor and the stratospheric rich.  For those of us who are living in the United Kingdom – more precisely in my case, the North West of England – you won’t have failed to notice how the government and the governed simply do not see things eye-to-eye.  In fact, lately at least, it’s often more a case of a tooth for a tooth.


The thing is, my natural instinct is to see life from tens of different points of view.  This doesn’t make me popular – or widely read.  Yesterday, I realised the true and abiding power of ranting when itiddly, a Twitter friend of mine, asked me to edit a post of his before he posted it.  He’s a tribal fellow; a traditional political activist.  He insults and damns and blasts the Tories at every opportunity.

I resisted the temptation to help him out with his post – rather patronisingly (in retrospect) arguing that he needed to have confidence in his writing, as well as some exposure, much more than the help of a struggling editor friend.

You can read his post here.  It’s a rant and it isn’t.  There’s a barely contained fury, of course, but all the time it’s an evidence-based fury.  And whilst I rarely get above five or six tweets for my posts, in a very short time his had hit thirty-five (at the time of writing this post, it now reads a hundred).  Exposure wasn’t what was needed on his part here; instead, it was humility on mine.

Yet it is not in my nature to rant one-sidedly, even where ranting of a kind is sometimes something I do.  I would not be able, in all honesty, to write something as single-minded as the post we’re talking about.  And I wish, in some way, I were able to convey the reasons why.  I wish you could all see the ten or twenty different points of view I always see when I see the world.

People have, on occasions, even accused me of dancing around a subject.  Perhaps, in truth, they were closer to the mark than even they realised.  You dance out of engagement and concentration; a dance is a marvellous combination of emotion, precision and attitude.

That is how I see the process of writing.

Which is why I wish, perhaps by using Twitter and other social-network outputs, we could all appreciate better how each of us is perceiving the world: the pain, the glory, the happiness and joy; the misery, the fear, the certainties and hopes.  From high-and-mighty governors to humble barely-surviving governed, the world would surely become a better place if only we could see it properly through each other’s eyes.

So my question must be: is anyone out there at all interested in creating a Point-Of-View Machine?

Or are you all far more interested in setting up monolithic positions of revulsion and non-cooperation?


Further reading: I wonder, quite sincerely, whether the Google Glass project (more here) – rather than inspire our fear of a final assault on all our privacies – should make us more hopeful in the ways I describe above.  If the POV streams resulting from all those users were made available and accessible in a structured way, we would understand much more easily how each of us experienced life.  And from that understanding, perhaps a kinder governance would emerge.

A kinder world.

A kinder species, even.

We can only hope, of course.

And, maybe, pray.

Feb 222013

After meekly exiting Labour’s intranet, Members Net, having blogged for quite a while in its partisan embrace, I stumbled across an outside world of blogging at the hand of Andrew Regan’s now defunct political aggregator, Bloggers4Labour.  I thought this a wonderful device, maintaining as it healthily did the visual and locational idiosyncrasies of individual blogsites, even as it brought together in one sensible place the feeds of each and every one.  It allowed for a wonderful overview of what was bubbling under in the Labour-blogging community; it helped new bloggers get exposure and support from existing practioners; and it served to sustain a worthy sense of common cause in what has often historically been a fractured political grouping.

Andrew really did know how to integrate the needs of readerships by using technology.  He would even supply his own often gently proffered and constructive comments on other people’s posts.  This helped create a point of focus on the wider input which – in a very simple and neat way – helped generate an air of shared purpose.

My memory of Bloggers4Labour was almost entirely positive.  Both Andrew and I, sometimes together, sometimes separately, tried to build on this original achievement with other projects which I was either rather tangentially involved in (for example, Andrew’s Poblish – a super-aggregator designed to outdo Google’s own search in the global field of political blogging) or more directly engaged with (for example, my idea for a Last.fm of political thought).  In all cases, I think what drove him – and certainly myself – was a desire to return, in some way or other, to that golden age of political blogging which Bloggers4Labour – at its most didactic and pedagogical best – seemed at the time to represent.

Instead of cramming everyone together in a single platform – a kind of awful melting-pot as per a United States of Blogging – Bloggers4Labour and the ideas that came afterwards looked to allow individuality to shine through even as the aim was to bring voices together.

A European Union of Sovereign Blogging, if you like.

So if it was such a good idea, why didn’t it quite work out?  Who knows?  Maybe because we didn’t have the resource; maybe because we didn’t quite hone the ideas; maybe, in reality, because it wasn’t such a golden age.  Or maybe because blogging, in a different way, has kind of had its time and has transmuted into other ways of exchanging the information we value.

Blogging always was a bit of a traditional hierarchy of communication: author-led top-down authorities who were often challenged, but never entirely toppled, by those who would hang from their coattails.  Which is not to underestimate the importance of commenters to the good functioning of a blogsite.  Sometimes, the broader reputations acquired belonged more to those who commented than to the original posters themselves.

Symbiotic relationships of thought were ever thus.

Of course, we all know what happened to blogging: Facebook and Twitter.  It was probably going to happen, whatever the company name, whatever the online constitution, whatever the business model.  But Facebook and Twitter both hastened traditional blogging’s demise.

People much better resourced than us English blogging fans were able to re-engineer the instincts behind standard blogging for an instant-fix generation.  And so the beautiful exchanges between considered author-led hierarchies began to lose their dominance on the web.


So now we come to February, 2013.  And whilst the domain’s been running for a while, with a fairly traditional blogging platform behind it, SpeakersChair.com – a cross-party political blogging website on which I have had some of my recent posts published – has suddenly had the audacity to suggest, through a massive makeover of functionality, that political blogging might not be as defunct as we thought.

Before this change, SpeakersChair.com was essentially a traditional melting-pot-type blogging platform.  Writers of different political colours submitted their posts for site editors to repost on the site.  We see this model operating successfully in many places: from Liberal Conspiracy to – I guess – even the Guardian‘s Comment is Free.  I think, however, that the new SpeakersChair.com moves away from this model in several significant ways:

  1. From a melting-pot blogging platform like Liberal Conspiracy, where visuals and technologies become common to all authors even as posting rights remain with site editors, it transmutes itself more into a souped-up kind of TweetDeck, where its prime function is to sit as a front-end to both Facebook and Twitter – as well as SpeakersChair.com itself.
  2. The ability – and challenge – of each contributor is to act as an authorial hub around which comment is designed to flow.  I guess this could be the case for contributors who write original posts just as much as it might be for contributors who add their opinions as comments to original posts.  In fact, at very first glance it seems that the deliberate intention is to blur as much as possible the hierarchy between original posters and commenters.
  3. I cannot but help considering this latter innovation healthy: it clearly shows that the designers of this online constitution understand that their version of political blogging needs to “get” social, if it’s to have any decent chance of catching on.  And social is much more than tacking on commenting tools at the tail-end of the professionalising commentariat: social, above all, is a matter of sharing hierarchy and power.

Seen, then, as a communication front-end more than a traditional website, seen in fact primarily as a posting tool to various channels, there is no reason why SpeakersChair.com shouldn’t compete effectively with Facebook, web Twitter and even third-party communication tools out there.

I just wonder if there’s also an app in the pipeline.  That imperious world of mobile Internet doesn’t half make or break communication these days.  It surely would serve to complete a beautifully political blogging circle which, for me, started out with Labour’s Members Net, stumbled for a few years after Bloggers4Labour’s major steps forwards – and which could now quite easily find its natural home in a cross-party communication project that, at least in my humble opinion, has everything it needs to deservedly succeed.

Dec 102012

Ariel has an interesting article over at the Guardian which not only describes current behaviours in mainstream and social media but serves as an excellent repository of such behaviours – in this case, in relation to the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas.  Whilst during the riots last year in Britain, social networks and social media served to put the authorities on the back foot, lessons since then have clearly been learned.  When Ariel headlines the article in question as “The first social media war between Israel and Gaza”, he could just as easily describe it as one of the first social media wars, full stop.  This, for example:

From the start, the Isreaeli Defence Force (IDF) and Hamas shared clips on YouTube, and posted messages and images on Facebook and Twitter (also here), which initiated heated debates on the platforms. Many reporters followed these and actively participated in the discussions, which made social media an important element of both reporting and criticism of the conflict.

This should hardly surprise us.  That manipulation of social-media news and its transmission takes place must be self-evident to anyone with any experience of how stories in such contexts surge.  Recent cases of sex-abuse allegations have generated claims and counter-claims which can hardly depend only on the dynamics of sheeply flocks.  But in the argument that Ariel develops, we get a further strand of behaviours that add a far more complex interest to the mix.  For he also describes and defines the following processes:

[...] Unlike any other war in the past, the Israeli-Gaza conflict has been characterised by the mass virtual participation of ordinary people via social media. [...]

And this has led to the more mainstream media feeling obliged to take onboard, and within their own frames, websites and even offline print, such popular – and, maybe, populist – content.  In a post-blogging Facebook generation, where the very fact you’re an amateur communicator adds weight, veracity and conviction to what you tell, it must be the case that, in order to be able to properly convince, latterday industrial media has had to acquire a journalistic equivalent of what film-makers learned to call cinéma vérité.  A kind of post-modern approach to communication, perhaps.  A veneer of “realistic” edginess to their product where once smooth and house-ridden styles were sub-editorially imposed as unquestioned – and unquestionable – good practice.

Some further thoughts, then, on where this might all be leading us:

  • We need to look beyond the tools and their physical manifestations – it’s always easy to notice the technology and think that content must inevitably follow suit.  What’s clearly missing in all kinds of media at the moment is the instinct to reflect and think behind the headlines before putting virtual pen to paper – the impulse to leave, for a few days as a draft, a piece of work usefully unpublished.  Blogging is as guilty of this as any newspaper columnist out there.  I am as guilty of this as anyone else.
  • I would also ask us to keep in mind that whilst the free press belongs to limited liability industry, free speech should belong to unlimited liability people.  And the rights and responsibilities, as well as the punishments for transgression and so forth, should be quite different in each case.  If we believe that international corporations are better guarantors of our free press than the laws of representative democracy, then the real problem doesn’t lie in statutory underpinning or not – it lies in a democracy which isn’t representative enough.  No amount of any social media under the evermore fierce gaze of Western governments is going to fix a system as broken as that.
  • A people’s press, then, perhaps?  A kind of Fifth or Sixth Estate?  We need statutory protection for free speech here in the UK at the very least if we are to propose such a model.
  • The ideal?  Maybe an osmotic world of information exchange where industry and people interface to their mutual benefit.  But not under the current weight of English and Welsh libel laws.

A couple of final thoughts.  First, in relation to these words from Ariel (the bold is mine):

Just as cyber-war and cyber-terrorism have become prevalent, social media warfare is here to stay. It seems that the fight for public opinion will keep growing in importance, and play a more central role in future conflicts. The fact that opposing parties can communicate directly with the public will increase the pressure on journalists to stay relevant.

To these words I would be inclined to add that the above-mentioned three battles will shortly form part of a new Holy Trinity of communication.  Just as industrial media was kept in the shadow and practice of the security services throughout the whole Cold War and its aftermath, leading to the corruption that recent phone-hacking scandals have uncovered here in Britain, so now social media will be in the eye of and form a target for such institutions.  It could hardly be any other way.  If amateur communicators are making more of the news their peers are wanting to read than the news outlets themselves, no veneer, however thick, will fool any member of the post-Leveson generation.  There is no way back.  And the security services probably know this well before the newspaper industry is able and prepared to take it on the chin.

Second, these are all matters which have interested a lot of us recently – both readers and writers, both amateurs and professionals.  Such a post-Leveson moment as this will surely serve to define at least the next fifty years of communication in Britain – and people really don’t realise what’s happening.

We’re sleepwalking into the future of so many unfreedoms.

Social media warfare being just one more sorry battleground they’ll fashion in order to restrict our ability not only, not primarily, to freely exchange our thoughts but also – far more importantly – to be able to evaluate their narratives.

Because if the future is going to work as I think Ariel believes, the ability to sift and determine where truth really lies will become far greater and relevant than it currently might be.

A world of multiple and simultaneous intertextualities?

Almost fit for a new generation of Johann Haris … and I mean that in as complimentary a fashion as you care to allow me.

Nov 292012

Emily Bell argued yesterday in the Guardian that by making and sustaining a distinction between the press on the one hand and social media on the other the Leveson Inquiry had painted itself into the corner of irrelevance.  Her definition of the free press would, instead, be as follows:

The free press of the 21st century consists of the distributed social platforms, the WordPress blogging software and the “dark social” matter of the hidden web, as much as it is the venerable institutions that have local accountability to whatever regulator the UK government should seek to appoint.

Leveson is, however, quite undeterred.  He repeated his assertions today as he delivered his 2000-page report on press culture, its ethics and its possibly regulated future.  Try minute three of the video below:


He’s clear there is a difference, isn’t he?  No doubt in his mind at all.  The question is, whose instincts should we run with?  Those of a professional journalist such as Bell, seeped, as she is, in communication lore and its dynamics – or a man with the kind of regulatory instincts which only the professions of lawyer and judge can infuse?

I’m not sure, actually, that’s the real issue to hand.  I’ve always felt my blogging – and latterly my tweeting and Facebook output – was more along the lines of a global conversation than publishing.  Certainly, if anything tended to the latter, it would be this blog – but even there, the habit of hyperlinking and bouncing off other’s occurrences, the fact that the purpose of my blogging has always been to brainstorm ideas and follow them to their ultimate consequences, surely gives me the right to side more with Lord Justice Leveson than with Emily Bell’s almost catch-all attempt to include social media under her professionalising umbrellas.

And I really don’t think I’d be the only blogger or social-media fan to believe that we converse and dialogue more than publish.  Whilst Leveson attempts to see beyond the technology – to identify what makes institutional and industrial communication very particular to the health of a democracy, to that holding of power to account – it would appear that Bell seems to confuse means and aims.

That newspapers like the Guardian use social-media technologies – blogging software, tweeting and Facebooking facilities, even the chatty discourse of conversation – doesn’t mean that the original social media, the bloggers and tweeters and Facebookers galore, have suddenly become paid-up members of the official British press.  And it goes without saying it’s my firm belief that all attempts to make us so, by anyone who believes that’s the way forward, should be firmly resisted.

Why?  Out of pure self-interest?  Out of a creeping set of double standards?  Out of a desire to be able to say without having to accept responsibility for one’s content?

I don’t think so.

Firstly, bloggers, tweeters and Facebookers do not have access to legions of lawyerly support.  Nor, in general, do they have the consistent and easily maintainable visibility which power of any real kind demands.  If they do have any power, it is the power of the crowd: a lent out, shared and circulated power.  Yes, in its negative manifestations, possibly similar to the power of the mob.  But in its positives, a glorious song to human collaboration.

Secondly, if we’re looking to have an area of reasonably public discourse which can follow trains of new and ground-breaking thought to their logical conclusions, which can imagine new worlds and which does offer our civilisation a route out of a pervasive group-think, surely anyone who cares at all about democratic communication will understand we need to encourage the ambiguity that social media has so eagerly generated and enabled.  The institutional press, in Leveson’s terms, is there to hold institutional power to account – and quite rightly so.  But social media should be reserved, equally rightly so, for the amateur citizen and interested voter to express their opinions as often and as freely as they like.

With certain limitations where the pale is gone so far beyond – but with a desire for “independent and effective self-regulation” whenever the free and open web is able to thus deliver.

As Peter on Twitter said today:

This is one of those days when its good to be mindful of the difference between “free speech” and “free press”

And he’s right.  Let us guarantee by all means the freedoms of the press, as Bell fairly pursues.  Let us also, however, consciously sustain the right of a virtualised base of evermore engaged citizens to use the very same technologies which the press is now appropriating as its own – but for purely individual, non-institutional, crowd-focussed and conversational purposes.

The difference between the press and social media is, therefore, after all, a useful distinction indeed: it is the clearly understandable difference between writing up and speaking up.

Keep that in mind, dear professional journalists – and it’ll be easier to comprehend why Leveson, in this at least, is absolutely spot-on.

Spot-on, that is to say, in his interestingly outsider’s perceptions of exactly where each of our duties really should lie in the future.


Update to this post: if you prefer reading to watching videos, you can now find a full transcript of Leveson’s statement this afternoon over at the Politics Home website.  The executive summary of the report itself can be found here (.pdf file); the report in its entirety here (.pdf file).

May 192012

Last year Facebook denied it was going to charge for user access.  In this way, in the piece of semi-private real estate – a virtual parallel universe – it has succeeded in carving out of the open web, it continued to mimic the ground rules of the latter.  This year, however, this all begins to crumble.  And it does so as Facebook is launched on the stock market with an initial valuation of $104 billionAs the BBC reported a couple of weeks ago:

Facebook has started testing a system that lets users pay to highlight or promote posts.

By paying a small fee users can ensure that information they post on the social network is more visible to friends, family and colleagues.

In this, of course, Facebook’s own walled garden also mimics what the monetisers have been doing to the open web itself.  Whilst access in a world of almost totally free publishing is multifarious – all you need is a broadband connection and the most humble sort of Internet device – visibility is quite a different matter.  In order to get your site at the top of Google’s search rankings, you don’t need just to provide good content: you also need to pay any broad range of intermediaries, from SEO optimists to Google’s own AdWords system, in order to get any chance of being seen by the public you’re after.

In fact, in this sense it’s not all that different from newspaper classifieds of yore: the newspaper editors put before us the news and features they judged through “human algorithms” to be of value – and then the very same companies charged us to advertise our wares in order that through their algorithms (ie their newspapers) we acquired the necessary visibility.

Facebook isn’t social media any more.  With its stock market launch and its now frantic and imperious need to monetise its “news”, Facebook is the 21st century rewriting of what a newspaper once used to be.

A final question, then, to be getting on with: now all you Facebook data is ultimately owned and administered by shareholders, does this make you less or more likely to want to continue playing their game?  As I pointed out not long ago now in relation to how the knowledge economy which was going to benefit us all has been hijacked by supposedly social media:

Let’s just rewind and see how it could’ve been: a society where brains, applied to ideas, developed and implemented technologies on a massive scale – technologies which became cheap enough for everyone to remove drudgery from their ordinary lives and so release the human mind for much better things.

What do we have instead?  Poorly paid – or even unpaid – worker bees (that’s you and me on Twitter and Facebook) inputting data for the software code of such a social web to generate outputs which fascinate companies and allow them to better identify their markets.

Yes.  We are now generating the data for corporations which not only make money out of us directly through advertising (Facebook and Twitter) but also sell our personal details to other organisations (food and consumer-durable manufacturers for example) in order that they may better sell their products to us.  We are now an outsourced part of this latter group of companies’ marketing departments.  Instead of costly opinion polls and focus groups, all they have to do is pay a modicum amount of money to examine Twitter’s firehose (its full complement of content to which the rest of us cannot have access beyond about a maximum of seven days of search) and thus use our freely inputted data to better sell us their products.

Facebook has been amazingly clever – setting us all a trap as clever as that which Twitter has extended.  It has made out that its alternative to the open worldwide web provides us with facilities and guarantees that web could never provide – and then it has proceeded to hand over our collected wisdoms to about as private a set of individuals (ie the anonymous shareholders of a massive transnational corporation) as you could possibly expect to find.

A privacy for some, an absolute absence of intimacy for others.

And even as we admire their astuteness, the serious monetisation – the maximisation of profit which becoming a stockmarket-quoted corporation inevitably attaches to any organisation – has only just begun.

We are now all part of a massive virtual Murdoch-like publication, in fact – where, for the benefit of distant investors and their managerialist classes, any and every intimacy reaches the light of an all-too-public day.

Whilst Murdoch’s News of the World ceased publishing last year, in Facebook’s reconversion of what a global tabloid should now look like, his spirit will live on – mark my words; and with a vengeance.


Apr 252012

My thoughts on this matter continue to emerge.  Bring yourself up to date, if you wish, by reading this and its associated posts.

Just a couple more ideas to throw into the mix.

The social web’s major achievement seems to have been to convince people to work for global corporations for free.  Not only for free but also in exchange for handing over personal data such as names, locations, dates of birth and so forth.  We spend hours every day inputting what starts out as our data in a process whereby it essentially becomes their data – much of which in a discrete sense is of very little value.  But bundled together, as sparse data often has been over history, it takes on a whole new life and existence.

So where has that selfsame history brought us?  Whilst the 20th century was characterised by the multiple players of the industry of film taking over from the single authorship of the previous century’s novels, the 21st century will be characterised by a virtual sweat-shop of voluntary and addicted labour inputting its individually irrelevant datasets in order that algorithms and clever software manage to tease creative content out of the mix.

The creativity crisis both Chris and Rick speak so eloquently of is, in fact, no crisis at all – for there is plenty of employment to go around; the only slight problem from a living-your-life point of view being that it’s manifestly unpaid.

If we feel that the creative arts are inadequately funded, it’s because we’re looking in all the old places to create them.  The new and brightest locations for creativity exist in the online constitutions which convert the product of evermore humble data-inputters across the globe into interesting and engaging Web 2.0 content.  And funding isn’t necessary because the dumbing-down of process which characterises such corporate bodies everywhere has now also been applied to the end-users of such tools.  Which does beg the question: who, in fact, could justify paying anything to anyone for simply liking or commenting on an article?  In essence, we’ve been sold the donkey that what we do is ephemeral and worthless by itself – when in reality, using such dumbed-down processes which gather together and combine disparate data in new and unusual ways, it is really rather valuable, permanent and complex.

Are the machines on the point of taking over then?  I would argue, with billion-dollar stock market flotations and user populations in the hundreds of millions, the modern social web has already turned us into industrialised cogs – freeloading as it does quite brutally on the back of our own falling standards of living as we work for zilch.

This software I talk of serves to take the basest of another’s data and turn it into a financial gold which is then stripped of all authorship and right to proper remuneration.

A virtual alchemy finally exists, then, in the 21st century.  And its objects and goals – and victims too – just happen to be ourselves.

Oh, and one final thought to be going away with: if you believe in remunerating content providers properly but at the same time are thinking of using collated datasets of social content to run your businesses, think for a moment where all the latter information comes from – who produces it, under what conditions and how.

You may discover that the phrase “two-faced” comes to mind as you fight to impose your copyright laws on end-users of film, video, music and journalism – end-users who in a separate context you’re effectively employing unwaged in order that you might market better such legally protected products.

Yes.  Web 2.0 is a classic example of getting something for nothing.  Which doesn’t stop the most fervent supporters of copyright, even as we speak, resorting hypocritically to its charms.

Apr 162012

Sergey Brin, of Google fame, argues the following:

Brin said he and co-founder Larry Page would not have been able to create Google if the internet was dominated by Facebook. “You have to play by their rules, which are really restrictive,” he said. “The kind of environment that we developed Google in, the reason that we were able to develop a search engine, is the web was so open. Once you get too many rules, that will stifle innovation.”

There are other things in this interview which I do agree wholeheartedly with.  This for example:

He said he was most concerned by the efforts of countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Iran to censor and restrict use of the internet [...].

To that list, in fact, we might care one day to add the UK.

Especially in the light of other news from yesterday which indicates that the Russians may be planning to embrace similar controls on their Internet in the future.

But when Brin talks about the carve-up of the free and open Internet, I am inclined to want to take the position that Google itself is not entirely without blame.  Brin is clear that some of the forces ranged against his – and our – baby include the following:

[...] the entertainment industry’s attempts to crack down on piracy, and the rise of “restrictive” walled gardens such as Facebook and Apple, which tightly control what software can be released on their platforms.

Whilst I agree that the entertainment industry wishes to have its cake and eat it – for I might argue that if an existing structure isn’t appropriate for your distribution needs, why take the decision to distribute on it in the first place? – the walled gardens of Facebook in particular are surely a reaction to Google’s monopolistic dominance of the aforementioned freedoms it avows it is in favour of.  As I wrote some time ago on the subject of pernicious paywalls, the worldwide web in its native form is a truly beautiful thing:

To date, the Internet can be characterised and defined by two things: firstly, it has been more a space of discourse, more a flat hierarchy of multiple communication impulses, than a controlled business channel of traditional producer-consumer relationships.  Anatomically speaking, more like a global brain with its extensive network of redundant neurones sparking off each other than an intestinal system which helps process a beginning, a middle and an end.

Secondly, its fundamental tool – the hyperlink – has changed how we read information quite profoundly: the promiscuity of search has taken over from the power of a previously framed narrative.  Through that promiscuity, we look for answers to questions which tumble out of thoughts we must – over and over again – addictively pursue.  Neither is that beginning, middle and end predestined any longer – nor, often, repeatable.  The uniqueness of the narrative experience that each user of hyperlinks brings to the often very private storytelling they engage in as they surf the Web keeps millions of people obsessively tied to their PCs at the end of a multitude of long working days.

These two defining concepts – space and linkage – are what have made the Internet the force that it is today.  And for the vast majority of publishers who currently connect to the Web, this Internet is exactly the Internet they need.  They’re not looking for a mass-market reach to publish their content; instead, they have friends, colleagues and interest groups who actually choose to read what they are publishing, and do so night after night without prompting – quite without the seduction of competitions, bingo, free CDs or tickets to the cinema.

Google, however, has built an advertising empire on a set of hidden search algorithms which it allows to be massaged quite blatantly.  From sponsored ads which sit at the very top of its search results to websites and their URLs which creep up the rankings via carefully lodged supporting links from key sites across the web, the industry of search engine optimisation (SEO) is to Google what, in its heyday, the concept of third-party ecosystem was to Microsoft.  It sells the basic idea and principle to eager paying customers; it supports the legitimacy of the search model in question; and, finally, it helps keep other players firmly out of the market – essentially in order that Google, quite paradoxically, might convince a whole planet that when it monopolises the open Internet it is actually making all of us as free as could be.

No mention, for example, of all the data it has collected on us in order that its model of a “free” Internet might be better monetised on behalf of its shareholders.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying I like Apple’s business model either.  Nor is Facebook quite what I thought it might be even a couple of years ago.  But I do get the impression that whilst Google’s landgrab did take place on a relatively open Internet, its ways and methods since then have only served to create a simulacrum of openness – a simulacrum where in reality those in power can move their favourite souls up and down the popularity stakes almost at will.

That original dream of Google’s, to make useful information available to anyone, has been gamed, distorted and messed around with – even, I might suggest, and quite arguably, by the company itself.

On such an open Internet, who wouldn’t want to create parallel universes?

Facebook and Apple aren’t the reason we’ve lost that dream.

Facebook and Apple are simply the symptom of Google’s greed.

Apr 142012

I had this conversation the other day at the Political Innovation meet-up on gaming and policy-making.  It seems to me that the big issue with Twitter and the law lies precisely in a question of framing.  And the framing has been done by agencies quite outside the common populace.  So whilst we suffer the consequences of the confusion thus engendered, we really are not to blame for overstepping the multitude of marks.

Twitter, Facebook and all the rest set up their stalls with the idea that the casual throwaway over-the-garden-fence kind of conversation could be replicated online with virtual tools.  Most of us thought, when we ventured onto such terrain, that we would have the freedom to extend our local village globally.  The rules would remain the same – the right to irreverent, racist, sexist and beyond-the-pale remarks would continue to be a par for the course.

What we didn’t realise at all was that our ephemeral occurrences were actually part of Twitter and Facebook’s business models.  There was absolutely no intention for the ephemeral to be treated as such.

We were indeed, long-term, the product not the customer.

These were not – as we had been led to believe – tools the common man and woman would use to exchange peer-to-peer information in the comfort of their privacy settings but, instead, tools the advertisers would use to communicate their latest sales pitches: tools which allowed such advertisers to get to know us so precisely that even our deepest prejudices would be laid bare for them to press the appropriate buttons.

So no wonder we’re getting it all so very wrong – and feeling unhappy as a result.  Twitter and Facebook are actually as resilient and permanent as an interrogation and signed interview sheet at your local police station.

Did you realise that when you got onboard the ship of social networks?  I’m pretty sure most of us really did not.

Mar 292012

Recently, a young man was sent to prison for racist remarks about a footballer who collapsed on the field of play.  The famous, or perhaps infamous, Twitter Joke Trial before it provided plenty of grist to the legal and constitutional mills.

These days, any of you who occupy the field of play that is Twitter or Facebook will surely be aware there are specific risks in posting “controversial” comments – not only about certain subjects in particular but also, especially lately it would seem, almost any subject in general the lawyers can get their clever hands on.  Whilst the mainstream press and media have legions of lawyers to doublecheck their every move, we who tweet, update our Facebook statuses or blog on this and that are less able to fully understand the implications of everything we say.

In part, this is because the mode of discourse of such social networks is throwaway conversation.  And yet whilst throwaway conversation would appear to have been how it all started out, it’s clear from recent events that this was never contemplated in the business models of these corporate behemoths of communication.  From Twitter’s US Library of Congress archiving agreement and exclusively monetised fire-hose access to Facebook’s impositional timeline, all these marvellous Web 2.0 tools have clearly been developed in order to provide very permanent content – quite the opposite of how they originally sold it to us.  All this time storing away every single foolishness, whilst, all the time, giving us the impression we had been involved in virtual chats with our private neighbours over shared garden fences.

So what is the result of all of these diversionary tactics?  Well, the best of all possible worlds for the enablers of such tools and the worst of all possible worlds for ourselves.  Whilst court case after court case limits the liability of the framers, we as individual users – as real people – become totally, entirely, legally and seriously responsible for everything we were tossing lightly into the ether.  The long-term implications are, then, quite terrifying: we are now pointedly and precisely liable for our Facebook groups, our conceptual explorations, our brainstorming of ideas, our insults and our irony, our parody and our barefaced cheek – indeed, anything and everything that in an offline space of municipal integrity occupied the much safer area of analogue privacy.

The growing objective to contain social networks and media within very public and corporate law is nothing but one massive anti-democratic trap we’ve all fallen into.   And I really do not see any way out of it – except, perhaps, to decidedly go back, Luddite-like, to the analogue unconnected world of yore.

Unless, of course, those who promote open source ways of doing and seeing can conceive of a different way of allowing society to talk to itself that does not include the notion of private spaces for public use.

It is that freedom of municipal space we need to recover for ourselves and for the benefit of our democracy.  Only then can we shrug off the fear that our every move is being tracked and checked in order to see how an error of judgement might be monetised by the already powerful.  For that, precisely that, is what I suspect is going to be happening very shortly to a significant minority of us.

And this fear, this very real fear, is something we need to rapidly disabuse ourselves of – especially if, over the next few years, our democracy is to stand a fighting chance of sticking around in anything like the healthy shape we may, in hindsight, realise it once reasonably had.

Jan 292012

John Naughton quotes from his own Observer column today over at Memex 1.1:

The truth is that companies such as Facebook are basically the corporate world’s equivalent of sociopaths, that is to say individuals who are completely lacking in conscience and respect for others. In her book The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout of Harvard medical school tries to convey what goes on in the mind of such an individual. “Imagine,” she writes, “not having a conscience, none at all, no feelings of guilt or remorse no matter what you do, no limiting sense of concern of the wellbeing of strangers, friends, or even family members. Imagine no struggles with shame, not a single one in your whole life, no matter what kind of selfish, lazy, harmful, or immoral action you had taken. And pretend that the concept of responsibility is unknown to you, except as a burden others seem to accept without question, like gullible fools.”

Welcome to the Facebook mindset.

And in the light of some of the thoughts I’ve been having recently, I wonder if this profile couldn’t be applied to our whole economy.  As the Martha Stout quote shows us, the very fact that a company not only as large as Facebook but also as intricately folded into many of our daily lives is so psychologically disconnected from the feelings of others really doesn’t bode well for the future.

And not because I believe companies should show a moral side.  After all, Milton Friedman disabused us a long time ago of this notion (the bold is mine):

[...] That is why, in my book Capitalism and Freedom, I have called it a “fundamentally subversive doctrine” in a free society, and have said that in such a society, “there is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use it resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”

Which, in the light of recent crises as well as their apparent causes, would be a rather big “if” to presuppose, don’t you think?

No.  In reality, what worries me far more than the simple and long-held thesis of corporate psychopathy is the fact that social media and web companies which behave in the way that both Friedman and now Naughton describe can interfere with and influence the behaviours of the people who use their products and services.

It does, after all, seem inconceivable that we can escape being fashioned by the tools we use so intimately.

What worries me, then, aren’t the sociopaths who are populating our business world.  What worries me, then, is that very shortly a wider society will begin to join them.

Apr 122011

It all started off with these two posts.  The trilogy was then completed – between author and commenters both – here.  I am directed via this comment to what I would hope (though probably should not expect) was going to be the epilogue to what has become a curiously one-sided saga.

Above and beyond the issues of data protection inherent in what appears to be a lackadaisical exercise in information gathering – ie the census – there is another matter which I have touched on recently and which I think is worth revisiting.  We have to date been inclined to understand the virtual world in terms of what we do in the real.  As we understand the nexus between blogger and commenter in terms of that globally-ranging conversation that might take place between two relative strangers in a local pub, the right to remain anonymous is therefore a hallowed one.  And yet, more and more, it is now the real world which is beginning to become invaded by the virtual – along with its ever-present mores and software-based constitutions which serve to define our behaviours and rights without so much as a legislator’s finger in the pie.  So it is that the need to wear an identity of sorts, whether this be self-imposed or system-generated, has ended up causing all kinds of problems.

I must say – and possibly repeat, because I am sure I have said it on these pages before – that I am happy to live with the legal requirement to carry a cheap identity card (say €10, which is what they cost me when I was living in Spain) as long as I have the same and corresponding citizen’s right to examine and verify the identity of that person who asks to doublecheck mine.  And therein lies the rub.  Governments and secret services across the world want quite desperately, in the name especially of counter-terrorism, to know who we are and track what we do.  But in a democratic society we cannot countenance such a requirement without also insisting that it must be applied to anyone (whatever their position in the hierarchy of power) who inhabits a nation state.

My recent experience, therefore, as a blog author faced with uncertain identity, and as inscribed in the posts I allude to at the top of today’s piece, has reaffirmed me in my (possibly still mildly shaky) belief that we need in general to remove the plague of anonymity from the Internet – but not, I hasten to add, in order to pursue miscreants; rather, in order to create a more grown-up and freer society where people can feel they may exist as they wish without fear of persecution.

The desire for anonymity is a symptom, not a cause, of our ills.  He or she who works for a local council or a bank and would like to participate in the economic, social and democratic debate of the nation but feels they cannot do so because all sorts of awful things might happen to them in their workplace … this is simply a sign of a society which reserves certain rights for the dispossessed, for those without knowledge, for those who do not know and therefore cannot harm the status quo, and – simultaneously – removes those rights for the intellectually endowed, for this with the knowledge which could change the way we do and see things, for those at the eye of the storm who could actually help to overturn our most unhappy traditions.  In our society, you see, the poor and downtrodden can march to their heart’s content – can run the risk of being kettled – without ever losing their right to their poverty.  It’s the squeezed middle, as always, which must kowtow to the foremen and women that rule their every working minute – in order, precisely, to avoid losing their relative wealth.

The truth of the matter is that the closer you get to being able to influence the debate in modern Western democratic society, the greater the number of technical impediments you find are imposed by employers and other institutions on ordinary citizens’ freedoms to act in social and cultural contexts.

So perhaps we could say that the degree to which we wish to remain anonymous just indicates how much freedom we still believe we truly lack.

And in the meantime, I will bemoan the fact that so many of us fear taking public ownership for our many valid truths.

Which is, by the by, one of the reasons why I think social media sites such as Facebook, as well as traditional blogging in general, are all excellent trends towards a more open and hierarchically just society of power that in a more perfect world we should all hope to create together and share.

Mar 232011

On the back of this perceptive article I linked to last night, I woke up – as is my wont – with another train of thought: is Facebook actually pointing us in the direction of a better Internet for all?

Much has already been made of Facebook’s desire to carve out an ever-increasingly profitable share of the open Internet we’ve all grown to love and convert it into a relatively walled corporate garden for the benefit of its shareholders and to the detriment of brightly libertarian (read “something for nothing”) users.

And I wonder if this painful trend of virtual life isn’t blinding us to some of the virtues which Facebook actually enshrines.  We’ve been so worried that our dear online Wild West will be vanquished and made to disappear that we are unable to see the positive parallels with historical development in other earlier – and offline – frontier worlds.  I am thus reminded of Fenimore Cooper’s “The Pioneers”, where a nation was carved out of virgin forests.  The Internet has sometimes felt like that too.  But perhaps the issue here isn’t really what we are doing to it but, rather, who has their grubby mitts on the levers of power.

As Chris Dillow said on Stumbling and Mumbling recently:

The question should be about forms of ownership, not state vs markets. Again, the left gets this wrong.

So let’s see how we’d feel about Facebook if we moved the frame just a little.  Imagine, for example, that it was a cooperative anyone could join on pain of handing over say the equivalent of one US dollar – as well as that wretched date of birth.  From the very start, we’d probably have the biggest mutual on the globe with a capitalisation of more than half a billion dollars.

Then let’s say privacy and user interface issues were in the hands of online projects (or, to use Facebook terminology, groups).  Again, anyone could join and begin to become active in any of these projects.  Decision-making processes would be based on and resolved by “one person, one vote” voting systems, which all mutualists would have a right to choose to participate in – or not, as the case would be.

So what would this burst of open source dynamics achieve?  Essentially, the harnessing of Facebook’s power to power Facebook.  An opportunity to make of this curiously lopsided beast of communication a conceptually coherent web community.

Which is how we come to the nub of my argument and the question I would really like to get an answer to: would we then be so unhappy about some of Facebook’s innovations if we knew it literally was ours to make and unmake? 


I don’t think so.

Examples then. 

Adding to that Wild West of the Internet I mention above relatively open and honest systems of user identification is not, in my opinion, something so very uncool.  Whilst Microsoft tried in a half-baked way to introduce its Passport feature some years ago, here the problem was the nature of the progenitor (an all-consuming corporate machine rapaciously destroying all that virgin forest it came across) and not the idea.  And I often wonder if Facebook and Twitter’s true future utilities will be found more in their easy login procedures which allow one to identify oneself relatively securely on other websites out there than in their currently far more visible social media profiles and landscapes.

Other things make me wonder if Facebook’s problem for so many of us is more who owns it than exactly how it is setting out to mould our online worlds.  This story talks about the walled gardens that Twitter in particular – but perhaps social media in general – seem to be generating (though in this I would also argue they are simply mirroring what happens in the offline world):

Anyone who thought that social media was going to usher in a utopian era of communication without borders is going to have their faith badly shaken by a new study from Cornell University.

On Twitter, it seems, there are already at least two walled-off nations: happy people and unhappy people.

And never the twain shall tweet.

And yet I wonder if Facebook, or at least my experience of it, isn’t actively designed to break down such divisions, and – through filtered advertising, potential friend prompts and curiously unpredictable news feed algorithms which gently direct us away from what we already know – encourage those kinds of behaviours which lead us to pursue new experiences, instead of simply allowing us to acquire a reinforcement of our existing prejudices.

So to conclude, then: if, in the way I describe, Facebook really belonged to us, don’t you think we could make of it all a template and blueprint for an even better Internet than the one we have so jealously guarded to date?  Instead of a threat to the world as we know and love it, couldn’t the Facebook we currently have to hand serve as a veritably opportunity to preserve the good I talk about, at the same time as allowing us to add what’s undeniably missing?

I think it could.  I really do.  And so I now wonder exactly how we could achieve a mutualised social media for the benefit of billions of users.

Any ideas?