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

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

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

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

Whether or not we are in the midst of internet bubble 2.0, we can all agree that social media dominate internet and mobile use. The emergence of web-based user to user services, driven by an explosion of informal dialogues, continuous uploads and user generated content have greatly empowered the rise of participatory culture. At the same time, monopoly power, commercialization and commodification are also on the rise with just a handful of social media platforms dominating the social web. These two contradictory processes – both the facilitation of free exchanges and the commercial exploitation of social relationships – seem to lie at the heart of contemporary capitalism.

On the one hand new media create and expand the social spaces through which we interact, play and even politicize ourselves; on the other hand they are literally owned by three or four companies that have phenomenal power to shape such interaction. Whereas the hegemonic Internet ideology promises open, decentralized systems, why do we, time and again, find ourselves locked into closed corporate environments? Why are individual users so easily charmed by these ‘walled gardens’? Do we understand the long-term costs that society will pay for the ease of use and simple interfaces of their beloved ‘free’ services?

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

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

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

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

To a large degree social media research is still dominated by quantitative and social scientific endeavors. So far the focus has been on moral panics, privacy and security, identity theft, self-representation from Goffman to Foucault and graph-based network theory that focuses on influencers and (news) hubs. What is curiously missing from the discourse is a rigorous discussion of the political economy of these social media monopolies. There is also a substantial research gap in understanding the power relations between the social and the technical in what are essentially software systems and platforms. With this initiative, we want to shift focus away from the obsession with youth and usage to the economic, political, artistic and technical aspects of these online platforms. What we first need to acknowledge is social media’s double nature.

Dismissing social media as neutral platforms with no power is as implausible as considering social media the bad boys of capitalism. The beauty and depth of social media is that they call for a new understanding of classic dichotomies such as commercial/political, private/public, users/producers, artistic/standardised, original/copy, democratising/ disempowering. Instead of taking these dichotomies as a point of departure, we want to scrutinise the social networking logic. Even if Twitter and Facebook implode overnight, the social networking logic of befriending, liking and ranking will further spread across all aspects of life.

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

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

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

1. Political Economy: Social Media Monopolies
Social media culture is belied in American corporate capitalism, dominated by the logic of start-ups and venture capital, management buyouts, IPOs etc. Three to four companies literally own the Western social media landscape and capitalize on the content produced by millions of people around the world. One thing is evident about the market structure of social media: one-to-many is not giving way to many-to-many without first going through many-to-one. What power do these companies actually have? Is there any evidence that such ownership influences user-generated content? How does this ownership express itself structurally and in technical terms?

What conflicts arise when a platform like Facebook is appropriated for public or political purposes, while access to the medium can easily be denied by the company? Facebook is worth billions, does that really mean something for the average user? How does data-mining work and what is its economy? What is the role of discourse (PR) in creating and sustaining an image of credibility and trustworthiness, and in which forms does it manifest to oppose that image? The bigger social media platforms form central nodes, such as image upload services and short ulr services. This ecology was once fairly open, with a variety of new Twitter-related services coming into being, but now Twitter takes up these services itself, favoring their own product through default settings; on top of that it is increasingly shutting down access to developers, which shrinks the ecology and makes it less diverse.

2. The Private in the Public
The advent of social media has eroded privacy as we know it, giving rise to a culture of self-surveillance made up of myriad voluntary, everyday disclosures. New understandings of private and public are needed to address this phenomenon. What does owning all this user data actually mean? Why are people willing to give up their personal data, and that of others? How should software platforms be regulated?

Is software like a movie to be given parental guidance? What does it mean that there are different levels of access to data, from partner info brokers and third-party developers to the users? Why is education in social media not in the curriculum of secondary schools? Can social media companies truly adopt a Social Network Users’ Bill of Rights?

3. Visiting the Belly of the Beast
The exuberance and joy that defined the dotcom era is cliché by now. IT use is occurring across the board, and new labour conditions can be found everywhere. But this should not keep our eyes away from the power relations inside internet companies. What are the geopolitical lines of distribution that define the organization and outsourcing taking place in global IT companies these days? How is the industry structured and how does its economy work?

Is there a broader connection to be made with the politics of land expropriation and peasant labour in countries like India, for instance, and how does this analytically converge with the experiences of social media users? How do monopolies deal with their employees’ use of the platforms? What can we learn from other market sectors and perspectives that (critically) reflect on, for example, techniques of sustainability or fair trade?

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

5. Designing culture: representation and software
Social media offer us the virtual worlds we use every day. From Facebook’s ‘like’ button to blogs’ user interface, these tools empower and delimit our interactions. How do we theorize the plethora of social media features? Are they to be understood as mere technical functions, cultural texts, signifiers, affordances, or all these at once? In what ways do design and functionalities influence the content and expressions produced? And how can we map and critique this influence? What are the cultural assumptions embedded in the design of social media sites and what type of users or communities do they produce?

To answer the question of structure and design, one route is to trace the genealogy of functionalities, to historicize them and look for discursive silences. How can we make sense of the constant changes occurring both on and beyond the interface? How can we theorize the production and configuration of an ever-increasing algorithmic and protocological culture more generally?

6. Software Matters: Sociotechnical and Algorithmic Cultures
One of the important components of social media is software. For all the discourse on sociopolitical power relations governed by corporations such as Facebook and related platforms, one must not forget that social media platforms are thoroughly defined and powered by software. We need critical engagement with Facebook as software. That is, what is the role of software in reconfiguring contemporary social spaces? In what ways does code make a difference in how identities are formed and social relationships performed? How does the software function to interpellate users to its logic? What are the discourses surrounding software?

One of the core features of Facebook for instance is its news feed, which is algorithmically driven and sorted in its default mode. The EdgeRank algorithm of the news feed governs the logic by which content becomes visible, acting as a modern gatekeeper and editorial voice. Given its 700 million users, it has become imperative to understand the power of EdgeRank and its cultural implications. Another important analytical site for investigation are the ‘application programming interfaces’ (APIs) that to a large extent made the phenomenal growth of social media platforms possible in the first place. How have APIs contributed to the business logic of social media? How can we theorize social media use from the perspective of the programmer?

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

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

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

10. Making Sense of Data: Visualization and Critique
Data representation is one of the most important battlefields nowadays. Indeed, global corporations build their visions of the world increasingly based on and structured around complex data flows. What is the role of data today and what are the appropriate ways in which to make sense of the burgeoning datasets? As data visualization is becoming a powerful buzzword and social research increasingly uses digital tools to make ‘beautiful’ graphs and visualizations, there is a need to take a step back and question the usefulness of current data visualization tools and to develop novel analytical frameworks through which to critically grasp these often simplified and nontransparent ways of representing data.

Not only is it important to develop new interpretative and visual methods to engage with data flows, data itself needs to be questioned. We need to ask about data’s ontological and epistemological nature. What is it, who is the producer, for whom, where is it stored? In what ways do social media companies’ terms of service regulate data? Whether alternative social media or monopolistic platforms, how are our data-bodies exactly affected by changes in the software?

11. Pitfalls of Building Social Media Alternatives
It is not only important to critique and question existing design and socio-political realities but also to engage with possible futures. The central aim of this project is therefore to contribute and support ‘alternatives in social media’. What would the collective design of alternative protocols and interfaces look like? We should find some comfort in the small explosion of alternative options currently available, but also ask how usable these options are and how real is the danger of fragmentation. How have developers from different initiatives so far collaborated and what might we learn from their successes and failures? Understanding any early failures and successes of these attempts seems crucial.

A related issue concerns funding difficulties faced by projects. Finally, in what ways does regionalism (United States, Europe, Asia) feed into the way people search for alternatives and use social media.

12. Showcasing Alternatives in Social Media
The best way to criticize platform monopolies is to support alternative free and open source software that can be locally installed. There are currently a multitude of decentralized social networks in the making that aspire to facilitate users with greater power to define for themselves with whom share their data. Let us look into the wildly different initiatives from Crabgrass, Appleseed, Diaspora, NoseRub, BuddyCloud, Protonet, StatusNet, GNU Social, Lorea and OneSocialWeb to the distributed Twitter alternative Thimbl.

In which settings are these initiative developed and what choices are made for their design? Let’s hear from the Spanish activists who have recently made experiences with the n-1.cc platform developed by Lorea. What community does this platform enable? While traditional software focuses on the individual profile and its relation to the network and a public (share with friends, share with friends of friends, share with public), the Lorea software for instance asks you with whom to share an update, picture or video. It finegrains the idea of privacy and sharing settings at the content level, not the user’s profile. At the same time, it requires constant decision making, or else a high level of trust in the community you share your data with. And how do we experience the transition from, or interoperability with, other platforms? Is it useful to make a distinction between corporate competitors and grassroots initiatives? How can these beta alternatives best be supported, both economically and socially? Aren’t we overstating the importance of software and isn’t the availability of capital much bigger in determining the adoption of a platform?

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

14. Social Media in the Middle East and Beyond
The justified response to downplay the role of Facebook in early 2011 events in Tunisia and Egypt by putting social media in a larger perspective has not taken off the table the question of how to organize social mobilizations. Which specific software do the ‘movements of squares’ need? What happens to social movements when the internet and ICT networks are shut down? How does the interruption of internet services shift the nature of activism? How have repressive and democratic governments responded to the use of ‘liberation technologies’? How do these technologies change the relationship between the state and its citizens? How are governments using the same social media tools for surveillance and propaganda or highjacking Facebook identities, such as happened in Syria? What is Facebook’s own policy when deleting or censoring accounts of its users?

How can technical infrastructures be supported which are not shutdown upon request? How much does our agency depend on communication technology nowadays? And whom do we exclude with every click? How can we envision ‘organized networks’ that are based on ’strong ties’ yet open enough to grow quickly if the time is right? Which software platforms are best suited for the ‘tactical camping’ movements that occupy squares all over the world?

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