2019-03-08

The Political Nature of Social Media

Facebook, and other social media companies, have been getting a lot of criticism. The way I see it, there’s two related but separate problems:

  1. The anti-social incentives of the corporate data-collecting advertising-driven monopoly social infrastructure provider leads to shear between interests of platform and interests of users. This manifests in suspicion, mental health issues, antisocial outcomes.

  2. The monopoly nature of the platform, plus ability to exercise fine grained editorial control, creates a tool of immense political power for whoever gets to decide how that tool is used. This leads to fighting over the political control of the network, and structural issues in society.

These are both structurally ingrained in the monopoly corporate nature of the platform, but not in the fundamental nature of social media considered broadly as electronic facilition of social interaction.

Let’s analyze these issues to shed some light on how to think about Facebook and the future of social media.

Social Media Facilitates Social Interaction

Social media is tools to facilitate social interaction. People want to communicate with each other, share ideas, share links, organize, etc. We use various tools to facilitate this. Internet/computer based tools we call social media.

These tools can be either monopoly platform companies, like facebook and twitter, or protocol-client based networks, like the internet itself, email, and the web.

Monopolies are convenient for rapid innovation and making money through ads and such. They also grant immense political and social control over the structure and acceptable content of communication.

Monopoly Social Media Platforms Have Near-Totalizing Social Power

Decentralized social media protocols are mostly fire-and forget, so don’t get very fine-tuned and certainly not editorialized, but monopoly social media companies end up with very fine grained and active control over nearly every aspect of their platform. They have control over:

This is a level of social power otherwise reserved for governments and religions. This power grows in proportion to the network effect of their monopoly, as people need to use them more and more.

User-Producer Incentive Misalignment in Social Media

The first issue to discuss that falls out of this fine-grained monopoly control is incentives.

The motives of the corporation requires that it finely tune the platform to get users to be more socially and psychologically dependent on it, to expand its monopoly position, sell more ads, and form the discourse according to its desired political and social goals.

The user, on the other hand, wants tools that more thoroughly empower them to connect to their friends, meet and communicate with new people, block unwanted communications, organize things, see interesting content from friends and others, etc.

These interests mostly coincide to the extent that the user has a choice in using the platform, and is rationally making that choice. In that case, the company trying to get people to use the platform has to provide the tools the user wants. It gets ad revenue and political power in return.

But users aren’t necessarily rational, especially about the micro-decisions they make in interacting with social media. And social media is increasingly not a choice, especially for young people who are less rationally self-capable.

The misalignment, combined with very high level of optimization of the product, subrationality of users, and monopoly nature, means the social media corporation substantially exploits the user, possibly to their detriment.

Even if social media monopolies are a good on net, some dimensions could be quite bad. They could for example make people psychologically dependent at the cost of mental health.

The power asymmetry and incentive disalignment means the user gets exploited.

The Corporation as a Political Organization

Historically, outside of Marxist circles, the corporation has been regarded as a purely economic organization, providing apolitical goods to apolitical customers for apolitical profit motive.

But social media companies challenge this assumption. The goods they provide carry a strong political and social payload; all the little details from emoji choice to “fake news” filters to privacy choices bake in political and cultural decisions. Further, the “customer” is political as well; one of people’s favorite things to do with social media is organize political action, spread political propaganda, have political arguments, and mob political enemies.

So suddenly, the political orientation of the corporation becomes highly relevant, and we have to take a closer look.

A corporation, considered politically, is not constructed or operated for explicit political purpose, but is still a hierarchical organization of (now political) decision-makers with some political orientation. They are well funded, powerful, and competent. In the case of big social media companies, they hire a significant fraction of their workforce to essentially make political decisions full time.

They thus become a powerful political force not just in potential, but in actualization.

Because social media companies are more political in their impact, political uniformity and party discipline among their staff becomes more important. Thus the political actors in the companies will turn more concerted attention towards politically disciplining their corporate culture. Struggle ensues, and one faction becomes dominant. We see this playing out in the corporate culture of social media companies, which are highly politicized.

Powerful Political Organizations and the State

Any powerful political organization tends to become part of the state, in that it becomes part of the political control apparatus of the elite. This is because politically competent elites will destroy, politically coopt, or negotiate an agreement with organizations on their way to power.

So social media companies are not just independent politically powerful organizations, they become de-facto arms of the state.

But problems arise when the chain of command in the state becomes unclear or misformalized, and if the political control mechanisms of the elite are used in an uncoordinated, undisciplined way, or contrary to the good aims of the state.

Because undisciplined power is so dangerous, we like the state to serve clear aims which are actually good, to be disciplined and efficient in its use of power in pursuit of these aims and not others, and to be well coordinated with itself. Fortunately for us, these things are also generally good for the ruling class that actually gets to make that decision.

But while power naturally tends to become basically coordinated in the state, it does not naturally become disciplined. The imposition of political discipline is done by specific events of state reform. A powerful founder or reformist faction, with the ability to create lasting social order, reformalizes the state and elite self conception to better discipline the actual dimensions of power.

Entry of new classes of power mechanisms like social media challenge the old paradigms of the state, because they cannot be incorporated easily into the old formalization. It takes time and creativity to create the social order that properly responds to novel power dimensions.

There is another option, which is that the elites of the old paradigm can dissolve the new dimension of power so that it no longer exists. This is often a better option than incorporation, even if incorporation is easier, because the new power dimension may be either hard to reconcile with the existing paradigm or hard to discipline and make order-producing.

In the case of social media, the kind of power being produced is fundamentally a sort of totalitarian social control and total surviellance machine. To the extent that something like facebook becomes an established part of the social order, the social order must become a sort of bureaucratic totalitarianism. Armies of bureaucrats act through algorithms to monitor and control the population.

It’s fairly clear to me that this kind of power is very difficult to reconcile with either anything like the current paradigm of state, or with orderly transparent discipline. Thus it seems that in the long term, facebook type social networks will either be destroyed, or herald a fundamental transition towards a bureaucratic totalitarianism more generally.

Non-Totalitarian Social Media Paradigms

If central monopoly social networks are to be replaced by something that has neither the incentive disalignment nor the political order problems, then we would need fundamentally differently organized social networks.

The basic idea of non-totalitarian social networking is that the platform itself is not owned by any third party. There is no third party in the conversation between you and your friends that can decide to ban or censor you, change your emojis, leak your conversation to political enemies, or otherwise interfere. You can have conversations where all essential parties are actually trusted.

This requires that participants are communicating peer-to-peer over essentially neutral network infrastructure, using software that serves their interests, on a computer that they own.

This is obviously very difficult to get started. There are a lot of engineering problems to solve in peer-to-peer communication, computers simple enough that you can actually own them in any meaningful sense, software easy enough to write without central servers that it’s possible to build. On top of that, there’s bootstrapping the network effect of the platform.

Fortunately, someone has already done the work. Urbit exists and provides social network infrastructure which can support social tools that serve the user, without creating new dimensions of totalitarian power. Urbit gives us a very concrete model of what non-totalitarian social networking could look like.

The major implication of non-totalitarian social networking is that the state does not need to solve a novel problem of how to incorporate totalitarian social network monopolies into political order and the paradigm of state, and how to discipline that new dimension of power to create order in society. Decentralized non-totalitarian social networking is just like normal social networking, as in people talking to each other and writing to each other, but with better tools. It’s not different in kind the way facebook is.

Another implication is the existential competition with not just powerful social media monopolies, but with the entire power faction that comes to rely on the political control granted by totalitarian social networking. This could get messy.

Coming out the other side, non-totalitarian social networking probably creates a much stronger society and even ultimately a stronger state, at least stronger in the good ways.