The Question Concerning Social Technology

I am an evangelist of social media and an active participant: on Linked In (business), MySpace (music) and Facebook (increasingly my online identity), I blog on several sites and I am a daily user of Twitter. I also make my living speaking to companies about the value and operating principles of these more open, participatory technologies.

I have read the proponents that abound (Why I Love Twitter, Groundswell, Here Comes Everybody etc.) and found much to agree with. I have read the detractors (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?” …, Facebook Addiction is Real etc.…) and found little to agree with.

So over the course of the next few days I will post a series of questions on the value and function of social media (a.k.a. social technologies). I will not be arguing that social technologies are a bane or should be stopped. I don’t believe the former is true and I believe the latter is impossible… I will not be arguing against technology. Rather, I will raise questions about the potential abuse of social technologies and the steps we might take to remedy them. The more discussion this prompts within the Radar community the better. I will also be leading a webcast on May 27 at 10AM Pacific to discuss these topics in detail.

This is the first of these posts:

The Evangelist Fallacy, Social Media and The New Age of Enlightenment

The Age of Enlightenment swept through Europe in the eighteenth century, upending the notion of a divine right (religious and monarchic) to rule over the population. Its tenets centered upon the idea that humans were capable of reason and could seek governance that accorded individuals liberty and some semblance of equality. Western society still embraces principles and speaks the language of “freedom,” “democracy,” and civil rights born during The Enlightenment.

There is another side of the historical record. While the public dialogue of The Enlightenment was centered on freedom, equality and human progress, institutions of the age were rapidly developing sophisticated means of control over individual movement and action; from highly structured factory work and military regimentation (the true birthplace of modern management theory), to isolating deviant segments of society (the birth of prisons, debtor’s prisons and asylums) and an emphasis on police surveillance and the “dossier” to track behavior. In fact many of the same political and social theorists of Enlightenment (Montesquieu, Bentham etc.) were the architects of detailed studies on how to subject individuals to institutional control. These tactical manuevers were often cloaked in the more lofty rhetoric of The Englightement.

This is not an isolated reading of history. Knowledge is almost always being produced in service of power – not as a liberating force from it and there is always a gap between what a society proclaims about it’s goals and aims – and the functional outcomes of its institutional policies and procedures (the “War on Drugs” being a quintessential modern example).

The idea of social technologies as a liberating force echoes the Enlightenment language and, just as with the original, there are good reasons to view this discourse with some skepticism. This knowledge about the value and meaning of social technologies comes from industry champions (Cisco’s Human Network), industry analysts and corporate consultants. This discourse is good for business – I know because I speak regularly on the topic in boardrooms and at conferences. Proponents have a personal stake in seeing the positive side of the equation (and there is a positive side) and encourage participation as a means of personal empowerment (“the customer is now in charge” “the end of command and control hierarchy” etc.).

Social media is cloaked in this language of liberation while the corporate sponsors (Facebook, Google et al ) are progressing towards ever more refined and effective means of manipulating individual behavior (behavioral targeting of ads, recommendation systems, reputation management systems etc.). As with the enlightenment the tactics of control are shielded by a rhetoric of emancipation. Let’s not forget that the output of all of this social participation is massive dossiers on individual behavior (your social network profiles, photos, location, status updates, searches etc.) and social activity.

How do these corporations intend to use these vast records of our behavior? The next post, Captivity of the Commons will explore the risks associated with personal data being collected at the behest of corporations whose main motivation is not in service of “customer empowerment” but on the traditional goals of manipulating behavior to grow their share of wallet.

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  • PB

    Excellent post. Outstanding historical perspective on a deep problem with the emerging social/knowledge web. I look forward to further installments.

  • TJ Downes

    As with any technology, it can be good and bad.

    However, as someone who has intimate knowledge of the amount of use of these social networking tools by workers during work hours for non-work related communication, I can tell you that these tools are doing damage to businesses, due to loss of productivity. It’s not just a few businesses this affects, I’ve seen it affect every business that I’ve monitored.

    Proponents will deny, but the numbers are there. Why isn’t anyone addressing this aspect of social networking? Is it because the business managers are just as involved?

  • TJ –
    I think the productivity issue is a concern for specific businesses – but not a massive concern for productivity in any major economic sector. It is being addressed by blocking SNS from the firewall. More often than not these same businesses do expect some amount of employee engagement outside of work hours – meaning they expect them to check email or take calls after hours etc.
    In an era of porous boundaries between work and home – businesses can’t just get one end of the trade. If you block my social life at work – then don’t expect me to check email after my 9 to 5.

  • Joshua-Michéle,

    I appreciate the roughly Foucault-ian framing.

    Here is an excerpt from something else I’m working on that is also apropos here. I hope it doesn’t get too mangled in the quick and dirty HTML-ization of it. (You folks ever considered a preview button?)


    * Background

    The concept of software freedom relies on an assumption that
    users will normally have control over the computers they use.
    A user with control over his computer decides what programs to
    run on that computer and when.

    Software freedom is the principle that users should always
    have complete control of the programs they run. Control over
    the computer itself isn’t enough: the user must also have
    control over the programs. Without control over the programs,
    control over the computer is nearly meaningless. The only
    choice that wouldn’t give up control of the computer would be
    to run nothing.

    The four software freedoms – to run, study, share, and improve
    software – are conditions that describe what “control over a
    program” means. They help to define the concept of software

    Copyleft is a legal mechanism that helps to defend software
    freedom. It makes it more difficult for someone to receive a
    copy of a program offered in freedom but then pass that
    program along in ways that harm the software freedom of
    others. It does so by refusing to give copyright permission
    for that kind of theft of freedom.

    * A New Challenge to Software Freedom

    The cause of software freedom faces a new challenge in the era
    of the World Wide Web and of the rising popularity of
    centralized web services.

    A centralized web service is one in which many users access
    and run programs on a shared central server but control over
    the server computer or computers is limited: most users do not
    enjoy that control.

    With a centralized service users run programs on the server
    but don’t control the server. Consequently users do not have
    software freedom over their running of those programs.

    In and of itself, a user’s lack of software freedom over a
    server is not automatically a problem. Sometimes it is very
    sensible and seemingly necessary. For example, if I send a
    web request to my bank to check today’s balance, obviously I
    mean this request to cause some program or subroutine to run
    on the bank’s own computers. I don’t expect control over the
    bank’s computers in return. Software freedom is absent in
    this case but for overriding reasons that are not

    The problem arises when users give up their software freedom
    on servers without any real need. Here are some examples:

    – hosted email – many users have no control over their email
    servers, for no good reason beyond momentary convenience

    – document sharing – many users use document sharing
    services with web based word processors, spreadsheet
    programs and so on, yet have no control over these

    – social networking – blogging, network home pages,
    friend declarations, instant messages, and so forth
    all take place on centralized web services

    Technologically and economically there is no good reason for
    those programs to be implemented as centralized web services.
    There is no need for users to give up software freedom in all
    of those cases.

    The problem of users giving up freedom over servers becomes a
    tragedy when those who do control the servers exercise that
    power to take advantage of the users. For example, the
    operator of a server might spy on users and inappropriately
    share a user’s private data with a third party. For another
    example, the operator of a server may refuse to let a user
    enjoy certain features of the server software unless the user
    pays a ransom to the server operator.

    * Copyleft Alone is No Help; Technology Matters

    Copyleft is not, in and of itself, a solution to the problem
    of inappropriately centralized services. It is not enough
    even if users are able to obtain a copy of the programs a
    server runs, if users generally can’t count on controlling
    the servers.

    The technical design of web service software also
    matters. A copyleft, free software program that needlessly
    implements a centralized service is a setback to freedom.

    For example, consider a hypothetical free software program
    that implements a server for a kind of instant messaging.
    Users can broadcast short messages on this service. Users
    can search through messages that others have broadcast.
    Users can “subscribe” to other users and receive all of
    the broadcasts of those others.

    If a service like that is written as a program that assumes
    all users use the same servers, then the program creates a
    centralized web service – needlessly, in this case. It
    doesn’t help that the program is free software (unless someone
    takes a copy and modifies it to no longer be a centralized

    From that and many similar examples an inference can be made:

    Copyleft is not enough. Free software web services must
    technologically resist needless centralization of services.

  • I really appreciate social networking – in some sort it became an very important part of my work as a traditional shaman, and I agree, that the consumer gets more and more visible in all his aspekts, he fills out many social profiles linked with the websites he likes, he provides very personal informations in dating-sites and so on. If somebody wants to get to know you better he only have to type in your name in google and he gets very detailed informations about you. When you sell something through a market-place like ebay or amazon and etsy and one of your customers is not satisfied you´ll get bad reputations that can destroy your whole business…
    So you have to face the same problems like in a very close and conservative society (small towns/villages like here in south-america) – everybody knows nearly everything about you and watches all your steps and if someone is comlaining about you you have to explain yourself in front of a tribunal of elders… So I would say that the social networking has actually not so much to do with the social theories of Enlightenment, in opposite…

  • bruce

    My take on the topic and posts are that indeed we are within a new age of “enlightment” however I disagree that Social Networking in and of itself is at the core of this movement. To me, the age of the Internet parallels The Enlightment and Social Networking is just one of the new avenues or institutions that has emerged. The blogsphere; online marketplaces; the geosphere; univeral searchs; etc are all new public institutions each with it’s own goals, characteristics, nuances, etc. I believe the premise that Social Networking in and of itself is the new Enlightment is a bit overstated.

    Regarding the “dark side” of this new age. There always will be naysayers and opinionators on what could go wrong with any new or emerging enlightment, technology or discovery. Human Genome research comes to mind as the next great scientific achievement but there are already those who are protesting this as the age of the ultimate human species manipulation. Are we really ready to shut down the internet because of some small loss of human productivity surfing the net?

    That being all being said, the preface for your disussions is excellent and I am looking forward to further dialogues.

  • Open access to APIs that include standards-based storage is one way web services remain somewhat open.

    Another thing to look at is legislating ownership of personal information by vesting it in the individual who then licenses it for a limited period to a service provider.

    Admittedly a vain hope given the close cooperation between data brokers, lending institutions, the government, and of course criminals.

  • AReader

    Thanks for addressing these issues, I really look forward to reading the rest of it, and the comments also.

  • Tom –
    Foucault indeed. His writings have influenced me greatly.
    You raise one of the fundamental issues – all of the convenience of centralization are obvious b/c they are largely economic (transaction cost, convenience). The costs are largely social and harder to measure clearly. My next post, Captivity of the Commons touches on similar topic from a different angle.

    Bruce –
    I am talking about social technologies – the whole gamut (social software, SNS, blogs etc.). I was more interested in how the language sits on one plane of thought (liberation and freedom). while the mechanics might be taking us further away from personal freedoms. I am a huge supporter of technology but – like markets – we need structural supports that keep them functioning in the public interest. That is in my next post.

    Bob – I totally agree that data ownership is a looming issue.

  • You definitely raise some interesting questions and the language of today’s social enlightenment definitely obscures the darker side of things. But on the other hand, while companies like Facebook and Google have all of this personal data of ours, the nature of community makes it nearly impossible to use it in a way that could hurt us. Look at what happens when Facebook rearranges a few things. A multimillion strong backlash. Irresponsible data use by social companies can accomplish nothing but a big blow to shareholder value.

  • Kristal L. Rosebrook

    Interesting comments.

  • Kristal L. Rosebrook

    Good insight Joshua.

  • luciyahelan

    I am a huge supporter of technology but – like markets – we need structural supports that keep them functioning in the public interest. This conversation is going no where. It’s lacking the place of a good leader to head the things to come out on conclusion. I am waiting for ur quick positive reply.Have a nice day, It is very helpful to know about different historical tourist places all the world. Thank you for providing such useful informations.
    New Technology

  • Tech Info

    The above statement is seen to be contradictory. The situation is very critical and need an experience complainer to resolve it.

    Tech Info

  • J-M, I’m pleased to see your critical discourse on new media. It resonates with the first major collection of critical commentaries on the telephone which was published, your readers may be surprised to learn, only 35 years ago — a century after the phone came into being! It was Social Impacts of the Telephone, published by MIT Press (1977) and edited by the great scholar of media, Ithiel de Sola Pool.

    It’s often been speculated that the vast extension of the telephone network and greater availability of services that occurred in the 1930s-1960s, bringing online the 75% of the population that had earlier gone without, was in fact part of the plan to make the American state stronger (the state including both public and private spheres of activity). We were a pretty loosely bound society, always on the verge of insurrection, threatened by fascist and totalitarian communist nations much better organized. So plans were made and implemented to extend the infrastructure and bring down the prices for telephone service. And it worked.

    It’s interesting that in our own time the stratification of services leading to class differences as well as individual advantages and disadvantages, usually correlated with wealth and connections, is once again being promoted as the way to the future. If history is any guide, consolidation in the structure of digital media leading to price discrimination and production and provision of services that aid predominantly those in the service of industry will result in a refracturing of American society.

    Not all bad: fractures lead to friction and friction leads to heat — and the ovens of innovation. Only, will some innovations (those that empower communities over consumer segments, for example) be stifled and others that lead to further discrimination be amplified? Conversely, if crises, like climate change or unbridled fear of terrorism, require a more statist approach to life, will that be what the market serves? These are interesting times we live in.

    Your readers should be aware that such discussions as this one happen often on First Monday, a peer-reviewed, critical social science journal focused on communications and new media, and their contemporary intersection with social behavior and beliefs.

    First Monday originated in Denmark and now is published by a great team at the University of Illinois at Chicago:

  • Most stimulating. Inherent in every liberation premise is a host of attendant unfreedoms and inequalities, and this underlies the potency of consumer culture.