Sunday, June 22, 2014

#asmc14 afterthoughts: Thinking about public social media

Last week I attended the great Social Media and the Transformation of Public Space conference in Amsterdam. It was an exhausting, but very inspiring week! Here, I want to share some of the ideas and impressions while they are still fresh. I want to start with a question that I asked twice in two different Plenary Conversations:

Why is there no discussion about 'public' social media (in the sense of public broadcasting)?

I didn't raise this question because I think it is very realistic to have public social media any time soon, or that they would be a solution to all the problems and concerns raised about social media during the conference, but because it just struck me that there is absolutely no discussion about this idea.

During the conference, many concerns or questions addressed the commercial nature of social media and the business interests and market strategies of its providers. Especially Bernhard Rieder's Keynote about the rise of algorithmic knowing made a strong argument (see his slides here): The real problem is not that Big Data acolytes promoting the power of this new paradigm are wrong, but that they might be right. Then the contrast between commercial provider interests and civic values (which are often evoked in connection with social media, for example in terms like the 'Twitter revolution') becomes even more problematic. In Bernhard's words, the danger lies in the monopolization of knowledge and a "reconfiguration of publicness according to operational goals that are geared toward profit maximization". When algorithms are powerful engines of order that produce new ways of knowing, the values and interests inscribed into them can shape publicness in many ways. It is therefore important to address these values and interests - and when we do so, it is almost unavoidable to take a normative perspective. What kind of 'public' is shaped by these providers? How do we want a 'public' to be? In what kind of society do we want to live in? This led me to the question: What can we actually expect from social media when they are provided by companies that rely on advertisement? From this perspective, thinking about public social media does not seem far fetched.

Why thinking about public social media is valuable

There were some counter-arguments during the keynote and I had an argument with Axel Bruns about it on Twitter (who did a fantastic job covering the conference on his blog). Axel is skeptical about public social media because they would probably not be able to attract enough users to become serious competitors for Facebook or other commercial platforms and therefore remain irrelevant. In his response to my question, keynote speaker Hallvard Moe also argued that public social media are an interesting idea but he thinks it's unrealistic that it is ever going to be build, especially in a neoliberal setting. Both are valid and good arguments of course. Still, I think it is valuable to think about public social media for at least three reasons:
  1. The idea of public social media infrastructures can help us (as researchers) to think about how social media networks should actually look like when they are not based on commercial interests but on civic values and on the normative frameworks that we frequently refer to in our discussions (like Habermas' public sphere theory). How exactly could we inscribe such values and norms in algorithms and infrastructures that are supposed to support a certain form of publicness?
  2. Even though it is unrealistic to happen any time soon, building a public social media infrastructure could have an impact regardless of user numbers. Even if user numbers dwarf in comparison to Facebook or other platforms, building an actually existing alternative based on civic values could have a serious impact on how social media networks are perceived.* I'm not talking here about our perception as researchers, but about a new level of awareness among people outside academia concerning the issues surrounding commercial social media platforms. Then the mere existence of a public social media infrastructure could already have an impact on commercial providers as well, who would be forced to somehow respond to this new perception.
  3. I think arguments like "that's never going to happen" or "it's not going to be successful" both threaten to foreclose a real discussion and are only thinking in short-terms. As mentioned before, I don't think public social media infrastructures are going to be build any time soon (if ever), and even if that happens they probably won't have an immediate impact. However, I suggest that we should think about this in long terms. And from a long-term perspective, setting the initial spark and starting a real discussion about public social media could be something worthwhile.
Maybe we should think even broader about a public media environment, not only about public social media. Public broadcasting was born in a historically unique media environment. Who knows how and what media we will use in twenty, thirty, or hundred years from now. Thinking in long terms about a public media environment might turn out to be more flexible and successful after all. Or, maybe, public media in the classic sense of public broadcasting is not the solution either, but a more flexible model that includes both public funding and commercial elements?

* I'm taking inspiration here from Christopher Kelty's book Two Bits, where he argued that one of the reasons Free Software or Open Source became so successful is because it is able to speak to existing forms of power through the creation of alternative infrastructures.

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