Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web just published a manifesto arguing for an open web with universal access, free from corporate monopolies and censorship. It is a must-read. Making his case for an engaged online citizenry, he writes:
Why should you care? Because the Web is yours. It is a public resource on which you, your business, your community and your government depend. The Web is also vital to democracy, a communications channel that makes possible a continuous worldwide conversation. The Web is now more critical to free speech than any other medium. It brings principles established in the U.S. Constitution, the British Magna Carta and other important documents into the network age: freedom from being snooped on, filtered, censored and disconnected.
Along these lines, he says of Facebook and other large web companies:
Some people may think that closed worlds are just fine. The worlds are easy to use and may seem to give those people what they want. But as we saw in the 1990s with the America Online dial-up information system that gave you a restricted subset of the Web, these closed, “walled gardens,” no matter how pleasing, can never compete in diversity, richness and innovation with the mad, throbbing Web market outside their gates. If a walled garden has too tight a hold on a market, however, it can delay that outside growth.
Even before I was mysteriously dumped by Facebook, I had been feeling the limiting effects of depending on the service too much as a tool for communication, expression and creativity. The site has a tendency to flatten discourse, reinforce political tribalism, encourage cultural snobbery and (especially) feed social neuroses. To the heartbroken, the lonely and the bereft, it can even prove lethal. Facebook says “sucks to your ass-mar!”
Dissent is discouraged, not just by the unspoken pressure to conform to the biases and codes of your social network, but by the interface itself, which is focused on “liking” things. Substantive discussions on any issue disappear from your wall in a matter of days, if not hours, to make way for the latest ephemera. There is no search engine or architecture to recover these past musings, unless you want to keep clicking “Older Posts.” You’re encouraged to focus on the next distraction– the latest cute animal video, celebrity death or Tea Party outrage.
Folks who know me would be surprised to learn that I self-censored on a regular basis, fearful of bumming people out with my strident political opinions. I withheld war atrocity photos, that on another platform (email, perhaps) I would have shared. When you’re interacting with a large group of people (friends, family, acquaintances and total strangers), you tend to sand off the rough edges. You can’t disagree too much or feelings will be hurt. All disagreements are happening in public, after all– in a big virtual room where everyone might be watching. Feelings get hurt much more easily than in the relative anonymity of the web’s message boards. These are your friends, after all. It’s not polite to argue, especially in front of all of each others’ friends.
And what do you do when people behave badly on Facebook? A friend of mine made repeated racist remarks on a comment thread on my wall. He’s used to getting away with this among his circle of friends (who consider it harmless shtick), but it was jarring to people reading my wall. They don’t know that he’s been a good friend, and is actually a very warm and friendly guy once you get to know him. They only see the racist remarks and a little thumbnail picture next to his name. So, I defriended him. He was angry and hurt. Why would I defriend him for a behavior I had more or less tolerated in person? I explained that his remarks reflected badly on me, and that I hoped he understood that I had friends of color, who might be reading what he had written. A year later, he still doesn’t talk to me. Social situations are awkward. Perhaps it’s for the best, but still there is the fact, that if not for Facebook, we might still be friends.
There is another tendency that Facebook (and other web flagships promote) and it’s snark. A friend of mine, upon recently revisiting Friendster, pointed out that the testimonials there are disarmingly sincere. Given a public forum to talk about our friends, we sang their praises, for all to see. Sure, there was snark back then, but ironic distance, has gotten even more extreme in the last half decade. And I have definitely kept pace with the zeitgeist. It’s to the point where I’m worried people won’t actually read what I write, unless I employ a sarcastic headline or a sideways remark. And though the format at Facebook only encourages us to “like” stuff, we can employ the same tools to ironically “like” all kinds of things. What’s telling is that this isn’t real dissent. It’s a kind of cynical pose– a gesture of seeming too cool to care. When a strong opinion is expressed, it’s often softened with the passive aggressive addendum “just sayin’.” We can’t be too opinionated. Opinions, unless they fall within the norms of our social network or its presumed TV heroes and political leaders simply aren’t cool. Just sayin’.
It’s exactly that disingenuous pose that annoyed me about the WTF has Obama Done So Far site. The tone is snotty and irreverent, and oh so pleased with its pottymouth. But contained within are a series of underwhelming “facts” hastily compiled by a handful of ambitious young partisans. I wouldn’t call it astroturf, but I doubt it’ll be very long before this trio all have establishment jobs, crafting talking points for the Democratic Party or one of the many well-funded lobbies on Capitol Hill.
When I launched WTF 2.0, I was most struck by the fact that few of the nearly 700 friends in my Facebook network “liked” the website, yet within 5 days, it had gathered nearly 8,000 likes from other users on the site. Over 30,000 unique visitors accessed the site, mostly from Facebook, but also from Twitter and dozens of message boards, comment threads and blogs. Suggestions for additional “accomplishments” poured in to my email account. No liberal site mentioned us, except for a Slate blogger. Glenn Greenwald tweeted us to his followers, and the right-leaning libertarians at Reason used the site to underscore liberal complacency about civil liberties and war (they do have a point.)
What all of this seemed to be telling me is that my own “walled garden” at Facebook was a rotten place to be promoting confrontational ideas. Sure, my friends were there. Some of them cared passionately about politics. Some of those even agreed with me. But my social network was still better for sharing viral videos, for trading baby and cat photos, and for getting food truck recommendations. No matter how much people may agree with you, the format does not encourage controversy or impassioned debate. To have the conversation I craved, and to challenge myself, I needed to get my ass off Facebook!
And I got some help. Coinciding with the success of WTF 2.0, was a sudden and jarring notice that I had been locked out of my Facebook account. The only explanation offered was an email sent a few minutes before the account was disabled, indicating that Facebook had removed a photo which violated their TOS. Which one, I wondered? Could it be an Adult Baby Jesus performance photo (Facebook does ban breastfeeding photos, after all)? A shot of a naked Francois Sagat holding a shotgun, at Bruce La Bruce’s zombie porn art show last year? Or perhaps one of the many trademark-infringing logo spoofs I have made? Perhaps somebody thought the WTF 2.0 meme itself infringed on an existing trademark or violated obscenity rules. Does Mark Zuckerberg believe in fair use? Who knows? All of these photos had been on my page for 1-2 years, without incident.
The rules are characteristically broad and vague. Facebook certainly won’t tell me which photo they removed or why. All content policing is done by Facebook members. So, it’s likely that some enterprising twerp (or twerps) wandered on to my account, and clicked through the photos, ratting me out until the bots took notice. Oh, and let’s not kid ourselves, mysterious political censorship on Facebook is a known phenomenon.
These same twerps (or like-minded ones) apparently followed me to Friendster, reporting me this morning for a tiny (and hilarious) photo of a dog attacking a dildo. Friendster removed the photo and sent me a stern warning. When I wrote the support desk and pointed out that the photo was not in violation of their TOS, they backpedaled, apologized and reposted it. That’s unheard of, in this day and age. Go Friendster! Still, I’ve since set my profile to private. As long as there are anonymous twerps with an agenda, and ass-covering social networks with their fingers on the censor button, folks like me have to play it cool (and back up the content we post.) That’s just one of the many deals we’ve struck to play in the walled gardens of web 2.0.