In the sixties we had a slogan: "You are either part of the problem or part of the solution." Our slogans didn't always attain subtlety or nuance, and this one’s heavy handedness had ill effects. Someone disagrees with you. Label her a part of the problem. Then pay her no respect. Do it repeatedly. “Paranoia strikes deep…”
Another slogan has popped up recently that makes clear that being “part of the problem” isn't just diverging from you, me, or whomever, but is far more substantial. A recent Greek banner reads, "You have the disease, we have the solution – revolution."
What is the disease the Greek banner artists had in mind? I believe it was subservience to and indeed active support for the whole melange of institutional relations associated with capitalism, authoritarianism, patriarchy, and racism. And while one could imagine applying the term “disease,” meant that way, to individuals – I think the Greeks had in mind whole groups and especially institutions being sick.
So I say Facebook has the disease. What can I possibly mean by such a claim? Facebook? The modern day activist’s favorite weapon?
Well, I mean this. Facebook – and Google, Twitter, etc. – are massive corporate media machines driven by the dictates of accruing profit and maintaining the conditions of accruing profit. They care about sociality, information, truth, or justice only as means to profit and power.
When someone on the left says a bank has the "disease," or a mortgage company, pharmaceutical company, electric company, Walmart, Amazon, or the New York Times, everyone else on the left pretty much says, okay, what else is new? Of course they have the disease. Medicate! Operate!
We put our money in a bank, hold a mortgage with a provider, get electricity from a utility, buy a chair or food from Walmart, buy a book from Amazon or a newspaper from the New York Times – dealing with disease each time – because we live in a world where disconnecting from all corporations would be suicidal. In our society critical and desirable production and consumption are overwhelmingly mediated by corporations. We relate or we die.
And even when the institutions we transact with are public, they are often class divided and operate on behalf of surplus and power in very nearly the same ways as Bank of America or the New York Times. National Public Radio, for example, is very far from a cooperative, classless, entity.
So we bank, we take medicine, we buy books, because we must, or, at any rate, to forego these options would spite ourselves and our agendas – at least as the world currently exists.
But in the midst of this essential compromising, what we don't do, even though transacting with corporations literally keeps us alive and sometimes informs and fulfills us – and even as, each time, dealing with them also generates profits for the rich and puts one more little brick in the wall of legitimation of the system – is to celebrate the corporations we relate to as if they care about us, much less about social justice.
I get medicine produced by a pharmaceutical. It gives me sight. Yet I don't paste images of its corporate logo on my shirt or medicine cabinet. I know it doesn’t care about my sight. It cares about my coins, spent to get its product.
I get food from agribusiness. I don't carry an umbrella billboard for agribusiness or put its logo on my refrigerator, even though I would very likely starve without its product. It doesn’t care about my possible starvation or the actual starvation of millions. It cares about profit making.
I get information from the New York Times. I do not proclaim it a friend of humanity, even if sometimes I can use it for humanity. The New York Times doesn’t care about humanity. It cares about power and capital. It affronts humanity, curtails humanity, abides and contributes to injustice humanity endures – routinely.
So why the hell are so many people – including a great many very serious, very well informed, very committed leftists, so uncritical of and even so supportive of diverse information institutions and, in particular, of Facebook, Google, and Twitter? Include Apple, in the second tier, whose products I quite like and use, along with Microsoft, Sony, Yahoo, and any other corporation anyone on the left treats with kid gloves.
Maybe some leftists think to be critical of internet institutions implies they should not use those institutions at all? But why would they think that about Facebook, Tweeter, and Google and not about Bank of America, Merck and Co., and the New York Times? We rail at the latter, but when necessary we of course use them. Why not treat the information institutions similarly? Rail at them, and when advisable, use them?
In other essays, I have described the ills associated with the structures and practices of these giant corporate information institutions, commenting particularly on the ways they nuggetize information, diminish attention spans, devalue friendships, sell access to users to advertisers, manipulate searches, and reveal information about our habits and relationships to police and governments.
I suspect that at most a millimeter below the surface, no one on the left would doubt any of that. After all, to understand corporate logic is a significant part of what it means to understand the world around us. However, if you do doubt these claims about Facebook et. al., take a look at Facing Facebook and the Internet, Internet Worries, and Facebook Versus Civilization and at additional references you can find in those essays, among other places.
The thing is, even if all leftists do such investigating and come away convinced of the disease ridden character of mainstream social networking, searching, etc., still, my experiences suggest many and perhaps most will nonetheless pause at vocal rejection much less at serious analysis and action aimed at Facebook, Google, and Twitter. I would sincerely like to understand why that is. It just doesn't compute for me.
I can certainly see using these institutions – with the possible exception of Twitter which seems literally death ridden, at least to me – for very specific purposes. For example, I quite often use Google for searching online – though I admit that nowadays when I do so I push myself to account for the systemically filtered delivery of personalized search results Google provides me.
Or consider Facebook. I can certainly see using it to find folks you have long been dissociated from or even to stay connected with folks you can't engage with by other means because of their priorities, as well as for delivering good information to wide audiences who would otherwise not have read it, though I think Facebook postings accomplish this last outcome much less often than people claim.
However, I can't see ever even in passing thinking that a "friend" is someone on your list of Facebook friends – much less accepting the degrading idea that being on such a list is, in fact, the definition of being one’s friend.
I also cannot see allowing oneself to become accommodated to nuggetized communications whether it happens due to habits that arise from frequent actions online, or by preferences imposed for efficiency’s sake. This, too, degrades human potentials. And I can’t see noticing the steady decline in attention span one typically undergoes with extensive use of these venues and not at least disciplining oneself to pay longer attention to deeper materials, to offset the trend.
Similarly, I cannot see allowing oneself to consider highly targeted and intrusive advertisements benign, nor can I see acting as though mass scale profit seeking and power brokering are well motivated priorities.
A musician rightly eager for Z content to reach the widest possible readership recently wrote me asking how come on ZNet there aren't ubiquitous icons on every page allowing people to very easily zip off articles and other content to Facebook, so they can then go viral?
I ignored that in my view clicking a little button doesn’t, in fact, typically generate a useful information virus, and I ignored that for most Facebook users – not the highly left users, I hope, but most – the impact of Facebook’s processes and biases on their habits is to severely diminish the probability that they will read anything beyond a few sentences, whether a link is conveyed to them or not, and I ignored that a site wanting, reasonably, to allow users to share might achieve without implying by ever present logos from a few main corporations that those corporations equal being social. Instead of harping on those disagreements, I wrote back to the musician accepting the premise that clicking such links could and often would engender otherwise unlikely dispersal of ideas. I then answered his why query essentially this way…
We believe Facebook and other such sites are far more a problem than a solution. Yes, it is possible to benefit in some ways from using gigantic corporate operations that are motivated by profit seeking and designed in ways that on balance cripple communications – even while people mistakenly think those sights are in sum enhancing communications – but that is different from anointing such institutions as highly worthy vehicles for serious and especially leftist social networking. We can also benefit from having a bank account, say, but we don't celebrate banks and put up what amounts to ubiquitous ads and testimonials on their behalf.
So what can we do instead? Well, we at Z are holding out for, and trying to build, something better than making the best of vile corporate venues. Once ZSocial is in place, quite soon now, we will make it very easy to send our content to the large networking sites because once ZSocial is in place, by doing so we will not be saying, okay, Facebook is the best means of social interaction online and the way we should all do it. No, instead we will be saying, let's use those quite vile institutions including Facebook like we use banks or pharmaceutical companies – as a horribly restricted and constraining option for some critical tasks such as reaching out to wide and not yet highly politicized audiences. But for serious social interactions with leftists, let's develop and use our own tools that don't commercialize, nuggetize, manipulate, and sell us out, but are instead designed and maintained with our priorities paramount.
Yes, in the meantime Z suffers some narrowing of outreach, but in the long run, hopefully everyone operating in the name of social justice rather than profit and power will benefit.
Of course, not everyone is in position to try to build or even to advocate an alternative to Facebook for the left. But those who are in such a position ought to be doing so, it seems to me. So Z is trying to build “FaceLeft,” ZSocial, not to revere and celebrate Facebook.
And as users rather than providers, shouldn’t we also be hoping FaceLeft like efforts succeed so that we leftists can use our own institutions for our internal discussions, debates, scheduling, and exploring, and use large commercial institutions only when doing so makes good sense, such as in reaching out to new audiences to bring them, in time, to our non corporate institutions and to reach them with our non corporate information, or such as finding old friends or keeping ties with those who won’t operate other than on Facebook. And even then, shouldn’t we do so only critically, with insight, and without adding to Facebook’s aura as a neutral or even beneficent abettor of justice?
That’s the thinking behind ZSocial, at any rate, which is coming very soon to the internet connection devices you prefer. We intend ZSocial to honor privacy and to reject commercialism and of course ads. We will not have ZSocial insidiously filter your range of communications. We will not have ZSocial bias toward nuggets. We will have ZSocial grow and alter as left needs dictate. We hope you will relate to it.
The disease is capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and authoritarianism. Would that we could have a revolution replacing all that disease with truly solidaritous, diverse, equitable, peaceful, ecologically green, self managing social relations, NOW. Alas, it will take time. Meanwhile, we can at least understand the disease to more safely navigate its corridors. And we can at least build some structures of our own, within the disease ridden landscapes surrounding us, that treat ourselves and others better, that provide a model to aspire to, and that inform our understandings and enrich our programs and actions.
Facebook serves us, used carefully, in some ways – as does Google, and maybe even Twitter, Apple, Sony, and so on. But we should be cautious and discerning when relating to these. And we should have our own alternatives, as best we can, showing how internet communications really ought to be implemented – and meeting our needs and potentials better then commercial ventures. Hopefully ZSocial will be a step in that direction.