There’s been some discussion lately on my Lefty mailing lists about what they call “social media”. There was a brief flurry of interest in something called “Ello”, apparently marketed as the hipster version of facebook, with a very cool minimalist UI and a very vaguely-worded commitment not to monetize your personal information. It didn’t last long enough for me to check it out.
More generally, we were all wondering how to disentangle the benefits of commercial social media — like facebook — from their obvious harms: the data mining, the marketing. The puppies.
The benefits can’t be entirely dismissed. I’ve found people on facebook with whom I’m glad to be back in touch, and whom it would have been difficult, in the actually existing world, to find in any other way. On the other hand I’ve had “friend” requests from people who seemed respectable — went to the same school, had a couple dozen “friends” in common — and turned out to be awful pests. It’s surprising how upset one can be when one of these people rounds on you and bites you in the neck — as if they were real friends, rather than pixelated shadows. One is tempted to invoke notions like “illusion of community”.
Of course in one sense all communities are illusory; they’re constituted by categorization. You are my neighbor, or you aren’t. I get to decide.
Much Lefty thinking boils down to the question: How would we do this under socialism? What would the socialist subway fare be? What would a socialist facebook be like? Could you even have social media without ad revenue, or VC’s who are hoping for ad revenue? Hey, who’s gonna pay all those coders without it?
Along the same line, one is (once again) tempted to suggest that facebook is the solution that our kind of society offers to a problem that our kind of society creates. Perhaps a different kind of society wouldn’t need facebook or anything like it.
Meanwhile, I see it in much the same light as the highway system. I don’t think there’s anything historically inevitable about mass automobilization. There’s no need to like it; and any rational person hates driving. Driving is not only a bore, it’s bad for people’s character. The same could be said about facebook. What would socialist interstate highways look like? Overgrown ruins, let’s hope (though who knows?).
But occasionally one gets into the car, rather reluctantly, and commits oneself to the Merritt Parkway or the Major Deegan, simply because it’s the least inconvenient way of doing something one needs to do. Along the way one will encounter any number of assholes, because the activity itself encourages assholery. But after a few hours of deep boredom interspersed with moments of active disagreeableness, one will, with luck, find oneself in some place one wants to be.
This is as close as I can get to being what they call “realistic”.