Social Media as Commons

In reading about commons and commoning, and with the current storm over net neutrality, I have been thinking more and more about the ways in which we voluntarily cede common spaces to private interests. The only reason net neutrality is even an issue, after all, is because we have allowed corporations to exercise near-monopolies over internet access (namely, in Denver, the duopoly of Comcast and CenturyLink), which utilize what is really public infrastructure for that purpose (cable and phone lines, respectively).

These monopolies are well-established and difficult to uproot without new, disruptive technologies (mesh network, anyone?) to replace them. But we allow similar control even in spaces where it’s completely unnecessary, even where corporations offer little advantage over better, more community-oriented alternatives. Banking is one such area; corporate banks offer virtually nothing not offered by credit unions, and using corporate banks gives those institutions unbelievable power over our lives. So if you’re still giving your money (literally) to Chase, Well Fargo and their ilk, please, please consider moving to a credit union.

Another good example may literally be staring you in the face right now: Facebook. At root, Facebook is simply an online bulletin board system. It’s not so different from systems I remember using in the dial-up era. It is a public forum wherein we converse, share events, form communities and maintain friendships. It is, or should be, a commons: owned by none, shared by all.

And yet, by our participation, we have allowed this space too to be co-opted by corporate interests. What you see is not, strictly speaking, what your friends share; it is, rather, a subtly manipulated version of their contributions, with the not-so-subtle insertion of innumerable ads.

What’s especially concerning to me is the way it affects our mental processes. What should be about sharing, community and friendship instead becomes about buying and selling, production and consumption. With most of us barely aware of the change – indeed, unaware that a different experience is even possible – we become convinced that this is simply the way of the world. Capitalism becomes our inescapable daily reality, a sort of smog we’re squinting through all the time. Thus the plutocrats succeed in enclosing, not just a public forum, but our very thoughts and minds.

Yet, as with corporate banks, the ceding of this space is largely unnecessary. Alternatives exist that provide, if not exactly the same interface, nearly the same functions – without corporate control, without this subtle mental pollution.

If you are here saying to yourself, “Sounds great, but what can you do? Everyone’s already on Facebook,” I would ask you to consider that this very feeling of helplessness is precisely the reason to invest yourself in something different. Corporations, and the governments that support them, want you to feel isolated and powerless. It is a core mechanism of the capitalist state to keep the population under control.

Yes, using open-source and peer-to-peer alternatives is slightly more work, and can be slightly confusing as you get accustomed to a new interface. But that very investment in effort reflects a key difference: You must invest in your community. You must be an active participant and contributor rather than a passive, docile consumer. If you want to realize a new, more equitable vision for society, you have to make your stand for it.

With all that said, I’d invite you to check out Diaspora, an open-source social media app that does, more or less, what Facebook does. I’m not saying it’s the be-all, end-all. If you know of something better, let me know. But it’s past time to try something new.

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