Seeing Like a Social Media Site

The Anarchist’s Approach to Facebook

When John Perry Barlow published “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” nearly twenty-five years ago, he was expressing an idea that seemed almost obvious at the time: the internet was going to be a powerful tool to subvert state control. As Barlow explained to the “governments of the Industrial World,” those “weary giants of flesh and steel”—cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Cyberspace was a “civilization of the mind.” States might be able to control individuals’ bodies, but their weakness lay in their inability to capture minds.

In retrospect, this is a rather peculiar perspective of states’ real weakness, which has always been space. Literal, physical space—the endlessly vast terrain of the physical world—has historically been the friend of those attempting to avoid the state. As scholar James Scott documented in The Art of Not Being Governed, in early stages of state formation if the central government got too overbearing the population simply could—and often did—move. Similarly, John Torpey noted inThe Invention of the Passport that individuals wanting to avoid eighteenth-century France’s system of passes could simply walk from town to town, and passes were often “lost” (or, indeed, actually lost). As Richard Cobb noted, “there is no one more difficult to control than the pedestrian.” More technologically-savvy ways of traveling—the bus, the boat, the airplane—actually made it easier for the state to track and control movement.

Cyberspace may be the easiest place to track of all. It is, by definition, a mediated space. To visit, you must be in possession of hardware, which must be connected to a network, which is connected to other hardware, and other networks, and so on and so forth. Every single thing in the digital world is owned, controlled or monitored by someone else. It is impossible to be a pedestrian in cyberspace—you never walk alone. 

States have always attempted to make their populations more trackable, and thus more controllable. Scott calls this the process of making things “legible.” It includes “the creation of permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measures, the establishment of cadastral surveys and population registers, the invention of freehold tenure, the standardization of language and legal discourse, the design of cities, and the organization of transportation.” These things make previously complicated, complex and unstandardized facts knowable to the center, and thus more easy to administrate. If the state knows who you are, and where you are, then it can design systems to control you. What is legible is manipulable.

Cyberspace—and the associated processing of data—offers exciting new possibilities for the administrative center to make individuals more legible precisely because, as Barlow noted, it is “a space of the mind.” Only now, it’s not just states that have the capacity to do this—but sites. As Shoshana Zuboff documented in her bookThe Age of Surveillance Capitalism, sites like Facebook collect data about us in an attempt to make us more legible and, thus, more manipulatable. This is not, however, the first time that “technologically brilliant” centralized administrators have attempted to engineer society. 

Scott use the term “high modernism” to characterize schemes—attempted by planners across the political spectrum—that possess a “self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and, above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws.” In Seeing Like a State, Scott examines a number of these “high modernist” attempts to engineer forests in eighteenth-century Prussia and Saxony, urban cities in Paris and Brasilia, rural populations in ujamaa villages, and agricultural production in Soviet collective farms (to name a few). Each time, central administrators attempted to make complex, complicated processes—from people to nature—legible, and then engineer them into rational, organized systems based on scientific principles. It usually ended up going disastrously wrong—or, at least, not at all the way central authorities had planned it. 

The problem, Scott explained, is that “certain forms of knowledge and control require a narrowing of vision. . . designed or planned social order is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order.” For example, mono-cropped forests became more vulnerable to disease and depleted soil structure—not to mention destroyed the diversity of the flora, insect, mammal, and bird populations which took generations to restore. The streets of Brasilia had not been designed with any local, community spaces where neighbors might interact; and, anyway, they forgot—ironically—to plan for construction workers, who subsequently founded their own settlement on the outskirts of the city, organized to defend their land and demanded urban services and secure titles. By 1980, Scott explained, “seventy-five percent of the population of Brasilia lived in settlements that had never been anticipated, while the planned city had reached less than half of its projected population of 557,000.” Contrary to Zuboff’s assertion that we are losing “the right to a future tense,” individuals and organic social processes have shown a remarkable capacity to resist and subvert otherwise brilliant plans to control them.

And yet this high-modernism characterizes most approaches to “regulating” social media, whether self-regulatory or state-imposed. And, precisely because cyberspace is so mediated, it is more difficult for users to resist or subvert the centrally-controlled processes imposed upon them. Misinformation on Facebook proliferates—and so the central administrators of Facebook try to engineer better algorithms, or hire legions of content moderators, or make centralized decisions about labeling posts, or simply kick off users. It is, in other words, a classic high-modernist approach to socially engineer the space of Facebook, and all it does is result in the platforms’ ruler—Mark Zuckerberg—consolidating more power. (Coincidentally, fellow Power-Shift contributor Jennifer Cobbe argued something quite similar in her recent article about the power of algorithmic censorship). Like previous attempts to engineer society, this one probably will not work well in practice—and there may be disastrous, authoritarian consequences as a result.

So what is the anarchist approach to social media? Consider this description of an urban community by twentieth-century activist Jane Jacobs, as recounted by Scott:

“The public peace-the sidewalk and street peace-of cities . . . is kept by an intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves. . . . [an] incident that occurred on [Jacobs’] mixed-used street in Manhattan when an older man seemed to be trying to cajole an eight or nine-year-old girl to go with him. As Jacobs watched this from her second-floor window, wondering if she should intervene, the butcher’s wife appeared on the sidewalk, as did the owner of the deli, two patrons of a bar, a fruit vendor, and a laundryman, and several other people watched openly from their tenement windows, ready to frustrate a possible abduction. No “peace officer” appeared or was necessary. . . . There are no formal public or voluntary organizations of urban order here—no police, no private guards or neighborhood watch, no formal meetings or officeholders. Instead, the order is embedded in the logic of daily practice.”

How do we make social media sites more like Jacobs’ Manhattan, where people—not police or administrators—on “sidewalk terms” are empowered to shape their own cyber spaces? 

There may already be one example: Wikipedia. 

Wikipedia is not often thought of as an example of a social media site—but, as many librarians will tell you, it is not an encyclopedia. Yet Wikipedia is not only a remarkable repository of user-generated content, it also has been incredibly resilient to misinformation and extremist content. Indeed, as debates around Facebook wonder whether the site has eroded public discourse to such an extent that democracy itself has been undermined, debates around Wikipedia center around whether it is as accurate as the expert-generated content of Encyclopedia Britannica. (Encyclopedia Britannica says no; Wikipedia says it’s close.)

The difference is that Wikipedia empowers users. Anyone, absolutely anyone, can update Wikipedia. Everyone can see who has edited what, allowing users to self-regulate—and how users identified that suspected Russian agent Maria Butina was probably changing her own Wikipedia page, and changed it back. This radical transparency and empowerment produces organic social processes where, much like in the Manhattan street, individuals collectively mediate their own space. And, most importantly, it is dynamic—Wikipedia changes all the time. Instead of a static ruling (such as Facebook’s determination that the iconic photo of Napalm Girl would be banned for child nudity), Wikipedia’s process produces dialogue and deliberation, where communities constantly socially construct meaning and knowledge. Finally, because cyberspace is ultimately mediated space—individuals cannot just “walk” or “wander” across sidewalks, like in the real world—Wikipedia is mission-driven. It does not have the amorphous goal of “connecting the global community”, but rather “to create a world in which everyone can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.”

This suggests that no amount of design updates or changes to terms of service will ever “fix” Facebook—whether they are imposed by the US government, Mark Zuckerberg or Facebook’s Oversight Board. Instead, it is the high-modernism that is the problem. The anarchist’s approach would prioritize building designs that empower people and communities—so why not adopt the wiki-approach to the public square functions that social media currently serves, like wiki-newspapers or wiki-newsfeeds?

It might be better to take the anarchist’s approach. No algorithms are needed.

by Alina Utrata