The agora, meaning "assembly", was the name of a central public square in ancient Greek city-states, where a public freely discussed sports, the arts, politics, philosophy and heard statements from the ruling king or council. Later, merchants brought goods and transformed the agora into a thriving marketplace. Like today's social media platforms, the agora was an open space for people, proud of their democratic freedoms, to discuss, promote and sell with minimal restrictions.
Social media are digital technologies that facilitate the making and sharing of information, ideas and media. They are used for conversation, professional networking and the promotion of brands, services, products and digital creativity. Since 2004, the year that Facebook launched, the involvement in social media networks has increased exponentially. Despite concerns about privacy and political hacking, the world continues to seek ways to connect, share and sell in virtual gathering places. According to Q2 Global Digital Statshot, the total number of active social media users worldwide is 3.499 billion, or just under half the world population. Digital technology has brought the ancient idea of the agora to a massive global scale.
This chapter will examine the incredible growth and success of online social networks as a particularly digital phenomena. The use of hyperlinks to connect like-minded users, the ease of copying and sharing digital media, and the emergence of "free" commercial social network sites have all maximized the natural desire of humans to seek connection in groups. But the very tools that allow for the growth of social networks also presents some real dangers that threaten the health of all online communities and the general trust in social discourse.
Social interaction has always been an important part of early computer networks, as these networks were designed to share data and research. The professionals affiliated with universities and research institutions who had access to the computers and who built the first computer networks sought ways to send messages to each other. At MIT in 1965, users accessing the same mainframe computer could leave messages in each other's file directories. In 1969, on ARPANET, the first message was sent from computer to computer. In 1971, Ray Tomlinson invented electronic mail and created ARPANET’s networked email system in which near instant messages could be sent between machines within an organization's network. With the growth and popularity of internal email systems, the technical problem was determining where exactly to send a message if many shared a single computer. Tomlinson invented the @ symbol to point messages to a particular user address rather than a computer's IP address: "username@name of computer." By 1976 75% of all ARPANET use was electronic mail and researchers began figuring out ways to send messages outside an internal network.
ARPANET was started by U.S. defense and intelligence communities and so all messages sent by ARPANET users were monitored and filtered. There were security and political reasons for this surveillance as the network was dependent on precarious funding and any transgressive behavior could derail the whole project. ARPANET users needed special permission to join the network. It was known that messages were monitored and that no messages could be sent anonymously, so messages were often self-edited and potentially offensive conversation was avoided.
Usenet was developed in 1979 by those researchers not accepted into ARPANET. Unlike ARPANET, Usenet was decentralized and was self-monitored. However, those accessing Usenet were mostly professionals affiliated with institutions, so reputations and job security likely kept behavior in check. Usenet was organized like a forum or virtual bulletin board, where users posted messages in newsgroups devoted to particular topics. Offenders and early forms of spam were handled by the group. In the 1980s, Usenet thrived. Free of institutional control and yet rigorously self-governed, the Utopian ideals of a networked humanity emerged as a reality.
The WELL, or the "Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link", was another popular virtual community structured as a bulletin board. It was started by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant in 1985. In the WELL, there were "public" conferences open to all members, and "private" conferences that were restricted to users controlled by the conference hosts. Staff, referred to as "confteam", had more administrative powers than conference hosts and were empowered to close accounts for abuse. It was on the WELL that John Perry Barlow, John Gilmore, and Mitch Kapor met and went on to found the Electronic Frontier Foundation whose mission is "to defend privacy, free speech and innovation" on the Internet. The Utopian dreams of an open and free Internet was born in a social environment that had in place some monitoring and filtering of messages.
To a certain extent, the dreams of a democratic virtual agora have born out in today's social media platforms. People are freer to share and access information than in any time in history. However, it is clear that a “free” network, without some rule structure can present new problems around trust, privacy and safety that can threaten a network’s cohesiveness. Political hacking, identity theft, spam, hate speech are part of life online now. While there are security measures that can reduce these threats, the threats contribute to general network fragility and force new questions about the meaning of open and free. What makes a social network function - in a family, a tribe, a village or a town - is a delicate balance between individual freedom and group governance with established rules of play.
In the early 1990s as personal computers and the World Wide Web brought more people online, commerical networks such as America Online or AOL, Compuserv and Prodigy offered, for a fee, anonymous servers (not attached to institutions) where one did not need to link a user name with a real name. Identity became not only fluid but masked. One could be whomever one wanted to be. AOL chat rooms (an early form of instant messaging) were social gatherings spaces where users on PCs in the privacy of their own homes could carry on conversations with strangers - and remain strangers. People could be honest or lie, share personal stories or fictions, befriend or seduce.
AOL became enormously popular by 2001 and the company takes credit for bringing online culture to the American mainstream. But, as with any successful social network site, the power that comes from managing a massive commons, also makes it harder to adapt as networks change and social trust migrates. When AOL purchased Time Warner it signaled to its users a return to old media and centralized power. It also did not adapt quickly enough to broadband technology and the need for fast delivery of free content. Social networks, if given the freedom, can move quickly and accelerate desired change. If owners of networks do not respond, the network's value diminishes.
Web 2.0 is another term that defines the phenomena of social media. It implies a leap from the Web's first phase, 1.0, that modeled itself on more traditional media companies and centralized content creation. The dot.com boom and bust made those invested in the web and web technologies rethink the purpose of this new virtual commons. Maybe the World Wide Web was not a space to dominate, but rather a space to foster collaborative and participatory behavior. Web 2.0 emphasizes people freely participating in a new technical culture that is no longer just for computer "geeks" (when it was a derogatory term) or traditional passive consumers. The new web was to be easy to use, democratic, fun and centered on social interaction and personal expression. Personal static websites became blogs and videoblogs with syndicated feeds that could spread branded content across the network. Communities found new ways to find each other, with folksonomic tagging. Business found new more personal way of engaging with their customers. The Web 2.0 media environment, in general, seeks integration with and across platforms. That is why social media sites, blogs, wikis, social bookmarking sites, video sharing sites (such as YouTube), hosting services, Web apps and mashup applications all seek more integration than competition within a vast global network.
Web 2.0 companies make money by increasing user participation and attention. The more content "You" make, the more advertising the companies can generate. However, Web 2.0 companies are also in the business of managing a commons built on a certain amount of social trust. A social media "customer" can make great content, and receive many stars and likes, but the financial reward for this attention might go primarily to the owner of the space. In general, this is a positive win/win relationship, as long as significant advertising revenue is shared or the social media creator benefits in other ways from the attention generated by the platform. Once there is a perception of an abuse in the network, the trust is broken and the network dies.
The increased desire for openness and freedom within social media sites tends to increase the incidences of distrust. Fake news, spamming, trolling, hate speech, cyberbullying, and defamation corrode the value of the gathering space. As a consequence, greater restrictions and policing are imposed on the group from the owners. Today, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube have strict rules around a user's identity and fairly loose rule's around the content in posts. A user can block, unfriend or unfollow those they find offensive. Excessive nudity, violence, obscenity and abusive behavior can be reported. But information shared can be true or wildly untrue without a problem. If these sites were to dictate what content is appropriate and what is not, the restrictions would devalue the network as a free and open space.
When Socrates stood before a crowd in the Agora of Athens and discussed his singular philosophy of life, his words were identified with a real person, who looked a certain way, had certain mannerisms and had a specific name and reputation that identified him with a family and social status. Identifying the man, allowed a young Plato to trust and follow his new teacher. A continuity of human presence and identity contributes to the social trust in a gathering place.
Most people would agree that they have many social identities: family, race, nationality, gender, sexual identity, age, religious belief, job and profession. In a Facebook or Twitter feed much can be gleaned about a person's social identities, interests and concerns. But there are also individual markers and traits that help define a person's singular identity: facial features, body type, fingerprints, social security, DNA. Different social networks emphasize different aspects of the many identities held by any one of their members. Some sites, like Facebook, care that their members are not anonymous and have a verifiable individual identity that everyone can see. Other sites or communities care that a member's profile fits within the stated community identity. A Christian women's group may not want to accept a male atheist. And there are social networks that thrive on anonymity and fictional play. In Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games or MMORPGs, social identity is a creative aspect of the game, but the real person behind the avatar is known by the company and often traceable by other members.
The first social networks didn't worry much about identity and profiles, because most members already knew each other or at least where they worked. As social networks expanded and allowed more anonymity, screen or user names such as "CravenMorehead" and "CommanderSalamander" became playful masks for new virtual gathering spaces. Yet, anonymity does not scale well. As online culture became more global and more mainstream in the 1990s and early 2000s, traceable individual identity became essential for the health of social networks. In Web 2.0 culture, one's virtual reputation in the network determined both network popularity and real world status and even job security. A major online mistake could ruin a reputation and perhaps jeopardize one's livelihood.
VR and AR technologies are beginning to integrate with social networks expressly to create more human presence in virtual social interaction. MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing game), such as World of Warcraft and immersive virtual worlds like Second Life, have been using 3D avatars in social spaces since the mid-2000s. But these avatars were caricatures manipulated with mouse and keyboard and not mapped to an individual identity. Technologies will soon allow social networks to offer virtual spaces filled with virtual representations of real bodies that move and gesture in realtime. How might these new technologies contribute to network health? How might these technologies be abused and break social trust?
Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist from Indiana University, is the first woman to be awarded the Nobel in Economics. Her research about how communities co-operate to share finite resources proved the importance of the commons around the world.
Ostrom's research contradicts the popular “Tragedy of the Commons”, which has been interpreted to mean that private property is the only means of protecting finite resources from ruin or depletion. She documented how communities around the world, in fact come up with unique ways to govern the commons and assure its survival for future generations.
Ostrom offers 8 principles for how a commons can be governed sustainably and equitably in a community. Although commercial networks are not exactly offering a public commons, Ostrom's observations have proven very useful for thinking about the health of networks. Wikipedia, a social network as well as an online encyclopedia, is a "commons" where knowledge and information are resources that must be verified and managed in communities of shared interests using strict guidelines and rules of conduct. The finite resource that social media companies must protect is people's attention. To remain interesting and worthy of people's sustained attention, a social media network offers its members a private, managed and secure commons with features that encourage members to share great content. Private or public, an online gathering space is held together by strong bonds of social trust between its members and between members and the managing company.
Based on Ostrom's 8 Principles for Managing a Commons, assess the features and potential problems of some of the most popluar commercial social platforms as a "commons": Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. What contributes to the health of these platforms? What elements might contribute to a weakened social trust?
Design your idea of a social media platform that attempts to respect Ostrom's principles. This might require some far out-of-the-box thinking.
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