Socialists and social networking: The political pitfalls of “Web 2.0”

Over the past couple of years, the phenomenon known as “Web 2.0” has transformed the way people make use of the Internet. This catch-all term encompasses all of the new participatory web-based technologies such as blogs, wikis and social networking sites, the best known of which are Facebook and MySpace. On the face of it, Web 2.0 carries the potential to radically democratize web-based communications technology because it allows users to create, not just consume, content and to communicate directly with each other through online social communities. Indeed, YDS and other organizations for young people on the political left have used these technologies as organizing tools with a certain degree of success – after all, that’s where young people are at online. These tools make it easy to locate potential recruits and share information regarding campaigns, demonstrations and meetings.

While these new technologies have given us some tools to help us organize more effectively, they have serious political flaws that we cannot simply overlook. These sites are owned and influenced by massively powerful interests who use them as enormous data-mining operations to learn more about the cultural and consumer preferences of young people in order to market products to them more effectively. When you list one hundred of your favorite TV shows, movies and bands, you’re essentially participating in a corporate focus group. Facebook and MySpace capitalize on our friendships and social networks in order to increase profit margins for their owners. This is insidious and should be opposed by young people on the left.

Let’s get specific. The massively popular social networking site Facebook, which currently boasts about 60 million users, recently found itself at the center of a major controversy surrounding an application called Beacon, which showed Facebook users which products their friends were buying online. This enormously invasive form of marketing was too much for many of the site’s users, who organized a massive protest that forced Facebook to drop the application.

But apparently, this episode was indicative of just one aspect of Facebook’s particular awfulness. Recently I received an email from LabourStart, an excellent online resource for union movement news and a center for online union activism, detailing how Facebook banned a prominent Canadian union organizer from its site because he was using it to organize workers. As the email puts it:

Derek got a note from the good book, telling him he was trying to add too many friends, and should calm down a bit, or else. Now as a union organiser, he’s quite likely to want to add lots of friends – it’s kind of what he does. So he waits a bit and tries again, and is told he can’t add any more at the moment and to wait and try later. Fair enough. He waits a bit more and tries again, same message. By now, he’s probably frothing at the mouth and muttering “must organise, must organise,” so he has another go to see if the coast is clear, and promptly gets himself a ban. That being a ban from Facebook itself – no more profile, no access to the stuff he’s built up, no appeal.

Why would Facebook’s administrators care whether or not someone was using their site to organize workers? Well, it turns out that the company’s top executives and investors are right-wing libertarian fantasists. According to a recent piece by Tom Hodgkinson in the Guardian, Peter Thiel, the man responsible for putting up the money necessary to get Facebook off the ground, is an uber-libertarian venture capitalist whose ultimate goal is to use the Internet to free capital from any and all restrictions. “You can’t have a workers’ revolution to take over a bank if the bank is in Vanuatu,” he gleefully intones.

Even though MySpace is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, I actually find it to be less offensive in its marketing efforts than Facebook. The advertising on MySpace tends to be rather dumb and clumsy, and to my knowledge they’ve never engaged in anything so offensive as Facebook’s Beacon initiative. I have also never heard of any attempt on the part of MySpace to ban progressive activists. Still, we don’t watch Fox News Channel and we should be looking for ways to reduce our presence on their website.

How can we go about ending our support for these powerful media conglomerates while still making use of the benefits of social networking technologies? While the non-profit development of Web 2.0 applications is unfortunately not very widespread, there are options. Ning is an online application that offers users tools to create their own online social networks, and as of yet it has not been purchased by any large and horrible company. Even better, Drupal is a non-profit venture that allows users to freely create a wide range of Web 2.0 applications including web
portals, blogs and social networks. While it might be tough to wean large numbers of young people off of Facebook and MySpace, as socialists we should be doing everything that we can to fight the commodification of information and friendship that these sites represent.

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