Urgent Futures
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Urgent Futures

Without social organizations, social technologies will eat us alive

The bane of the futurist’s existence is that almost daily you see, hear, or read something and want to scream, “I told you so.” Sometimes, it’s a cause for exhilaration — we got it right — and other times, it makes you angry — why didn’t we do something about it earlier, why did we not heed the warning signs? Right now, I am in the latter state. As stories of Facebook’s deflection and manipulation of public opinion dominate the news cycle, I am harking back to things I and others wrote almost ten years ago, in the early days of social media. In 2010, while seeing the great promise of social production (work that involves micro-contributions from large networks of people who often receive “payment” in the form of fun, peer recognition, and a sense of belonging, i.e. social rather than monetary currencies), I started worrying about its shadow side. It seemed that many social media platforms had the potential to re-create the manor economies of the past in the digital world. Reflecting on the lawsuit brought by bloggers who contributed free content to Huffington Post but didn’t get any financial returns when the site was sold for $315 million to AOL, I saw similarities between the medieval and emerging digital manor economies:

Here’s looking at you, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Uber, and myriads of other platforms increasingly fueling our media and work environments as well as rapidly rising rates of wealth inequality. Seeing something worrisome ahead, however, is not enough. A responsible futurist has to come up with workable solutions, actions for us to take to shape a more desirable future. This is why I suggested principles for governing and running platforms based on social production in this 2010 essay:

I applaud Facebook’s attempts to create an independent body, a kind of a Supreme Court for Facebook, to oversee some of its decisions. However, it’s not enough. I think the other principles still stand, and we will probably need to include new ones about ownership and governance of data.

The big question is whether it’s too late for Facebook, and other platforms whose business models have been built against commons-based governance and ownership principles, to really change. Here’s the dilemma (from the same 2010 essay):

As many social scientists understand, it is nearly impossible to mix social and monetary rewards and interactions. Once we introduce money, it totally changes the context and the nature of how we interact with each other and with our communities. Unfortunately, our existing social media platforms have used social, commons-based technologies and fit them into money-driven organizational structures. My hope is that either today’s social media platforms will evolve organizational structures to fit the promise of these technologies, or that they will be simply washed away to be followed by the next generation of platforms structured and governed to realize the promise of social technologies they are built on.



Dispatches from Institute for the Future (IFTF), the world’s longest running non-profit foresight education and research organization helping people navigate complex change and develop lasting future-ready strategies.

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Marina Gorbis

Executive Director, Institute for the Future; author, Nature of the Future. www.iftf.org