The Web of Relationships We Have To Save
It was a few months after the initial uprising in Tahrir, the heady days of revolutionary optimism in Cairo. They say the city never slept, but that’s not true. It just didn’t sleep at night. The only thing that never slept was the traffic. It took me hours to get to my meeting with a prominent blogger who had gotten out of jail just a few months before January 25, 2011. Like you, Hossein, he had done hard, long time. He was fearless, too. I’m not mentioning his name out of principle — he spoke freely, and never asked for such protection. I’ll let people play Google search if they want to identify him. He had openly blogged against Mubarak, during the darkest days, when hardly a political leaf blew in Egypt. He had come out, brave, eager and unbroken, just like you, and he promptly resumed blogging, to find that, just like you, he was now in a desert. “Where is everybody?” he asked me, but only rhetorically. He knew. He answered himself. “They are all on Facebook.” He wasn’t set up for a world optimizing for “likes”.
A few months before your piece came out, Hossein, I got a research query. “Dear Zeynep,” it read, “has anyone written about how the networked public sphere has moved to Facebook and Twitter in so many countries?” Researchers who were used to scraping blogs for political activity were finding a ghost town, mostly. I’m sending them your piece now.
Let me talk about what scares me about all this, but also why this isn’t as bad as we might fear, but also that it may be a disaster, but what I think we should try to save. Let me set forth the good, the bad, the ugly, and what I think is the core truth, and I got the formulation from you.
Here’s the good: Unlike a blogger, it’s very hard to isolate and ban Facebook or Twitter. A blogger can be placed in jail, a network of people on a platform with millions of users is much harder. In the past, the people who read the political blogs were mostly political people. In Turkey, the people who are engaged politically via these platforms are tens of millions of people. Just a little while ago, I tweeted yet another court case in which the Turkish government is trying to block a bunch of Twitter accounts. I oppose most of these blocks on principle, but in reality, as long as the key platforms are open, the blocks are merely a dent in dissident information flow in Turkey. These are the same platforms that Turkish leading political party AKP’s supporters use to chat with each other, and to discuss their own party, and to play Candy Crush (one political point of unity in polarized Turkey). YouTube was banned briefly in Turkey and it raised howls from moms who could no longer show Caillou cartoons to their preschool age kids. (Caillou is a Canadian kid whose life is nothing like a kid’s life in Turkey. Nothing really happens to him, as his understanding, never-yelling parents explain the world to him as he goes to parks, pools, learns to skate and play ice hockey, and visit his grandparents who let him camp in the backyard. It’s just about the most popular cartoon in Turkey. You simply cannot block YouTube in Turkey wholesale for long without raising howls).
The censorious powers in Turkey would like nothing better than for political bloggers to abandon these commercial platforms, and go back to blogging on their independent websites, visited mostly by already sharply political people, easily DDOS’ed, blocked, banned and twisted. So there is that.
Here’s the bad: these platforms have their own censorship mechanisms. Every year or so, I end up in the midst of many public and private rants about Facebook (and even Instagram) banning of perfectly legal Kurdish content — the mayor of Diyarbakir couldn’t keep a Facebook page for a while (city of millions). The main Kurdish opposition party’s page kept getting pulled. Turkish journalists who posted pictures from rallies in Kurdish towns found their Instagram accounts pulled. For the most part, Facebook is doing better now on this issue, but it took a lot of ranting from a lot of people. They were banning anything that seemed to be supporting an illegal Kurdish group but went so overboard that many things were blocked for seemingly merely having people waving traditional Kurdish colors — the equivalent of banning all Irish pages featuring green shamrocks on suspicion of being IRA supporters. I’m glad Facebook has improved its policies, yet yet if they hadn’t, there would be no recourse. These sites have a strong incentive to ban content that is unappealing to advertisers. Buzzfeed recently removed a post criticizing Dove’s tone-deaf ads about beauty — Dove is one of their big advertisers. Buzzfeed apologized and restored the post but I was truly struck by the pettiness of the impulse to pull a tiny teeny bit of criticism.
What happens when an anti-Dove (or insert your product) user-generated content goes viral (or tries to) in a platform in which that product is a key advertiser? Are we back to television which can never cover climate change while so dependent on car ads?
Here’s the ugly: These sites are optimized for delivering ads, and are often algorithmically manipulated. Facebook engineers will swear up and down that they are serving people “what they want” but that glosses over the key question that if the main way to tell Facebook “what we want” is to “like” something. How do we signal that we want to see more of important, but unlikable, updates on Facebook? We can’t, it turns out. During the initial Ferguson protests, my unfiltered Twitter feed was all Ferguson all the time, while Facebook kept sending me colorful videos for a charity drive about which I had already seen many dozens.
At the moment, I have no way to tell my friends on Facebook that I “like” their efforts for charity, or their babies, without Facebook also interpreting that to mean that it should show more and more of that type of content, the opposite of what I actually want. Despite being populated mostly of dissidents around the world, some in exile, many friends in jail, hiding, or in open rebellion, my Facebook feed sometimes feels like Disneyland. Facebook will not prioritize a dark update from a friend whose husband is in an Egyptian jail, but will show me a cheery one she posts, simply because we all click on “like” when we see a moment of happiness from her. I want to see her updates when she most needs our support, and I cannot unless I go out of my way. This sucks.
And there is no alternative to Facebook (and Twitter) on most countries I am connected to.
So after all this, what do we want to preserve? If I may, I want to go back to something you said to me privately that I think is the heart of it. We were discussing the need to preserve links, and have them under our control, and you said “because a link is a relationship.”
A link is not just a link. A link is a relationship.
That is exactly right. A link isn’t just a link, or a hit to be counted. A link is a relationship between people. Karl Marx was a lousy theorist of communism, but I think he was really good at understanding what capitalism does to social relationships. He identified “commodity fetishism” as a key mechanism: our tendency to think of buying and selling of things as merely the exchange of objects for money, rather than a whole set of complex relationships between people, power structures, states, and more. From the rural migrant in a Chinese factory to the ship on the high seas that delivers a phone to the shop in a big city in the United States to the ultimate purchaser, me, it is a set of relationships, embedded in inequalities and frailties and in power between people.
So maybe there is a “link fetishism” that obscures the true heart of a link: it’s a connection between people. The current attention economy and its obsession with numbers — and virality — obscures this core fact about what is beautiful about the web we loved, and one we are trying not to lose. We are here for each other, not just through the fluffy, and the outrageously shareable, and the pleasant and the likable — but through it all. When we write, and link to each other, we are connecting to each other, not merely to content.
So, I end without a conclusion. I don’t want to go back to a web of political blogs, read mostly by political people that is easily targeted and banned. But I do want to go forward to a web based on relationships, the flow of which is not manipulated on behalf of advertisers, to keep everything saccharine. I think this is apocryphal, but it is said that the great Russian novelist Maxim Gorky was asked about how to write about tragedy under socialist realism, the genre of fiction which always ends with the glorious comrades winning the hard battles through much sacrifice, but also glorious, you know.
“How should we write about it if a tram hits a young woman, for example,” one student reportedly asked Gorky. The answer was obvious, of course: “In socialist realism, trams don’t hit young women.”
In the ad-optimized web, I fear, trams don’t hit young women if they interfere with advertiser prerogatives, and relationships between people are reduced to “engagement,” measured by the limited set of ways to interact with the content. I don’t fear commercial platforms, per se, nor am I opposed to the intelligent use of appropriate and robust algorithms that can help enrich our experience. (I’m actually for it). The web we need to save is not this or that format, but our relationships, expressed in our links, our updates, our connections and more. There is much at stake.