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Socialized Media

What will it take to remake Facebook and Twitter in the public’s interest?

Earlier this month, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and an absent Google representative found themselves before the Senate Intelligence Committee (SIC), where they endured an uncomfortable grilling on topics ranging from the manipulation and value of user data to how one might police the “truth.” These lines of questioning inevitably generated vague speculation about regulation, though it’s difficult to imagine the scope of federal action that would be required in a serious effort to confront the crisis unfolding on the backs of privatized platforms.

It’s popular to refer to digital platforms as town squares, but the shopping mall is a more apt metaphor: they are built to approximate the participatory feel of an open market, while their corridors are ruthlessly designed for the purposes of encouraging consumption and maximizing profit. Depression, anxiety, hate-mongering, fear, and conspiratorial untruths are all acceptable outcomes so long as they are expressed, consciously or otherwise, in the service of growth.

Social media’s monarchs are more entrenched than ever. Still, its horizons remain murky.

These platform structures are, more and more, the dominant modes of abstract social organization: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google have a combined market capitalization larger than the French GDP, and in an earlier hearing, Mark Zuckerberg struggled to name a single serious competitor when pressed on his company’s monopoly status. It’s clear that platform capitalism thrives at the expense of public discourse, and that its monarchs are more entrenched than ever. Still, its horizons remain murky.

The loudest, most frequent response to the crisis of platform consolidation has arguably been an appeal to better markets, such as the progressive coalition Freedom from Facebook’s effort to push the Federal Trade Commission to spin Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger into competing services. Law professor and New York Times contributor Tim Wu has similarly advanced this line, advocating for an aggressive antitrust campaign against the likes of Google and Amazon—including in his forthcoming book, The Curse of Bigness. If we break up the giants, the thinking goes, their progeny will improve each other in a rush to pan for attention. “We live in America,” he recently told The Vergecast, “which has a strong and proud tradition of breaking up companies that are too big for inefficient reasons.”

It’s hard to justify Facebook’s acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram as anything short of stabs at monopoly, but there are hard limits to antitrust—namely, that large platforms appeal to users precisely because of the network effects of intense consolidation. Smaller services routinely compete for attention-time, but typically do so by differentiating themselves and courting niche audiences rather than taking the behemoths head-on. Nobody thinks of Etsy as a replacement for Amazon, and not even Google+ could effectively compete as a direct replacement for Facebook. Unless it’s billed a subcultural phenomenon, people don’t see the point in adapting to a new platform until it reaches a critical mass—even though they’re the exact people it would need to get there.

Mastodon is a perfect example of the limits of platform competition. Optimistically billed as a community-focused Twitter-killer, the fledgling social network rode last month’s controversies into a gauntlet of fawning coverage that dared users to climb out of the Nazi-infested swamp. Mastodon is relatively free of hate speech and malicious bots, but few people made the leap: an unofficial bot currently reports around 230,000 users. This is partially due to individual preference for the familiar, but structural inertia presents a much stronger obstacle. Like any newcomer, Mastodon necessarily lacks the abundance of celebrities, journalists, and unhinged presidential proclamations that give Twitter the feel of a micro-celebritized commons. In a piece hailing the platform’s design strength, Wired editor Brendan Nystedt acknowledged its central deficiency in a bold understatement: “The only thing I truly miss from the old birdsite? My friends!” This isn’t a bug; it’s the exact reason we can’t look to a Mastodon, or an Ello, or a Gab for salvation—any more than libertarian seasteads can expect to cure traffic or gentrification. We need to make our platforms better, not wait for better platforms.

Given that these services often take the form of natural monopolies, others have suggested that, rather than break up the big platforms, we should subject them to stringent federal regulation as public utilities—or, as Platform Capitalism author Nick Srnicek has suggested, outright nationalization. But most digital platforms are transnational entities, meaning that regulatory efforts are narrowly limited to individual protections on the basis of citizenship (as we have seen with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation). Otherwise, there are devastating implications for nationalization beyond our borders. Would a situation where the United States unilaterally dictates the policies of a platform shaping Paraguayan political discourse be any better than one in which Russian oligarchs are free to transmute capital into American speech?

If we’re to imagine a meaningful path for Congress to take, it’s worth considering the context of the recent SIC hearing. The previous month, conspiracy news site Infowars was systematically cut from Apple, Spotify, Facebook, YouTube, and a host of other platforms (Twitter followed suit after Alex Jones went on a Periscope rampage and berated its CEO at the hearing itself). The ensuing conversation was predictably frustrating, but enlightening insofar as it revealed how people conceptualize digital platforms. Ostensibly right-wing Infowars journalist Millie Weaver, for example, argued that Facebook has no right to ban private individuals, on the grounds that it is “public” rather than “privately owned.”

She was roundly mocked for appearing not to realize that shareholders privately own publicly traded companies, but her ignorance betrayed a disconnect between this reality and a popular—if subconscious—understanding of digital platforms as public commons for speech and association.

One solution that would align with this idea of social media as a public commons: handing collective power over digital platforms to the people they connect. We usually associate cooperative models with local, small-scale apps for “gig” economy laborers that more closely resemble traditional workers, but the idea of converting mass platforms into user cooperatives has been floated before— including at last year’s Twitter shareholder meeting. Calling for a report on the feasibility of selling Twitter to its users and speculating that such a governance structure could “set more transparent accountable rules for handling abuse” and “re-open the platform’s data to spur innovation,” it’s no surprise the proposal only received 5 percent of the shareholder vote. But what if financial interests weren’t given a choice?

Those who advocate for cooperativizing platforms on the scale of Facebook, Twitter, or Amazon often gesture toward the success of consumer coops like Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI), a retailer of outdoor equipment and the nation’s largest such coop. But the strongest foundation of the cooperativized platform would be a recognition that voluntary human participation—rather than capital, design, or code—is the source of all value generated within their architecture, meaning their structures would more closely resemble worker coops than boutique grocers. We are drawn to platforms because of the qualitative forms that mutual participation takes—memes, news, opportunities for intellectual community and even material benefit—but they are designed with an extractive focus on data, the quantitative exchange-value produced through collectively disavowed digital labor—or playbor (play/labor), to borrow a phrase from New School professor Trebor Scholz.

The fact that generative speech organizes around the drive for accumulation underlies many of the ways mass platforms continue to undermine democratic participation and empathetic connection. Some have theorized a demand for remuneration for the production of valuable data—Laurel Ptak’s Wages For Facebook project famously opened with the lines: “THEY SAY IT’S FRIENDSHIP. WE SAY IT’S UNWAGED WORK.”—but a reconceived notion of ownership provides a more meaningful avenue for unmooring social structures from the profit motive. It’s one thing to demand a $15 shitpost stipend, but what if we elected Facebook’s board of directors?

Earlier this year, Logic magazine editor Ben Tarnoff suggested nationalizing collective data reserves, contracting private companies to refine them into profitable forms (presumably the same platforms that do this today) through production sharing agreements, and depositing revenue into a sovereign wealth fund—similar to the Alaska Permanent Fund—which would pay annual dividends on the basis of citizenship. While I agree that the private capture of user data represents an enclosure of the commons and that a reconfiguration of ownership should underlie any effort to make platforms more democratic, I would argue that the state’s role in this transition should be as an intermediary and not a final custodian.

Instead, consider a structure in which—once a digital platform is determined to possess monopolistic characteristics and to play a sufficiently fundamental role in public discourse and free association—the state delegates eminent domain to a newly established independent trust that seizes control of all data generated by its users. The government could also initiate a forced buyout and transfer a portion of voting shares into the trust, funding the acquisition by taxing tech companies for indirect subsidies through something like the Stop-ZUCK Act.

In turn, the trust would initiate a voluntary process to issue voting shares to every verifiable individual who generates value on the platform within a given period. These shares couldn’t be resold and would not appreciate in value; instead they would represent ownership in the trust and could be used to elect leadership and vote on substantive issues. The elected leadership could enter into negotiations over data use with the company managing the platform, as well as vote as shareholder proxies on behalf of the trust, all the while advocating on behalf of users. They could enter into a profit sharing agreement with regard to the use of personal data, as Tarnoff had suggested, but such an approach would also invite a broad host of other possibilities. Users could demand forms of algorithmic transparency, for example, or play an active hand in the regulation of speech. Rather than monetary compensation, they could require the company to pay out in the form of a stock ownership plan, gradually transferring voting shares to an entity under their collective control. Basically, it would give platform users—the international population whose attention generates all value associated with the digital commons—a seat at the table and a powerful bargaining chip.

This is just one possible route for establishing democratic control over mass platforms, but the fact remains that unbridled platform capitalism is eroding our freedoms of speech and association. Under these conditions, it should be acknowledged that platform users themselves represent the ideal polity for a democratic model of governance; the legitimation of digital labor presents a strong foundation for establishing collective control over digital platforms and the data that fuels them; and the U.S. government is arguably the only institution with the power and jurisdiction to peacefully force a platform on the scale of Facebook to restructure its ownership model.

To transform a mass digital platform into a worker coop would require vast political will.

It might seem unlikely that the government would intervene in platform ownership structures without claiming a stake of its own, but cities like Cleveland and New York have already found success with experimental programs to provide public resources and funding for independent worker coops. Noting that worker-owned companies help ensure the economic viability of local communities and outperform competitors in economic downturns, a recent article in the Harvard Business Review also promoted worker buyouts and argued for hybrid ownership models, “especially those that build more-democratic forms of ownership from the ground up.”

To transform a mass digital platform into a worker coop hybrid through a recognition of digital labor would require vast political will—certainly more than appears to exist at present—but it’s not unthinkable that populists on both sides of the aisle could find common ground on the issue. After all, Republicans have voiced even more concern about Facebook’s power than Democrats, and it was Ronald Reagan who once mused, during a 1987 speech, “that in the future we will see in the United States, and throughout the western world, an increasing trend toward the next logical step: employee ownership.” If Congress is serious about confronting the platform monopolists, the idea of contorting their services into worker cooperatives should become a serious part of the conversation.