Speed Scholarship Week Day 4: Online Communities and Power

It’s day four of Speed Scholarship Week, and the bus is still safely above 50. Today, I give you Anarchy, Status Updates, and Utopia, an essay about Bitcoin, /r/politics, Vi Hart’s YouTube channel, and other experiments in online governance. I argue that technical power—a platform operator’s ability to force changes on users—is far more deeply embedded in social software than we think, precisely because it is social. To use software together, we have to agree on what software to use, and that social process of agreement necessarily gives someone technical power. A commitment to fair treatment and democratic values, where it exists at all, comes from a community of users, not from the software they use.

The paper is my response to a strain of what I think of as technological libertarianism: the belief that freedom online can be fully protected if only we get the software right. I’m sympathetic to the goal, but the means don’t work. Software doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it serves human goals and is controlled by humans. Bitcoin’s protocols won’t protect you if enough other users agree to switch to a different blockchain. To talk about whether a design protects users from each other, we need to talk about the users, and not just the design.

I’ve been working on this paper, on and off, for six years. I’ve presented earlier versions at conferences, but never quite felt that I had it right. Now I do—or at least I’m close enough to share a draft and seek your comments. Here’s an excerpt:

But focusing on technical power raises its own question: why didn’t Marc Bragg and Mailpile head for the exit when things got bad, the way Vi Hart did? Yes, Second Life and PayPal changed the way their systems worked. But so what? Database entries only matter if they control your access to something that matters in the real world. Technical power only has bit to the extent you use a software system; walk away from the keyboard and the software can’t follow.

To understand where this argument goes wrong, consider what it suggests for our disappointed victims of technical power. Marc Bragg didn’t need Second Life: he could have drawn a picture of Taessot on a napkin and continued to enjoy his imaginary property. And Mailpile didn’t need PayPal; it could have drawn pictures of Benjamin Franklin on napkins and used those. You don’t need Facebook; just take a Sharpie to your living-room wall. You don’t need YouTube for cute cat videos; just film your own damn cat.

These suggestions are so unsatisfying because they miss the inherently social nature of social software. The fun, and the value, of these systems comes from sharing them with others. YouTube’s other users provide me with better cat videos than I could film for myself; Facebook tells me what my friends are actually up to, not just what I imagine they’re up to. Countless online journalists use social platforms to publish their work. Virtual property in Second Life, like a domain name or like a LinkedIn account, is valuable in only because it’s networked. To withdraw from the network in which the property is embedded is to give up something of real value, however virtual the property itself may be. (Mailpile’s frozen funds on PayPal are no more real, and no less, than any other form of money.)

This, then, is a point about social power: the authority enjoyed over any community by the person or entity who controls the terms on which the community comes together. The threat to boot you from YouTube if you don’t accept Google+ comments isn’t just about cat videos: it’s also about the people who make and watch those cat videos. The threat to boot you off of a mailing list isn’t just about the emails; it’s about your access to the other people on the mailing list. The threat to boot you from eBay isn’t just about the stars next to your name; it’s about the community of people who know what those stars mean, who give those stars their meaning.

I will be presenting Anarchy, Status Updates, and Utopia at the “Social Justice and Social Media” symposium at Pace Law School in March, and the essay will appear in a symposium issue of the Pace Law Review.