Mirko Tobias Schäfer's lecture

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Mirko Tobias Schaefer

The talk started with Mark Zuckerberg who portrait Facebook as a country with 200.000.000 citizens and in need of a democratic user policy. This is an example of a trend that webcompanies are concerned about governing their users.

Culture industry is reborn in Web2.0 practices where it became easy to contribute culture on Web platforms. More and more culture is expressed outside traditional media and some companies have implemented this new form of expression. By providing an architecture of participation in the form of a platform; user activity is channeled through templates to allow co-construction of content. This content is stored in databases and made accessible through API’s and the website itself. EULA’s and TOS’s are used to regulate the jurisdiction of these platforms. These policies can be very strict; denying any right to the content created by the users. In some policies the companies have the right to change and delete content freely as well as discontinuing the platform as a whole or for specific users without notification or any cause.

Critique on these practices come from different sources for different reasons: Scholz objects to the free labor that platforms impose by selling the content without sharing value with the creators. Zimmer objects to the surveillance that happens on these platforms. In some cases services were changed because they violated privacy laws in countries (like Gmail in Germany) Munker objects because he argues that the platforms are becoming public space, which is now controlled by companies.

Social media have become more than a third space. Facebook for instance has about 500 million users and the average user has about 130 friends and spends about seven hours per month on the platform. Furthermore Facebook has become a gateway to access other platforms (Rieder) and there’s a lock-in to these platforms as well (Scholz; Lovink) so it’s hard to get out of platforms without loosing contact with the others on it and the content that you generated.

The social media have also become more than shopping malls, because the users demand rights and freedom. They will try to cheat the platform to get these demands without permission from the platform creators. There’s a social-political process where users and owners of the platform negotiate what is possible and allowed and what is not. On these platforms there is also social interactions that happen less in other commercial environments like the shopping mall.

What exactly social means in “social media” remains unclear. Not everything happening on these platforms will be positive social interaction. There are wide ranging possibilities in this new public space where there is a need for rules. These rules can’t be forced upon the users since they will resist in the form of disobedience and organized protest. Therefore the platforms function as a medium for debate about the law like text of EULA and TOS.

The debate also happens in public discourse, but corporations take a central role in the discussions and facilitates a lot of it. This is because companies need to interface with their users who need to support measures. Negotiation is enabled in this sense, but it’s unclear if people are listened to. Companies could be disguising their policies as discourse to quietly impose their needs on the systems we want.

In any case the companies present themselves more and more as governments with constitutions in the form of user policies and sovereignty on their platform. At the same time PR of these companies try to impose their view on governing by making statements about privacy, saying for instance that “we all want to be more open” (Zuckenberg).

There are two sides to these platforms. One is the management of users into profit producing systems by monitoring behavior and allowing for various degrees of (moderated) participation. On the other hand these places have become public places, where we want to manifest ourselves through the content we create. The borders between these two spheres are blurring. The social media are framed political as a tool for democracy while also influencing public opinion and managing the infrastructure and services provided. All this happens in a commercial framework where earning money usually has a higher priority than social well being.

Mirko pleas for backend policy transparency insisting that technological design is the key to cultural power (Andrew Feenberg)


QUESTIONS

Is PR influencing public opinion a form of propaganda or does this comparison not hold? It doesn’t hold.

Are the governments unaware of the new public space and who rules it? Some politicians are very concerned about these issues. Other politicians add to the power of social media by influencing public opinion in saying that social media are new democratic tools.