Saturday, June 13, 2009

A New Social Media Order

I am not any fan of Socialism with a big 'S' -- indeed, of any ideology that seeks to enforce a social order, shape human behavior, and exercise control over legitimate and morally acceptable action by individuals. Over sixty years of so-called socialism has done as much, perhaps, if not more, harm to the nation and the people of India as any benefits it has wrought. The crimes committed by intelligent, educated and well-meaning persons are sometimes far more devastating and enduring than those of brutish tyrants; such, I believe, has been the fate of this great nation as it became subjected to alien ideologies that were concocted in distant minds without the consent and understanding of the vast majority of her people. Thus, when I read of Western neo-liberals cooing over the coming of the New Socialist Order via the internet I am torn between the desire to throw up and the need to rant and rave at evidence of rank stupidity. I will, instead, try to carefully explore the matter and ruminate over the grander social implications of the rapid growth of social media.

My son was studying for his economics examination the other day and the subject of collective bargaining came up. It is commonly expressed that man is a social animal. Whether the matter of being social is instinctual or learned from experience is typically never brought up. The assumption usually is that it is an instinct -- being social is what we are about -- and we'd better accept our lot. Far more interesting is the idea that we discovered the benefits of being social early on, perhaps while watching pack animals hunt together and succeed against much better-endowed prey. We learned that working as a group imbued us with a power that we don't possess at all as individuals; the process of organizing into a group itself generates a collective energy and strength that can intimidate and threaten relatively large and powerful opponents. Furthermore, we discovered that each individual had distinct, innate talents that if allowed to flower and develop would benefit not only that individual, but also the entire social group to which she belongs. So each of us enters into an unstated compact with our social group: you give me the time to pursue the development of my talents, and I'll give back things that would benefit you. In this manner, homo sapiens has carried the benefits of being social far beyond what nature may have had in mind (so to speak).

The benefits of organizing typically grow with numbers, but for any structural configuration or order a point is reached beyond which the Law of Diminishing Returns becomes operative: a lot of effort goes in merely to keep the social structure intact. When the costs of organizing exceed any benefits that it might deliver, organizing -- or at least, that particular organizational configuration -- loses its (originally intended) purpose. The organization may continue to exist for some time, but primarily due to inertia. Over time, the forces of entropy will likely tear it apart. It is before this point is reached that an entirely different structural paradigm is called for in order for groups of individuals to become effective. We see this in the way cults, kingdoms, states, armies, guilds and businesses, for instance, organized (and disbanded) over the centuries of recorded human history.

The modern corporation is the product of ideas of organization developed in the 20th century Europe. While the key concepts underlying bureaucracies have been in place since the times of the great empires of ancient history (e.g., Egypt, Rome, Persia, Mesopotamia, Maurya, Han), it is the work of Max Weber that have had the most influence on how large modern organizations are structured. These powerful ideas have helped shape the megacorps of the 20th century -- General Motors, Exxon, GE, Wal-Mart, IBM, Royal Dutch-Shell, the Tata, Reliance and others. Even Third Wave organizations such as Google, despite their many innovative philsophies of culture and process, borrow several key organzational elements from the corporate behemoths of yore; they don't represent entirely new organizational paradigms but modifications, sometimes significant, of the same old paradigm. Perhaps it was necessary to be thus organized because the socio-economic landscape at large was (and still is) located (I would say, mired) in the Old Order.

While individuals recognize and desire the social and economic benefits that social order and organization provide, among the greatest of drawbacks and dangers of organizations is their sometimes dehumanizing effects. Many choose to exit from large organizations for this reason, and many more stay on for the security but harbor intense resentment all the same, like a couple stuck in a bad marriage who remain together 'for the sake of the kids'.

Which brings us to subject of alternative organizing paradigms and the role of the Internet in making them possible. A first axiom of all social organization involves communication: all organization is founded on communication among members. Communication is integral to the process, product, raw material, and at least part a part of the outcome of organization. Communication is the lifeblood of organizations. Hence, no communication, no organization. While organization is far more than communication, the quality and structures of communication can (and does) determine its success or failure.

Human communication --and organization -- traditionally occurred face-to-face; it involved participants who were Colocated and communication occurred Synchronously - in real time. As intact groups developed, other methods of intra-group signaling evolved for group members to remain in communication even when they were not proximally located. Smoke signals may have been the earliest means of real-time telecommunication (Dislocated, Synchronous), while markers and cave drawings may have been used to leave messages that were received later (Colocated, Asynchronous). The advent of written language permitted messages to be delivered to recipients at other locations at later times (Dislocated, Asynchronous). All these various extensions to the primordial Colocated Synchronous process helped human social organization evolve into new forms that could be applied to new initiatives such as warfare, monument construction, knowledge development and dissemination, trade, religion and so on. The emergence of telegraphy and telephony in the 19th century expanded the scope of organizations and permitted them to grow massively in size and expand geographically. Social order and organizational paradigms were extended, but significantly were not radically altered.

Before the Web, was the WELL (and Usenet). It was only with the coming of computer communications, that entirely new forms of organizing people in a sustained manner became possible. The prototypical Third Wave social organization was The Well (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) founded by Steward Brand and Larry Brilliant in 1985 (a few years before the World Wide Web was born). For perhaps the first time, it was possible to take advantage of the emergent nature of social processes and the availability of computer linkages to meld groups of individuals who were widely dispersed, geographically, to create free-wheeling, evolving, social organizations. Notably, the WELL attracted individuals who were politically (and socially) liberal in their viewpoints. They liked the relatively anarchic nature of the community where members made up their own rules and norms rather than try to fit into some existing, inherited social ruleset. Many were current or former hippies (or hippie-sympathizers). Many were also technologically savvy. Here's a blurb from their website:
Welcome to a gathering that's like none other — remarkably uninhibited, intelligent and iconoclastic ... The regulars in this place include noted authors, programmers, journalists, activists and other creative people who swap info, test their convictions and banter with one another in wide-ranging conversations, using their real names.
The WELL served as a model for the tens and thousands of communities that now dwell on the Web; it was, in a real sense, the Mothership.

Web-based communication provides a wide variety of structural configurations for people to connect, communicate, organize, collaborate and create community (Oh, I so love alliteration!). In the beginning was email. Email permitted Dislocated Asynchronous, one-to-one and one-to-many communication. The next step in the evolution of internet communication was the construction of intact communities identified and embodied by the creation of online discussion groups. Each discussion group had an agenda and a set of interests, that attracted people with similar interests. All early communities (including the WELL and USENET newsgroups) were constructed out of the raw material of email. Community members sent and received postings in the form of email which were aggregated on servers as threaded discussions that retained the contexts of each specific conversation. While email allowed only scattered communication to occur, a threaded discussion retained the discursive structure of a conversation. From such humble beginnings we have come to the age of SMS, Chat, Twitter, Facebook, Blogs, Wikis (including Wikipedia), Skype, YouTube, Flickr, Slideshare, Digg, Delicious, Slashdot, Last.fm, SecondLife, Moodle, and MMORPGs.
''The whole Usenet phenomenon was one of the really early indicators of what was going to happen on the Web,'' said Dr. David Farber, a professor of telecommunications at the University of Pennsylvania. ''The incredibly dynamic discussion groups, the flames, the spamming, everything that's now considered a great and unique property of the Web, and everything that's considered a bad and unique property of the Web, was all there on Usenet.'' (NYT)
So what does all this stuff about Social Media have to do with any New Social Order? Is it possible for technology to transform the fundamental structure of human society? Let's take a look at a phenomenon that is unlikely to have occurred without the internet and social media (ancient or modern). This phenomenon, called Linux, is located in the context of a larger movement called Open Source. The Linux operating system is directed by an individual, Linus Torvalds, but the responsibility for developing and maintaining it rests with a vast community of thousands dispersed across the globe connected only through the internet, and most of whom have never met (nor likely ever to meet) in person. Similar processes are observed in most open source projects. Some key characteristics of community-based open source development include:
  • members self-select to join
  • membership is free and open: people may join or leave whenever they wish
  • group tasks are established through discussion and consensus-generation among members
  • members volunteer to accomplish various group tasks
  • there is little or no hierarchy
  • there are responsibilities and individuals who take ownership of responsibilities thereby becoming responsibility leads or point-persons
  • there are extensive discussions among members
  • members participate to whatever extent in and whatever manner they wish
  • the act of participation and contribution to group goals is its own reward
  • there are no material rewards, just the thrill of participation and possible peer-recognition
  • if there are disagreements, some members may 'fork' (branch away) a project and take it in a different direction, yet retain links to the mainstream group
  • a member's status in a group is built entirely through merit and contribution
  • practically all communication and community building is carried out over the internet
This model seems to have worked very well -- Linux is a respected (and yet free) operating system of very high quality, used around the world, including by large, traditional, for-profit corporations. The reasons for Linux's success was well-analyzed in an essay by Eric Raymond called The Cathedral and the Bazaar. Linux -- and in general, Open Source projects -- was built using an organizational structure far removed from the traditional, 'Second Wave' structure one might find even in an ostensibly 'Third Wave' corporation such as Microsoft; despite being a modern, information-based corporation, Microsoft is structured like an organizational founded on 19th century ideas. That Linux succeeded suggests that the time may be ripe for many organizations -- especially those that have embraced the Third Wave (at least in their products and services)-- to also embrace Third Wave organizational structures and processes of the kind that the internet affords.

The cooperative and collaborative nature of internet communities and the absence of traditional hierarchical structures and bureacratic processes makes many who ought to know better view such communities as some new kind of Socialist Order. I'm referring to the folks at Wired magazine -- a source of information that I find thought prov0king, but which like many in the popular media, can get lost in the hype. It's a good read, peppered with interesting ideas as well as clouded perspectives, which makes it at once aggravating and interesting.

Leaning on a community for support and cooperation is not the same as communism or socialism. Much of this sort of rhetoric tends to come from the United States where fighting communism and socialism was elevated to the status of a State Religion in the early part of the 20th century. People organizing for any purpose, including to face large, powerful corporations was conflated with communism. Indeed, the myth of the Lone Cowboy accomplishing superhuman feats single handedly was likely created to counter any attempts by people to work together. But working together for a shared purpose -- even while retaining individual operative freedom -- has been a hallmark of human behavior since time immemorial. Communism and socialism, on the other hand, are well-defined ideologies for running entire nations and economies through state control. The State is not equal to The Community. So-called communist nations like China and the former USSR pretended to be community-oriented but were (and are) in fact dictatorships of the proletariat (and not even the entire proletariat, but just a very few chosen ones). Communism and Socialism (much like Free Market Capitalism) were frauds perpetrated on a largely unschooled people. Some good education can have the salutory effect of putting pernicious and flawed ideologies to rest forever.

Collaborating and cooperating for the common good has been a feature of human society all throughout human (and likely even pre-human) history. Collaborating as a community is not the same as having an entity called The State enforce collectivism on a frequently unwilling populace. If working together for the common good merits being called an 'ism' like Communism, then the act of breathing likely should be filed under 'Breathingism' and eating, under 'Eatingism'. What the internet has made possible is to extend the context of cooperation and collaboration well beyond the Synchronous and Colocated. Another key distinction between internet community and communism is the voluntary nature of collaborative work -- the State is nowhere in the picture. Indeed, members of internet communities tend to harbor a strongly libertarian, often anarchist, ethos and would quit any community that comes under the aegis of a State-like entity. I don't see how Kevin Kelly, the author of the aforementioned Wired article could use the terms communism and socialism in reference to what's happening on the internet when he writes:
The type of communism with which Gates hoped to tar the creators of Linux was born in an era of enforced borders, centralized communications, and top-heavy industrial processes. Those constraints gave rise to a type of collective ownership that replaced the brilliant chaos of a free market with scientific five-year plans devised by an all-powerful politburo. This political operating system failed, to put it mildly. However, unlike those older strains of red-flag socialism, the new socialism runs over a borderless Internet, through a tightly integrated global economy. It is designed to heighten individual autonomy and thwart centralization. It is decentralization extreme.
Then he writes:
I recognize that the word socialism is bound to make many readers twitch. It carries tremendous cultural baggage, as do the related terms communal, communitarian, and collective. I use socialism because technically it is the best word to indicate a range of technologies that rely for their power on social interactions.
No, Kevin, it ain't the best word. Not even close. Then he gets worse:
When masses of people who own the means of production work toward a common goal and share their products in common, when they contribute labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge, it's not unreasonable to call that socialism.
Oh no, Kevin! It isn't! If it is, then practically every 'social' organism -- including honey bees, for instance -- practices socialism, and has been doing so since the origin of its species. I seriously doubt that any honey bees got to read Karl Marx and managed to convert the flock the One True Way. Finally, he gets it right:
But there is one way in which socialism is the wrong word for what is happening: It is not an ideology. It demands no rigid creed. Rather, it is a spectrum of attitudes, techniques, and tools that promote collaboration, sharing, aggregation, coordination, ad hocracy, and a host of other newly enabled types of social cooperation.
In fact, this is exactly why the New Internet Order cannot be called socialism at all. The so-called social media that ride the rails of the Web help restore to human beings, the power to be human and do what comes naturally to human beings: cooperating and collaborating even while not giving up their individuality. What seems like socialism to some American minds is the consequence of decades of propaganda (through movies, books, and the media in general) that has portrayed the Ideal American as a Lone Ranger, a cowboy or Superman who single-handedly fights and defeats bad guys; such mythical portrayals have had the effect of making generations of Americans believe that there is something dirty about working together for the common good. Perhaps the propaganda was meant to dissuade Americans from participating in labor unions and engaging in collective bargaining - and thereby stem the growing tide that might have led to a communist takeover in that country a century ago. But the propaganda effort (if any) seems to have gone way overboard, warping the views of even otherwise sensible writers like Kevin Kelly.

It is dangerous and seriously misleading to compare the new phenomenon of internet community with either communism or its milder cousin, socialism, for such pernicious associations are likely to keep many otherwise talented contributors from participating in processes that they would otherwise enjoy and support. What the web provides is a theoretically infinite variety of configurations to organize and structure human interactions, create and maintain community and accomplish a wide variety of common goals beneficial not only to members, but also the larger community outside. Wikipedia is just one outstanding example of the phenomenon called crowdsourcing where questions or needs are shot off into the ether, as it were, and somebody (or a collection of somebodys), somewhere in the ether constructs an appropriate response, far better than something that could have been accomplished by the members of a single, conventional, brick-and-mortar organization. Crowdsourcing works because a planet of six billion persons is seething with talent, expertise and wisdom that cannot be captured within the boundaries of any organization, however large it might be. Crowdsourcing relies on the power of anarchy, which in itself is a challenge to any static organizational structure.

Craigslist, a 33-person outfit with global operations is a household name among the young and inter-connected, an indispensable resource that has notched up revenues of USD 100 million. Craigslist has grown entirely through word of mouth -- or net. A low-tech site founded in 1995 by Craig Newmark, Craigslist is a community resource which turns a decent profit even while most of its users pay nothing to use its services. Newmark has turned away many offers to sell out, although eBay has a minority interest in the company now. From the Wikipedia article:
Having observed people helping one another in friendly, social and trusting communal ways on the Internet, the WELL, and Usenet, and feeling isolated as a relative newcomer to San Francisco, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark decided to create something similar for local events.
The thing about web commuities is that they are beyond ideology -- this is neither socialism nor capitalism in action, it is pure human social organization driven by our basic instincts and mediated by technology. Those who seek to view such processes through the lenses of ideology invariably generate warped opinions of what they see. Social media are not the New Socialism -- they are, in fact, tools to deter or defeat States and powers of whatever complexion. Camelia Entekhabifard, an Iranian emigre in the US who fled the Tyrannical Ayatollah regimes, writes in the NYT:
Thanks to YouTube, Facebook and blogs, it’s easier for young people to organize, express their grievances and learn personal information about top officials.
This is not socialism: this is allowing people to live like people, unconstrained by ideology or politics. In a highly mobile society where individuals and families may move several times during their lifetimes, frequently resulting in family members and close friends becoming widely dispersed, social media help restore and reconstruct communal links. The salutary effects go beyond just that:
“One of the greatest challenges or losses that we face as older adults, frankly, is not about our health, but it’s actually about our social network deteriorating on us, because our friends get sick, our spouse passes away, friends pass away, or we move,” said Joseph F. Coughlin, director of the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
...
Some research suggests that loneliness can hasten dementia, and Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, an internist and social scientist at Harvard, says he is considering research on whether online social connections can help delay dementia, as traditional ones have been found to do in some studies.
Apart from Facebook and Myspace, there are now social networking sites exclusively for the elderly, like Eons.com. About the only thing that the terms socialising and socialism have in common are their first eight letters and the fact that they have to do with people. The New Media and the New Internet Social Order are about giving people options for building and participating in communities in a wide variety of configurations for a whole host of purposes, all of which restore to them their sense of dignity as human beings, not faceless serfs or subjects of some impersonal state or corporation. Social media help amplify their sense of self that often gets lost in an increasingly noisy, crowded, depersonalizing and dehumanizing world. It may seem paradoxical that the web, which is itself is viewed by some as being excessively noisy may actually provide a way for many to poke a hole in that wall of noise and reach out to kindred souls dispersed across the ether. Internet communities and social media provide channels that are insulated from each other to cut down the noise and even be as quiet as one would wish them to be by permitting one to exercise control over the extent one's participation.

Above all social media provide the means to explore and experiment with social innovation --new ways to communicate, to interact, to collaborate, and new forms of community. None of this reeks of socialism to me; I wouldn't go anywhere near if they did. I use social media because they enable me to participate in communities that I never otherwise could have. Social media bring the citizens of the world a lot closer together and remind us that we are all highly dependent on each other and that together we can solve our collective problems and perhaps make life on earth a lot more pleasant and fulfilling.

UPDATE June 16, 2009: Blogs, Facebook and Twitter are helping Iranian protestors supporting opposition candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi communicate, collborate and coordinate their activities, while protesting the fraudulent election that recently returned President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to power. It's notable that the New Media has left the traditional news media way behind. The government is respoding by trying to shut down communication networks - thereby announcing its sense of insecurity, like any autocratic regime. This may not have the desired effect, however.
Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard Law School who is an expert on the Internet, said that Twitter was particularly resilient to censorship because it had so many ways for its posts to originate — from a phone, a Web browser or specialized applications — and so many outlets for those posts to appear.

As each new home for this material becomes a new target for censorship, he said, a repressive system faces a game of whack-a-mole in blocking Internet address after Internet address carrying the subversive material.
And ironically,
“It is easy for Twitter feeds to be echoed everywhere else in the world,” Mr. Zittrain said. “The qualities that make Twitter seem inane and half-baked are what make it so powerful.”
Viva la half-bakery!

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