This week Zuckerberg put his foot in his mouth yet again when he said that Facebook’s new approach to free expression was going to ‘piss off a lot of people’ thereby standing up for trolls and bullies rather than creating a safe place for free expression.
By now, we’re all familiar with the problems of an open communication network which allows global reach. It’s easy to game our reptile brains to spread misinformation, hate speech and propaganda. It allows countries to interfere in the democratic communication processes in other countries. At best it serves as a kind of opiate for the masses, providing distractions that take people out of their communities. It’s a tool for capitalistic expansion and the control of knowledge and information flows. And to top it all off, the ads it serves are terrible.
But if it’s possible to at least deface the master’s house with the master’s tools, maybe social media can, if used deliberately, be useful for returning us to community, thereby allowing us to mitigate some of the other issues. The great promise of social media was it facilitated organization within communities of choice rather than communities of place. This in turn freed global citizens to organize and connect with each other around the world. While seemingly emancipatory in theory, we can see how that turned out in practice. This very affordance of the medium has led to misinformation, anti-social behavior, and populist governments around the world. But what if we used social media to come back to our communities of place?
Case in point: I hardly use Instagram any more. But when I do, I use it to find and add local restaurants and other small businesses in my community, so that when I want to shop locally or eat locally, I can easily find a place to go. Similarly, I use Twitter to connect with the other scholars I meet in person at conferences. I’m not on Facebook, but one could use Facebook in the same way: To organize get togethers with friends, or to find local businesses.
What if we ignored the news feed and just curated our own local feeds? What if we stopped treating social media like an attention and personal validation megaphone? How would our experience change? Could we use these tools to more easily connect with our local communities? Support local businesses? Help a friend or neighbour in need?
Maybe not. The Master’s tools are not designed for this purpose. They’re designed as an attention machine in an effort to attract advertising dollars. But maybe the optimist in me hopes that there are still subversive uses of this dominant technology. Maybe by thinking small and local, we can still connect in ways that make the world better for everyone. Like the overarching system itself, maybe the problem is the infinite scale. By humanizing the scale of our interactions and returning to place based interaction, maybe we can make social media work for us, instead of us always working for it.