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The problem with social protocols

May 23, 2010

An interesting post from Elijah Saxon (UCSC) to the Institute for Distributed Creativity list

—— Original Message ——
Received: Sun, 23 May 2010 07:02:08 PM BST
From: Elijah Saxon …
To: idc…
Subject: [iDC] The problem with social protocols

It is nice to see the growing wave of interest in ‘the facebook problem’. In a nutshell, the task at hand is to figure out how to transform social networking communication into an agnostic protocol like email, rather than a set of set of protocols that serve facebook.

The debate around these issues focuses on the question of ‘open protocols’. Facebook has open protocols, like “open graph”, which are really designed to expand Facebook’s powers of surveillance and their ability to commodify user behavior. Google has open protocols, like the ones used with Buzz, that are designed to wrest control of social data from Facebook, and cut Gooogle in on some of the profit to be made by the detailed surveillance of social networks.

In the free software world, the debate is also about which open protocols to use (or invent) to build a set of ‘social protocols’. One of the unresolved tensions in this debate is how secure the protocols need to be. Many people hold the belief that liberation from the ‘data silo’ of Facebook is good enough. From my perspective, it is unfortunate that much of this debate carries with it the ideological baggage of ’empowerment’ that has been central to the ‘web 2.0’ project and is deployed frequently by Google and Facebook.

The rhetoric of empowerment is worse than co-opted–it has been suspect from the beginning. If there is a foundational flaw in the discourse around Web 2.0 it is that talk of empowerment hides the fault lines of power. This allows Google to write about how they are saving the world by embracing open protocols (they literally say that), while conveniently ignoring the fact that the protocols they are embracing are designed to allow Google maximum access to the monitization of user’s desires and social relationships.

First and foremost, an acceptably secure social protocol would prevent service providers you do not trust, but still need to communicate with, from building a detailed graph of your social network.

We need to start thinking of the social network as both intimate data, and also highly political data. We know far too much about the power of social network analysis to treat the social graph as anything less. When someone’s sexuality can be predicted with a high degree of accuracy by social network analysis alone, or when there are mathematically efficient methods of disrupting a social movement by breaking the least number of network connections, it is time to start protecting our social graphs.

I have been following closely the debates in the free software world around the ‘facebook problem’, and I am a bit worried. What is needed, I believe, is a recognition of how ‘open protocols’ are used as weapons by Google, Facebook, et al. Hopefully, we will start taking seriously the significance of our social graphs and the various ways they can be exploited for social control (to say nothing of constitutive forms of power, like the emergence of surveillance-directed subjectivities and the problem of technologies of the online-self).

Some ‘social protocol’ proposals do take the social graph seriously, and perhaps they will be adopted… once all the others fail. 🙂

Viva La Protocol!

-elijah


Elijah Saxon
Sociology PhD Student
University of California, Santa Cruz
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