Published March 5, 2017
The current situation on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms is untenable, this is a fact widely recognized from all quarters. This situation, however, is unfortunately a complicated one which seems to defy easy analysis. Discussion has so far usually been framed in terms of free speech, but this doesn’t really get at it, it doesn’t seem to resolve the question and always leaves me feeling a bit unsatisfied. Social Media companies banning controversial accounts and suppressing the flow of information on politically motivated grounds, at first glance, appears to be very much a Free Speech matter, but the argument doesn’t ultimately get anywhere. These are private companies, and there is no getting around the fact that they have some right to discriminate regarding how their own products can be used.
In recent days I have seen this argument evolve still further, to question whether or not Platforms like Twitter should become public ‘utilities’ that must offer universal service to all regardless of political viewpoint. I can’t say for certain how many people even suggesting this really believe it, but it’s something I’ve heard floated more than once over the past several months. I for one would have little interest in living under such an arrangement. Would you then be registering your social media accounts to the government? How else would they ultimately be able to ensure that no one was denied access? Would controversial accounts have to really register under a Satire Act to prevent themselves from getting banned? Would they have to prove their artistic credentials? Would a man come to your house every now and again to check your Tweet Meter? It’s all a bit too convoluted.
What it really comes down to is people just want a way to stop the carnage. They want to post in peace, and they don’t want to see accounts they like driven off of the platforms they use. People want an argument that will shut down the whole thing, a solution that will solve the whole dilemma so that good content will flow eternal. Unfortunately I don’t believe it can be that easy. The source of problem has nothing to do with free speech, and disagreements about what that really entails, but is rather a consequence of the philosophy which underpins the larger cultural ambitions of many prominent social media companies. Expecting the government to intervene is unlikely to get you anywhere good.
Today Mark Zuckerberg concocts elaborate philosophical mission statements in which he talks about Facebook as a ‘Global Community,’ but it is important to remember where he started. Facebook began as a platform for college boys to ogle and (sexually) criticize female classmates. To listen to Zuckerberg today he presents himself as a socially responsible man, a man with a Vision, not just for his own company, but for all of us, for the world he intends to connect and bring together into close-knit family of digital content consumers. We are to believe, I think, that even going back to his early career he had this spark of Vision in him, driving him at every step to realize the full potential of what he created.
This bildungsroman of the Silicon Valley social media startup visionary has become all too common in our time. Turn to any platform and you’ll find the founders spinning similar yarns about themselves, about the development of ‘community’ in the digital age and the integral role their products play in bringing people together. This narrative however is one that came later, to shore up and justify the early empty ambition of the founders of these companies. Snapchat was dreamed up by frat boys whose emails were full of references to rap songs, weed and college parties. Similarly Twitter was not born of any grand desire to build a global community, but was originally conceived of as “FriendStalker”:
I remember that @Jack’s first use case was city-related: telling people that the club he’s at is happening. “I want to have a dispatch service that connects us on our phones using text.”
Many of the biggest social media platforms share this one thing in common, they were products designed to connect younger people to parties and facilitate sex. Maybe it is laudable that Jack and Zuckerberg have made an effort to reconceptualize the purpose of their products on such socially conscious terms, but I for one am suspicious of their self-narratives, I am suspicious that it isn’t really all about one thing for them: riding the hype-train into a golden sunset of unlimited wealth. The ambition, certainly, has always been there for the entrepreneur, but the justification of that ambition, the story, that comes after the fact; the story is something designed to conceal the emptiness of the ambition that drives the entrepreneur, the empty ambition of wealth, celebrity and success.
The social media entrepreneurs are all products of a post-90’s world, where cynicism regarding the sentiments and intentions of corporations reached a fever pitch. Though we transact with corporations every day we’re never very happy about having to do so. The fast food restaurant feels dirty to be in, the products we buy seem to break right away, we call customer service for our phone or cable service and we want to scream at the top of our lungs in frustration at first person we speak to after being lead through a never ending labyrinth of automated prompts. All the while the automated voice at the other end of the line chimes in with messages reminding you of all the convenient and socially conscious things the company is working on. The employees at MacDonald’s are part of global family, but they all know its just a sham, that they’ll likely only last in the job for a few months before burning out and changing over to the Taco Bell next door. What the world grew rightly skeptical of was the idea that these corporations could be sincere, that they did care, that their social consciousness wasn’t just another way for them to profit.
Social media entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg initially offered an alternative to the sterility of familiar corporate morality. These were products without all that baggage. Created by small teams and designed to provide ephemeral amusement and quick connectivity without any pretension of making anyone, let alone the world, a better place. That is what appealed to so many of us who excitedly signed up for these products when they were first launched. Facebook had a cool factor when it was limited to only college students and was marketed mainly as a way for you to check out members of the opposite sex. Today it’s a platform for extended family members to vent their political frustrations. At the same time, in a desire to obtain to ever new heights of global relevancy, Zuckerberg tells us how he’s going to change the world, but who really even wants him too? The blind ambition of his ilk has transformed itself into everything they once attempted to contrast themselves with. No longer cool, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms are succumbing to the same corporate insincerity that caused widespread rejection of the anodyne morality of Walmart and Burger King during Generation X.
Whether there’s a way to get everyone their accounts back is something I doubt. It’s important to keep in mind though that these platforms cannot define us in our transactions with them anymore than MacDonald’s can when we buy a burger, and this is where I see people often getting off track. Where is this global community we hear about? It is a shadow realm, between reality and dream, a place where we create ourselves through what we choose to share. This is a second existence, distinct from the one we experience as we go about our everyday lives. This is a new public sphere into which we project, and that projection is something we tailor and construct by means of the things we like and pin and retweet. We merely suggest ourselves, we suggest to those that view our timelines that a person exists who likes the things that we say we do, who has the experiences we catalog in the pictures we upload, who has relationships with the individuals behind the other projections collected beneath our ‘Friends’ tab. The person at the center of all of it is no where to be found, but is negatively conditioned as the entity to which all this data is attributed.
Rather than simply connect us to what our friends are doing, or helping college kids find a party to go to, social media platforms today have conceived of a much grander product to sell: existence. By means of their platforms we obtain existence in the new public sphere, we become observable. Facebook and Twitter don’t just allow us to share moments or memories, they allow us to become, they stream our data to the world so that we might suggest our social existence to others. This is the true dream of the Facebergian global community, a new social dimension into which we project and become, a phantom world of dream bodies peering through the brush of a jungle of data in order to observe one another as we engage in the intimate act of becoming.
We are all always engaged in some kind of self-narratization, not only do we use Zuckerberg’s platform to weave that tale of becoming, but our doing so is in turn predicated on our acceptance of the entrepreneurial bildungsroman of Faceberg and Dorsey, that they give us existence within the global community they benevolently foster. The accounts that Twitter banned may be gone, but that should give us occasion to ask what happened to them? Where did these people who were suggested to us vanish to? As Zuckerberg self-narrates his own tale of philanthropic entrepreneurial becoming, in that act he claims for himself the power to disappear anyone from the global community he dreams of with the push of a button. Whether or not this story alone however is enough to make his dream a reality is something I seriously doubt.