Decentralization must go all the way down to the roots.
Hello everyone, I have some thoughts about the place a decentralized social network has in society.
We all have a sneaking suspicion about what Facebook does, hearing of stories of suppressing politically controversial statements, and would like to have more control over our data and stop being advertised to. We don't pay fees, but this only means that we are the product, sold to advertisers, like cattle given a place to stay and eat only to be slaughtered. Or milked continuously. We are annoyed at the closed-ness, that we can't communicate between the platforms of Facebook and Twitter. We are at the mercy of the design team of Facebook to create our social spaces-- our cyber equivalent of city squares.
So we build diaspora, we build technical platforms for decentralised and open social networks.
But somehow the movement seems unsatisfactory to me. It's not enough. We haven't killed Facebook. The movement doesn't go down deep enough. It wants to think of itself as apolitical, just as Facebook claims to be apolitical. But "everything is political". Facebook's corporate structure and thus its way of doing things embodies the traditional capitalist politics of exploitation; of the few at the top sucking in all the capital gains and not giving employees and users a fair share.
diaspora, too, must be political; it IS political. Right now though, that politics is unspoken, unclear, incoherent; it is weak-willed and superficial. I think it needs to be clarified so that it can become a movement which orients itself in a way that carries out the politics of decentralization all the way down. Otherwise, it will merely sit atop the huge machinery of Facebook and capitalism and centralization without making a real impact; it may even succumb to those forces or be co-opted by them, used, exploited.
The structure of Facebook contains an imperative to growth; to grow huge and take over the world at the expense of competitors. To exploit the social commons, the commons of our social relations and make money from it.
So it's huge. Meanwhile, the network of diaspora networks pales in comparison in size. It's pathetic. We are nowhere near "killing Facebook".
But how can we become huge without embodying the same principles that we are going against?
Let me note a few aspects of the issue:
One: diaspora is Free and Open. It is entirely run by volunteers. This is admirable, but it means that people cannot make a living contributing to the social commons. It means that they must make a living in some other way, which contributes to capitalist society. Imagine the most ironic situation: a programmer works for Facebook by day for his paycheck and volunteers writing for diaspora at night.
But how can programmers make a living other than by submitting to the cold logic of capital?
First note that it is quite startling for me to even ask this question; most of us are taking it for granted that we have to resign to being volunteers and not making a livelihood doing what we want to do, most of us are not able to see any other way that aligns with our ethics.
But we must ask these questions of livelihood, because they are a critical part of the movement in the first place. The movement of decentralising software is one with the movement of decentralising income flows.
I don't really have a clear cut answer myself. But I think a very important direction is to consider "open cooperatives". Open cooperatives embody the opposite principles to traditional corporations. Websites such as p2pfoundation.net and commonstransition.org actively blog and document about them, so please read up about it. (I want to explain how I see an open cooperative of programmers of decentralized social networks working, but I'll leave that for another time. It's not entirely clear to me. This is new stuff to me as well...)
Two: Going down to the roots. Facebook exploits the social commons. But this exploitation is built upon the exploitation of many other commons. A social network is built on servers which are made of precious metals, land on which to hold the servers, electricity to power the servers, bandwidth and network cables to connect the servers to people. All of these: metals and materials, land, energy, bandwidth, are commons, which have been exploited by capital, are under a capitalist/commercial system of management. The software of social media is only the topmost layer of exploitation. When we try to run the Free, Open, and wonderful diaspora software, we must find servers to run it on! But those service providers also embody a politics, an ethical orientation; they are also subject to market forces; they are also trying to survive in a competitive, exploitative environment; they are also companies, start-ups; they are also exploiting natural resources to make a profit.
So here we see the contradiction, right where the rubber meets the road. Where the software meets the server. And once we think of servers, again, we think of the commons of materials, land, energy, bandwidth.
It seems clear to me that we cannot thrive by relying on server-providers that embody the politics of exploitation. For one, just on the principle of it, for another, it is plain to see that the whole thing is not going very well. Looking at the pod uptime the options are plainly pathetic and have a feeling of despairing neglect compared to the smooth confidence of Facebook's monolithic humongousness. They have the look of socially awkward teenagers at a dinner party. Indeed, a diaspora of lonely refugees, huddling together in the cold. Poddery, for example, is flailing. It has a single maintainer and keeps switching server providers. The crowdfunding is not very enthusiastic.
For the movement to really thrive, the revolution of decentralization must go down all the way to the roots. We must form partnerships with server-providers that embody the politics of protecting and growing the commons. The commons of materials, land, energy, the open space of wireless signals, and the commons of free speech, freedom of thought, freedom to share ideas, to relate, to exist online in social space.
I'm mostly pointing out a problem here. The solution is still unclear. There may not be a one-size-fits-all solution. There may be many solutions, and many groups may form to carry out their own solutions. These groups must each have a coherent political identity, and may be different and distinct, and yet they would all be united in the vision of protecting and growing the commons. They may share common technologies under a double-sided license that protects from capitalist exploitation...