What is the ideology of your social network?

Karl Marx on Facebook. What is the ideology of your social network?

Karl Marx on Facebook.

A social network isn’t a neutral space. It is designed for a purpose, and that purpose is ideological.

Is your social network designed by techies, out of a pure love for seeing what is technologically possible? Is it designed to bring people together, to help them organise? Or is it designed to sell them things, and to collect data? Or, more insidiously, is it designed to give the illusion of bringing people together, so that it can sell things and collect data?

If it’s collecting data, what is the date being used for? Sociological research? Control and surveillance? Marketing? Or is it to help people organise politically?

All technology is political, and it’s useful to think through the politics if we are going to use it. This will help us to stay in control, and not be manipulated by subtle design elements.

So what is the politics of, say, Facebook? I guess is it essentially classically liberal – generally, it likes to give a platform for free speech, and favours the free market. It is dotcom neoliberalism, cyber hipster libertarianism, that some theorists have labelled “the Californian ideology“.

Facebook is opposed to privacy, and sees your data as a commodity to be profited from.

Personally, Facebook makes me feel manipulated. I feel like someone is trying to sell me something, to monetise my connections. I feel like it’s a parasite, using my relationships with people to sell us things, and to map our connections, and our ideas about society through the pages we like. Facebook wants you to pay to share content now, so unless you have deep pockets, activist groups aren’t going to see their stuff go viral any more.

Certainly, it’s the biggest database of people ever created, and people are adding the information willingly. The fact that the spies in the NSA and GCHQ have access to it means we are doing the spooks’ jobs for them, monitoring and reporting back on ourselves and our friends.

Twitter, by contrast, feels functional and quite free to me. There is little distraction, just a stripped down, simple interface. Hashtags and mentions mean it is very easy to find the information you want, and to communicate to a lot of people. Twitter’s ideology seems to be about making communication as effective as possible by stripping it back to the bare minimum: 140 characters of succinct, well-crafted text, enhanced with embedded metadata. But twitter also leaves me feeling exposed, sometimes, because anyone can pile in and attack you if they don’t like what you say. It’s also easy for a tweet to be retweeted many times, and to lose its context in the process, so that you become bound to a rash statement made in the heat of an argument.

Because it’s such an effective communication mechanism, it needs to be treated carefully.

What are your views on the politics of social networks?

The unobtrusive social network is most effective

How many social networks do you belong to? Most people would answer three or four, and list Facebook, Twitter and maybe Instagram, Tumblr or some others.

But what about the social networks you don’t notice?

If you have a Google account – for Gmail, or YouTube, or your Android phone – you already have a Google+ profile. If you comment on newspapers, magazines and blogs online, you probably have a profile on Disqus.

Some newspapers – like the New York Times and Guardian – require you to create an account in order to comment. Maybe you have a profile there, made up of your comment history. There are a number of other examples. Social networks have become ubiquitous, and most of us are on many of them. The ability to log into new networks using your Facebook or Twitter identity just makes the whole experience more seamless.

These social networks are insidious – you don’t even notice that you’ve joined them, so you don’t think consciously about how you use them. They might have a totally benign effect on your life – for instance, being able to let off steam on Comment is Free – but they might not.

An ethical alternative: political by design

At USi we use pretty much all the social networks that have any traction: we’re on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, YouTube, Instagram, Sina Weibo, Flipboard and a whole host of others we don’t need to mention. We feel it is important for unions to colonise as much of cyberspace as possible with a positive, pro-union message. This is how we will reach the next generation of workers.

But none of these is adequate for organising people politically. They all have an ideology of some kind, a hidden curriculum that distorts or distracts from our organising. Trying to mobilise people on Facebook is hard when your followers are distracted by paid advertising and Farmville, and Facebook is restricting the reach of your posts unless you cough up for adverts. This is made even worse by the rise of Facebook disciplinaries – people getting into trouble at work for the things they say online.

The Organising Network


This is why we built our Organising Network (ON). Like all social media – all technology – it is ideological. But the ideology is to create a safe space for people to organise politically.

ON is built on Elgg, which is Open Source. It has plugins, developed by Lorea, that enable political organising and democratic decision making. Members of the Occupy Wall Street and Boston tech committees use the software, and are working to further develop the Lorea plugins. It is hosted on a secure server – named Chelsea, in honour of Chelsea Manning – by a left wing technological membership organisation, Mayfirst.org. USi are members of Mayfirst.

ON isn’t designed for social networking. Though you’re welcome to do so, this isn’t the place to post snaps of you out on the lash, or to connect with your old school friends.

This is not a left wing alternative to Facebook.

ON is an organising network. It functions like a social network, but its purpose is to help people organise politically, securely, with an accountable and transparent decision making process. It’s ideal for union branches and campaigns, or activist groups, who for whatever reason, can’t meet physically.

You can create groups – for instance, for your branch. These can be hidden and invite only, or open to all. Within your group, you can post a blog – with pictures – about your latest campaign. You can upload important files. You can start discussion threads.

More importantly, you can take decisions democratically. Within your group, you can make a proposal. Other group members can vote on it, comment, or make a new proposal. The discussion is visible online for all logged in members to see, which helps transparency.

You can also link a proposal to an assembly – what ON calls meetings. You can set meeting dates, and if you link proposals to assemblies, they automatically go on the agenda. You can have the meeting in a physical space, or online using our web conferencing facility. Or you can just use the meeting date as the cut off point for decisions, and allow people to comment and vote in their own time.

We think ON is a useful organising space for activists, and we invite you to join and use it. There is a learning curve – there is with any new technology – but get in touch, and we will help set you up.

Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right. Let’s use all the wonderful social media tools out there to spread the word about unions fighting back against austerity, and building a world based on justice, equality and dignity. But let’s also be conscious of the ideology of the tools we use, and create our own safe spaces too.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
Author avatar

Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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