Elsewhere on this blog, I’ve written about how the next generation social networking site should be built to help high-risk activists. If there are any Occupy Wall Street activists who are working on this project, this previous post may be of interest. They should also feel free to contact me or others at Stanford’s Program on Liberation Technology, who would be happy to assist in any way we can.
In the present post, however, I’d like to comment on Josh Constine’s TechCrunch post on how Occupy Wall Street’s recent effort to create a Global Square — a “Facebook for Protesters,” as first reported by Wired — won’t work. The post strikes me as overly dismissive with little or no substance.
Josh highlights three points, which I address below in turn:
1. The Global Square Will Be An Echo Chamber
How? Why? Josh doesn’t tell us. He just predicts the Global Square will be so. Without even a layman’s theory of how and why this could happen, it’s hard to take Josh’s caution seriously.
If we believe Eli Pariser’s argument, however, Facebook and Google are already echo chambers by means of their filtering policies.
Moreover, research in political science and psychology also suggests that people tend to have a confirmation bias, i.e., they accept information that confirms their worldviews and discounts information that disconfirms them. It’s not like Facebook users are immune to this phenomenon, so it’s hard to see why the Global Square would be any worse.
Additionally, if building your own social network and having an echo chamber is such a bad thing, how come Barack Obama won the 2008 Democratic nomination and presidential election with such a system in place?
If anything, the cognitive and relational benefits that Occupy Wall Street and other protest movements could gain from a Global Square may well outweigh any so-called “echo chamber” costs.
It’s well known in social movement research that, in order to increase the likelihood of success, the movement’s activist core needs readily available communication networks to succeed. But activists also need to count on the support and commitment of others to the cause and a shared set of symbols and cultural understandings by all those who are involved. High-risk activists, in particular, suffer from paranoia about being monitored with reason; if structured correctly, Global Square could help these activists feel safer about their interactions in dangerous environments than existing corporate networks. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how easy it would be for the Global Square brand to accomplish all these things simultaneously.
Josh also views the decision to use Global Square as a dichotomous choice: Either you use Global Square or a mainstream network. Yet this is a false choice. HootSuite allows you to send messages to and receive messages from multiple mainstream social networking sites. (Diaspora* also allows activists to push messages to mainstream networks but not pull them from these networks.) By using the API of existing mainstream social networking sites, Global Square can do the same.
Then, why not just use the mainstream social networking sites, you may ask? The reason is that you may want to keep your activism private and simply use these mainstream networks to spread the word, which is their primary benefit anyway. In social network analysis terms, you’d use Global Square to cultivate strong ties with fellow activists and use the API of existing mainstream networks to capitalize on weak ties for the diffusion of information. That way, private information would remain secure on the Global Square, while public information would find its way to the dense social networks that form part of mainstream sites.
2. There’s Already Diaspora*
As for Diaspora*, one reason is that its code continues to face scrutiny over security and privacy. In this regard, Diaspora*’s code is probably fine for consumer use. But to protect high-risk activists, some security experts would recommend rewriting the code from scratch.
Then, there are questions about whether such a solution is better built on Ruby on Rails (the Diaspora* solution) or some other programming language, as is the case with some of Diaspora*’s competitors (such as Friendika and StatusNet, both of which are farther along than Diaspora*).
Of course, the Diaspora* code is open source, so Occupy Wall Street hackers who were so inclined could always improve the security of the master code or fork it.
My main point is that there are many questions to ask; just because some alternative exists doesn’t mean you should use it. According to Josh’s logic, one could have easily asked Mark Zuckerberg back in 2004 why start a new social networking site when there’s already MySpace?
3. Still Subject to Subpoena
Josh is right on this point. But it’s not that hard for Occupy Wall Street activists to set up the site out of a privacy/security-friendly location, such as Iceland. Server costs are pretty low these days, so you could set up a site anywhere in the world where there was a decent Internet infrastructure and the right kind of laws you want to protect your users. A privacy-friendly location such as Iceland would frustrate the efforts of law enforcement agencies seeking to obtain information about Occupy Wall Street accounts from mainstream social networking sites.
4. Final Thoughts
Finally, Josh notes that Occupy Wall Street activists may have difficulties recruiting Global Square participants. Again, he provides no explanation as to why this would be the case.
But if the point is to create a global protest network, which by definition would be a niche network, why should Occupy Wall Street activists worry about recruiting participants?
Even then, it seems a bit silly to argue that the largest US movement we’ve witnessed in the 21st century would have difficulties recruiting adherents to its new network. In fact, an extensive sociological literature suggests that social movements typically are the basis for many of the new industries and markets that drove economic progress in the 20th century.
About the Author: Yosem Eduardo Companys is a PhD student in engineering at Stanford University and a coordinator for the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Yosem also worked as adviser, mentor, and consiglieri to the Diaspora* founders and as President & CEO of Diaspora*. He may be reached at companys[at]stanford[dot]edu.