Letter From the Editor

Rethinking the ‘Social Industry’ Problem

Our interactions with technology are much more complex than many critics acknowledge

An ant under the control of a “zombie fungus” — not to be confused with a person using Twitter. Photo: Penn State/Flickr

I’ve been reading a new book called The Twittering Machine. Written by Richard Seymour, it examines and complicates the clichéd narrative that social media companies are enacting a kind of mind control on a naive populace, forcing us to engage and post like we’re struck by the tendrils of a zombie fungus.

There’s no denying that social technology has changed us, and the book explains many of the ways it has done so, but technology is not some alien force: It shapes and is shaped by people. We who toil on these platforms — Seymour categorizes them under the label “social industry” rather than “social media” — are implicated in its problems as well.

Or, as Max Read put it in his review, “Mark Zuckerberg is not pointing a gun at anyone’s head, ordering them to use Instagram — and yet we post as though he is… rather than asking what is wrong with these systems, we might ask, ‘What is wrong with us?’”

From the book’s foreword:

If the Twittering Machine confronts us with a string of calamities — addiction, depression, “fake news,” trolls, online mobs, alt-right subcultures — it is only exploiting and magnifying problems that are already socially pervasive. If we’ve found ourselves addicted to social media, in spite or because of its frequent nastiness, as I have, then there is something in us that is waiting to be addicted… if, with all these problems, we still inhabit the social media platforms — as over half the world’s population does — we must be getting something out of it. The dreary moral-panic literature excoriating “the shallows” and the “post-truth” society must be missing a vital truth about their subject.

The Twittering Machine understands our world as it is: shaped for better or worse by sophisticated, online, social technologies that developed in the context of a long human history of other technologies. It reminds me a bit of the book on antitrust that OneZero published last month by Cory Doctorow, which dispels a lot of the magical thinking about the power held by platforms like Facebook. And it certainly exists in a continuum with labor activism in the tech industry, which has always situated issues like data privacy in social and economic terms rather than behaving as though a computer and its software are unknowable mystic forces. “We oppose the establishment of mass data banks which pose a threat to our privacy,” the Computer People for Peace, a collective of tech workers, wrote in 1969. See also the conversations about online platforms started by women like Rebecca MacKinnon in the mid-2000s.

In contrast, The Social Dilemma, a popular new documentary from Netflix, understands that there are problems to be solved, but misses the bigger point by suggesting that they are born entirely by novel products like the smartphone and fixable only by a highborn caste of techies. For more on that, read the latest issue of OneZero’s Pattern Matching newsletter.

Our connected world is decidedly more complex than the popular narrative leads us to believe: It’s an endless dialogue between the social industry and its users that must be understood in significantly more nuanced — and human — terms.

In case you missed it: OneZero published a fantastic feature on Monday by Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly. It draws on interviews with more than three dozen experts and insiders to examine how the tech industry has repeatedly failed to conduct risk assessment.

And today, OneZero’s Peter Slattery published a story about search-optimized spam on Spotify. It’s a startling revelation about how technology can morph the human production of art into something that fits the constantly optimizing framework of a machine… a very Twittering Machine topic.

Coming up: On Wednesday, we’ll publish a must-read interview about one potential future for tech journalism. And later this week, our columnist Angela Lashbrook has a fascinating story about the relationship between how young voters engage with online platforms and how they feel about going to the post office. (Really!)

This is a weekly editor’s letter from OneZero editor-in-chief Damon Beres. If you have information or a viewpoint to share, feel free to reach Damon via email or on Twitter.

Co-Founder and Former Editor in Chief, OneZero at Medium

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