“Solidarity grows through increasing liberty, not through constraint or obligation,” writes [Kristin] Ross. “Personal autonomy and social solidarity do not oppose each other, but instead reinforce each other.” In an age in which online spaces feel more divisive and polarized than ever, perhaps it is time to ponder how we can create conditions of personal autonomy that give rise to greater social solidarity. Perhaps it is the structure of these spaces that is at fault, rather than the individuals within them. Centrally determined “community standards” enforced by automated takedowns and de-platforming might generate tendencies that are more infantilizing than civilizing. A sense of freedom with responsibility in online spaces is unlikely to be cultivated when those who set the boundaries of good taste and political correctness are more interested in applying constraint than promoting solidarity.
Put differently, what constitutes acceptable content is always a political question, constantly being negotiated and renegotiated by those who hold power and those who do not. Public bodies, like courts and parliaments, are often the forums for such debates, which is why they are a common focus of struggle. In the digital age, however, enormous private entities like Facebook (or Twitter, or Google, etc.) are increasingly the hosts for these discussions. When citizens and policy makers ask Facebook to curate content or design algorithms to do so, the implicit assumption is that people cannot be trusted to have these conversations themselves. Of course, some people are awful online—and this can have real world consequences, for which we need remedies. We need to have cultural norms and practices that minimize this behavior, that cultivate shared understanding and mutual respect. But we ought to be careful about assuming that tech companies can achieve this by us appointing them as cops.
We could start with the assumption that these digital spaces are open and belong to the public. Why not require that the design of the newsfeed algorithm be made transparent? Why not allow people to redesign their content feeds and become active participants in creating their own sense of self rather than having it curated for them by a tech bro? Why not ban the microtargeting that underpins and animates this business model? A data extraction approach to monetization operates by exploiting our emotions to keep us hooked as audiences to be sold to advertisers. As essential pieces of digital infrastructure, why do we accept that these platforms remain in private hands, beholden to the bottom line?
We could pay moderators to manage groups of a particular size, and allow those roles to be elected and accountable, much in the same way as we might pay district council members or representatives. Imagine a social space on the internet that wasn’t filled with ads! Imagine a web where content moderation decisions were governed by a public charter with an accountable board of elected representatives. Perhaps it is even possible to conjure a platform that doesn’t leave complaints about harm buried in some cyber slush pile, but that actively found a strategy to take those complainants seriously and to design rules around resolving their concerns. Platforms, services, and tools could be designed not just for the average user but with the most vulnerable user in mind. Maybe you don’t like these ideas (maybe you do), but maybe there are lots of other ones out there, waiting to be articulated, discussed, adopted, tested, or discarded.
By breaking down the divide between action and consequence in online social life, we might start to “set capacities in motion” that aim to rebuild a sense of freedom with responsibility. It is an argument against outsourcing politics to machines and the few who build them, and in favor of greater public participation by the many in rulemaking in the digital age. It’s not to say it would be a seamless experience of delight; it would certainly feature conflict. But it could be a place where people could collectively explore ideas in conditions of freedom, without being organized in a clandestine way by billionaire tech overlords.
O'Shea, Lizzie. "The Judgement of Paris: Facebook vs The Communards." The Baffler #56 (March/April 2021): 9, 11-13.