Social Media is Like the Railways?

There’s a piece in the Guardian entitled “Why social media is like the railways – and must be saved. I’m not sure about the title, but it’s a good piece, by Paul Mason (in fact, looking at the URL I suspect that wasn’t the original title).

He starts by talking about SoundCloud, which is, for me at least, one of those sites that you would never think of going to; you just follow a link to something on it. Mind you, increasingly many sites are like that, and have been since perhaps the early days of blogging. Anyway, Mason says:

The Berlin-based music service started as a super-cool platform for people who made music and wanted to share it. Last week, its owners admitted it was losing a million dollars a week, and could run out of cash before the end of the year.

The whole future of the little orange cloud now rests on whether it can get people to subscribe – for money.

Which is interesting, and it’s one of those things that the net is a better place for it existing, and I’d be sad to see go away — but I can’t imagine ever subscribing to it.

In the same week, another achingly cool online publisher, this time of blogs, Medium, also hit trouble.

“Achingly cool”? Medium? I’m not convinced (disclaimer: for what it’s worth, my posts are automatically crossposted to Medium, among other places).

He goes on to talk about how none of the social media sites is profitable, except of course for Facebook. He refers to

the ailing internet platforms – not just Soundcloud and Medium but Ello, a wannabe rival to Facebook, and Tumblr

Tumblr is ailing? that seems surprising, considering how popular it is. But who knows (it’s also one of the other places I mentioned above). He goes on to exhort us to return to these sites, dust off our old user IDs and so on, and enjoy them again:

It will feel a bit like time travel – back to the period around 2010-12, when social media was associated with postmodernity, self-produced music and revolt, not fake news, white supremacy and rule by old men. But usage alone will not save the collaborative tools. We need new, cooperative ownership models. If basic word processors are effectively now shipped free with every device, so too could be a nonprofit music-sharing service, a free blogging platform and a place to keep in contact with our friends, without intrusive data-farming and a deluge of ads.

As to that, a free blogging platform — while not “shipped”, is easily available: Wordpress. And there are others, of course. But it links back to what I was saying the other day: you’ve got to own your own content if you want it to be safe from services disappearing.

As to that “railways” reference in the title, here’s how he finishes:

Medium, Soundcloud and ultimately Twitter are – like the railways – worth saving even if they cannot be run at a profit. 2017 can and should be a year in which the users of platforms reclaim these freedoms not as privileges but as rights.

I’ve got a lot of time for that view, actually, but those sites are mostly set up on a capitalist model (even if they have a community spirit), and I can’t see that changing any time soon.


The Circle by Dave Eggers (Books 2014, 16)

This is interesting. Seems to have got a lot of attention when it came out, but somehow I wasn't aware of it. It's very much a novel of now, though probably set slightly into the future -- five minutes or so, probably.

Our hero, Mae Holland, is a young woman, not long out of college, who is just starting a job at the Circle. The Circle is GooTwitBook, essentially: a massive internet company that has gobbled up all the previous incumbents (it owns 90% of search, for example) and redefined interaction on the net via its TrueYou identity technology. Real names are not just encouraged; they are required.

Internet trolling disappeared overnight, it seems.Unbelievable enough. Perhaps more so: no-one (almost no-one) seems to be in the least bit bothered by the reductions in privacy, the spread of The Circle into every aspect of life (putting chips in kids to prevent kidnapping; nobody complains; is kidnapping that much of a problem in the US?)

I thoroughly enjoyed it, I should say, before I tear into it too much. Eggers keeps the pages turning, which is always a plus. On the other hand, it takes a long time before anything significant happens. Mae starts her job, learns the ropes, meets people, gets more and more involved in the social-networking aspects of the circle… we know things are going to take a turn for the dramatic, because the blurb tells us so ("… the closer she comes to discovering a sinister truth…")

But it must be 200-odd pages in (of nearly 500) before we get much more than scene-setting.

And ultimately, while I can see how someone like Mae could be drawn further and further in after starting out with the best intentions, I find it very hard to believe that the entire rest of the world would go along with the extremities of the Circle’s plans. It’s set in essentially our world: where are the EFF? Where are the ACLU? Where are the voices from other countries that aren’t keen on an American corporation’s hegemony?

Where, even, are the corporations that stand up for privacy? I’ve just got a new iPhone 6 as I write this, and I can’t help but think that Apple’s pro-privacy stance – their assertion that no-one can get at our data stored in iCloud – not even them, not even if there’s a court order – is antithetical to everything that the Circle represents.

Which is one of the reasons why the Circle looks most like Google (it has three guys at the top, known as “the Three Wise Men”).

Of course, these criticisms might be just symptomatic of what can happen when you approach a “mainstream”, “literary” book with a science-fiction head: you question the worldbuilding, of course.

Ultimately it’s a shame: the Circle the organisation is completely believable and convincing in itself. It’s just hard to believe that it could expand in quite as unchecked a fashion as it does. And I found Mae to be partly endearing, partly annoying, which could be a realistic portrayal, and a good example of characterisation. In truth, though, she has no character. And possibly less believable than the growth of the Circle is the extent to which Mae gives herself to it, to its beliefs; even when they break her best friend, Annie, who got her the job in the first place.

So all in all, something of a wasted opportunity.