Social media should be like drinking water: a regulated service

Interview with Geert Lovink on his new book

10 Oct 2022 12:46

Professor Geert Lovink, keynote speaker at the Society 5.0 Festival in Amsterdam (12 and 13 October, 2022), has a message: we need to reclaim the internet from big tech companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon. In his new book, 'Stuck on the Platform' (published by Valiz, Amsterdam) he explains how it is possible. ‘We need alternative platforms that serve society instead of listed companies.’

The internet started out so innocently in the 1990s, as an open space offering the free and unimpeded exchange of ideas, opinions, and even goods. Until massive internet companies such as Facebook, Amazon and Twitter took control of the ideal. Now these platforms have not only taken users hostage, but society as a whole as well. That is why we need to reclaim this public domain from big tech. This, in a nutshell, is the message put forward the new book by Geert Lovink. As a professor at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences he founded the Institute of Network Cultures in 2004, to investigate the world of digital culture from crypto banking to influencers. Since last year Lovink is also Professor of Art and Network Cultures at the University of Amsterdam.

The need to dismantle

The act of ‘reclaiming’ will also need to be literal, in a sense. From conglomerates such as Meta (the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp) to physical infrastructure such as Google's data centres and the privatised internet cables on the sea floor – all of it must be dismantled. Lovink admits that it won't be easy. ‘But we must do it, before it's too late.’

Geert Lovink, Pauline van Dongen (designer) and Bob Alotta (Global Programs, Mozilla) are keynote speakers (40 in total) at the Society 5.0 Festival in Amsterdam on 12 and 13 October

Despite the book's occasionally disturbing message, Stuck on the Platform is a real page-turner, full of incisive observations and pithy one-liners that act as memes and are scattered throughout the book. Examples include: Being popular on Twitter is like being popular at the mental hospital, and Quitting is a strength, not a weakness. One of the first phrases in the book is even rule no. 1 at Alcoholics Anonymous: We admit that we are powerless – that our lives have become unmanageable.

Is the situation so bad that we are literally addicted to these platforms?

‘Not everybody, of course,’ Lovink qualifies. ‘Social media is most devastating for people aged 18-30, mostly women. That is the largest population group in the world. And if many of them are suffering from stress, anxiety, a warped self-image or even depression, then that's cause for concern – especially since these symptoms can become long-term if they develop during people's formative years. In men, the problem is becomes externalised and more aggressive, and surfaces as trolling, shaming and pure hatred. If social media is not the cause of these problems, it certainly exacerbates them.’

But we're trapped – stuck – on these platforms. Why is that?

‘The tech giants use cunning techniques to make us visit their platforms for as long and as often as possible. Facebook, for example, allows the expression of only limited positive emotions, such as a thumbs-up or a hug. So people are still worried about whether they have enough followers or likes. At the same time, the fear of being ‘cancelled’ has grown into an existential threat. The algorithms are programmed to prioritise negative messages, targeting our primitive emotions. The strange thing is that, although there is plenty of attention in society to the collective phenomena of social media – such as data leaks, privacy violations or runaway cancel culture – the psychological effects on individuals have been all but ignored.’

What role should platforms play in ‘Society 5.0,’ the future ideal that puts people – not technology – at the forefront?

‘Alternative social media platforms that operate in service of society rather than listed companies, could be worthwhile. We should look at each platform's positive functionality, and then convert it into something that works for the greater good. The fact that we can get in touch with people quickly is something we want to preserve. Next, the opportunities to form scenes, groups, networks and communities can be further developed, strongly promoting the emergence of social movements. The current platforms avoid this at all costs, they don't want people setting up something that they have no influence over.

We can also add new functionalities to these public platforms, such as the ability to exert influence on the platform's structure and maybe even the physical living environment (such as a sports club), or perhaps the local neighbourhood. Collective decision-making like this is taboo in Silicon Valley, where all they want is to earn money off people. So perhaps the users of these new, public platforms should also be able to make sales and exchanges themselves.’

How should these platforms be organised?

‘We'll discover how together. We're only at the very beginning of this paradigm shift, after all. But you can be sure it won’t happen in The Hague – the Netherlands has a bad track record when it comes to supporting big tech. There's more hope in Brussels, since even independent organisations like Bits of Freedom haven’t yet been able to make any kind of difference due to their focus on personal data protection. But there are also people who say that the entire internet needs decentralising, which would require creating a new physical infrastructure. All the current data centres and even the cables are in the hands of the big companies.

So we might ask: do people even have a choice? The answer is still unclear. That's why now is the time for us to start thinking about alternatives to existing social media. Why shouldn't a free and accessible social media platform constitute a basic societal need? Just like the way we collectively organise energy and water.’

One of the book's one-liners is: we don't need platforms, we need protocols. So isn't that the solution?

‘Unfortunately, there isn't just one solution. Not only that, but the platform problem is interwoven with many other problems that are often more urgent, such as social injustice, geopolitical instability, and even the nitrogen and climate crises. But it is precisely for this reason that we need to regulate existing platforms, or better still: create alternatives that could act as a communication channel for

solving the other crises. Modifying the protocols that platforms must comply with is therefore a crucial step towards Society 5.0. One thing is certain: that restructuring the internet – and platforms especially – is thankfully not an impossible task, and is dwarfed by far greater challenges such as the energy transition or eliminating wealth disparity.’

Where and when

Society 5.0 Festival

12 and 13 October 2022

The Student Hotel, Wibautstraat 129 in Amsterdam.
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