Do We Need a Facebook of the Left?

by Michael Albert, Ed Lewis

WorldSocial is an attempt to create a left alternative to Facebook and Twitter. One of its founders, Michael Albert, discusses why he thinks such a project is necessary, how it functions and the challenges it faces.

First published: 08 July, 2013 | Category: Corporate power, Media, Vision/Strategy

Michael Albert is a co-founder of Z Communications and the author of Parecon: Life After Capitalism. In this interview with Ed Lewis he discusses WorldSocial, an attempt to create a left alternative to Facebook and Twitter - the reasoning behind the project, how it functions and the challenges it faces. 

Why do you think the left needs to create its own forms of social media as alternatives to Facebook and Twitter?

Facebook and Twitter are profit seeking corporations whereas we seek a new way to conduct production and consumption. How believable are our claims of wanting fundamental innovations when we routinely plaster free logos and ads for these giant corporations all over our sites while subordinating our communications to their oversight? What sense does it make to proclaim that we think information is special, and then lend support to corporations that commodify and control it?

Facebook and Twitter sell audience to advertisers. They seek profit, not social change. If we can't understand the harsh implications of those motivations for social networking sufficiently to want an alternative, why should average folks without political background want alternatives to banks, pharmaceutical companies, and corporate news?

Facebook and Twitter - Google, Microsoft, and Apple too, of course - routinely abet government agendas. If you look at the total milieu these corporations generate, on balance they trivialize communications rather than creating a venue for serious exchange. Leftists try to make the best of Facebook and Twitter when we use them, like we try to make the best of banks or pharmaceuticals when we use them, but such efforts occur in a setting that runs contrary to progressive desires. Why not instead have a setting that is conducive to progressive desires?

We don't want the social benefits of left communication mediated and washed out by corporate control. So shouldn't we also not want the material benefits of our networking to accrue only to corporate profit instead of to social change activism? 

These are some reasons why, despite seriously limited means, Z wondered if there is a plausible way for the left to deliver social networking without selling user information and without welcoming oversight and spying. Could we do it in ways seeking change for everyone rather than only profits for elites? Could we do it so the material benefits accrue to projects and organizations that seek change, and so the networking is controlled by those involved, not by some billionaires in a boardroom? 

To what extent does the NSA scandal strengthen the case for an alternative to corporate social media?

I think this is a tricky question to answer. It requires some care. I wasn't at all surprised by the scandal. Of course the NSA and other agencies are going such things. But since it is now public, does that strengthen our case?

Yes, in some ways, but I don't think we can reasonably say - okay, look, use commercial systems and you are spied on. Use WorldSocial and you are not. That goes too far. The NSA can spy on whatever they choose to spy on. They can see what you do not only on Facebook, but also on WorldSocial, and, if they want, on your own desktop. 

But, there is a difference. If they want information and Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and so on willingly convey it to them, with massive means for cataloguing and researching the data - that is one thing. And I suspect they can then use what they uncover very easily in court, not just behind closed doors. If they want information and they steal WorldSocial data, or what you have on your desktop, it is far harder to get to, harder to work with ad and research, and I suspect - I hope - it will be very difficult to use in court. I am not an expert on these issues. And actually I am not sure such a being exists, when you think about it, since the rules change whenever the other side decides they should. 

So I think the revelations strengthen the case for WorldSocial in the sense that we should not be rewarding spy agencies (and I mean Facebook, Twitter, etc.) with our political content. We should at least say no, we have our own venues, and make them less accessible to spying. Who knows, if WorldSocial grows sufficiently maybe we can make it really hard to penetrate, but I certainly can't guarantee that, or claim it is so at present. 

But I think the less problematic case for WorldSocial is why not have a room of our own - we can try and keep the windows shut, but if they peek in, well, we should be alert, rather than simply handing them free and open access. And why not reject the sale of our information for commercial purposes? That we can fully accomplish. And why not have the benefits that accrue from doing social networking accrue to activist and alternative media organizations and left projects more generally - as users choose - rather than to giant corporations? That too we can fully accomplish. And why not have social networking that is guided by activist and progressive values and needs, as expressed by users, so that the features become steadily more conducive to radical use, rather than ruled by corporate executives? That too, we can completely accomplish. These are simpler matters than preventing spying per se, and they are unequivocal, it seems to me. 

The solution to the NSA and the spying ethos and mentality that pervades modern nation states as in the past, but now with more powerful tools, isn't to find a way to hide from all the tools - though that isn't a bad thing to do - it is to mass protest and organization to stop the nation states from behaving thusly. I suspect working to amass that power while all our organizations display free links for Facebook and Twitter, and while we  indiscriminately use them, may prove psychologically difficult, perhaps another argument on behalf of building WorldSocial. 

Tell us, then, about the alternative forms of social media that you are developing and how they are distinct from corporate social media?

WorldSocial and its components like ZSocial, SyrizaSocial, etc., have blogs, events, groups, contacts/friends, and a wall for displaying messages, updates, etc. There is no length limit, no ads, and no spying. There is a built in RSS framework, so that one's content feed can include articles from all over the left and, if one wishes, from other periodicals and sources, too. An innovation now being worked on is a feature we call Flows. It will be like Tweeting, but again, with no length limits and thus often with a great deal more real substance than tweeting typically allows. 

But ultimately what is arguably most clever and most different about WorldSocial is its structure and motivation. A user signs up for a hosted component of WorldSocial such as ZSocial, UTNESocial, DollarsandSenseSocial, SyrizaSocial, GreenSocial (the U.S. Green Party), or some other hosted subcomponent, and in time we hope there will be dozens or more. While on the subsystem that he or she signed up for, a user can toggle to see the full contents of the whole of WorldSocial, or, alternatively, can toggle to see just the events, other users, and content of their preferred component. The system has solidarity with diversity.

But any leftist might reasonably ask, what about material benefits? The fee is $3 a month. The first third goes to the organization that hosts your component site. If you join ZSocial, one third of your payments go to ZCommunications. If you join SyrizaSocial, however, one third goes to Syriza - and so on for all the hosts. Indeed, perhaps there will soon be an NLPSocial that you will join, so one third of your payments would go to NLP. 

The second third of each person's fee will go into a kitty each month. Users and hosts will nominate possible recipients for those monies - organizations, projects, etc. - and then, in light of public polling, the second third of revenues will be dispersed to the preferred recipients. 

The third third of revenues, which is just one third of what each user pays, will support WorldSocial and all its components. Any innovation enacted for any one component, will benefit all. 

In summary, unlike any other organization I know of, two thirds of all payments for WorldSocial will go straight to host organizations or to additional left and progressive organizations and projects, as users decide. The remaining third will pay to maintain and innovate the whole WorldSocial operation. But what innovations will the third third of revenues finance? Proposals for new features will be posted. Polls will reveal user desires. Innovations, like the disbursement of funds, will accord with user preferences. 

In this plan, therefore, WorldSocial will include many hosted sub-components. Users will decide dispersal of revenues and what innovations are undertaken. There will be no advertising or sale of user information. If a government gets any WorldSocial information, it will be because they stole it. And perhaps most of all, WorldSocial will exist to serve the needs of movements and activism, giving each host organization not only material aid at no cost, but also connections with other hosts and constituencies around the world. Syriza members talk with American Green Party members, and vice versa, and around and around, for all the hosted constituencies.

Is all this doable? We already have a good beginning, but the truth is success will depend on whether potential hosts and especially potential users support WorldSocial and advocate for it even before it reaches a scale where it can be meaningfully beneficial for everyone. Social networking depends on lots of people for its true benefits to emerge. Joining WorldSocial, and any hosted sub site, at first, won't have that many people. It will depend, therefore, on users in some sense investing in what the system can become. What NLP is doing, with this interview, is exemplary in that regard. Will other media take note as well, contributing momentum for the idea to succeed? We'll see. 

From a political perspective, one of the strengths of Facebook and Twitter is that they provide a forum for interacting with people who are not already on the left. Isn't a defect of World Social that it will not engage those who are not already politically committed?

I don't think so, because to the extent a WorldSocial user wants to use Facebook or Twitter, he or she can just do so. Moreover, I have to say, I think this kind of concern seems to me to make a much stronger case for WorldSocial than against it. 

That is, if I want to interact with non political people, say with old friends, family, or whatever, I can use other tools than WorldSocial. Some may choose Facebook for that purpose. Others may prefer blogging and email, not to mention direct face to face connections. Using WorldSocial in no way prevents any of that. But the fact that WorldSocial will have a community of users who relate positively to various host organizations, and thus a community of progressive users, will be, for diverse purposes, a tremendous virtue. As one example, on WorldSocial you can make contact with people from organizations all over the world, never worrying that you are making connections with some fascist, misogynist, corporate advocate, etc. Yes we want to and most certainly need to reach out, but in the famous phrase, we also sometimes need a room of our own.

Suppose I told Greenpeace in Australia or Die Linke in Germany or the PSUV in Venezuela, that  their organizations were flawed because they only included people who liked Greenpeace or Die Linke or the PSUV, and because inside these organizations people couldn't address billions of other folks who do not yet have such views. That would clearly be ridiculous. I don't think WorldSocial is different in that regard. Far from being parochial and narrow, WorldSocial will span the world, including welcoming people with different agendas and motivations - but all progressive. Imagine one hundred hosting organizations and thus a hundred social systems that are all federated, with users and hosts sharing lessons and insights, and also engaging in mutual aid. WorldSocial isn't seeking to merely replace Facebook. The comparison is WorldSocial is apples and - I would say Facebook is oranges, but, more honestly, I think I would have to say Facebook is more like MacDonald, tasty and inexpensive, useful for some ends, but only very carefully due to nasty side effects.

More, why wouldn't the same user who says I don't want to support WorldSocial because my high school friend isn't yet on it, or my brother isn't yet on it, or a billion people I don't know aren't yet on it - feel repulsed that Facebook and Twitter and so on are alienated nests of corporate commercialism, geared to profit making and spying, with no regard for and, indeed, with complete antipathy for social change? In that case, you might choose to use corporate venues for some purposes, like using a bank for some purposes, but only while holding your nose, so to speak. In that case, you might see Facebook, for example, as a venue - like the local neighborhood but larger - where you try to raise awareness and get people to have more progressive and left agendas, including, for example, joining something like WorldSocial by way of one of its host organizations? Someone might use Facebook, send out content from Z or NLP or Syriza, and then when they make headway in generating interest in the content, try to interact more directly, and perhaps inspire someone to join ZSocial or NLPSocial, or SyrizaSocial, to develop their views and commitments further. 

You are charging for WorldSocial. Given that most current forms of social media are free (since organisations such as Facebook make revenue through selling users to advertisers) is there any reasonable chance that people will be prepared to pay?

I know that your question identifies a potentially very serious obstacle to success because many will answer your question, "no, we don't want to pay." But if we really seriously think about it, we better hope that not too many will answer that way. 

First, having pretty much no choice but to use words in such a way that we wind up calling a horribly commercial corporate system that is based on selling privacy and on spying free, is, honestly, pretty sad and reveals the tremendous power of Facebook and some others to bend the discussion - or, I believe the current nomenclature is, bend the discourse. Facebook is not free. It costs dignity and privacy. Unless one thinks those have no value, that is. One may have good reason to pay that price, sometimes, but it is not paying no price at all.

So what does it mean that many people will say, at least at first, about WorldSocial, I don't want to pay? Does it reveal that under the weight of the corporate onslaught of noise, not least a Facebook logo everywhere you look, our constituencies aren't yet thinking clearly about the options but are instead just thinking, hey, not paying a fee is better than paying one, having taken into account nothing broader one's budget? Or does it mean our constituencies are thinking clearly about the options, and that they literally prefer to have their private lives sold to corporations (and given to governments) to avoid a $3 monthly fee, $2 of which will directly support progressive and left organizations and projects, and $1 of which will support the overall framework making it possible at all, and, as a bonus, generating solidarity across nations for progressive organizations and agendas? I guess we will see. 

So far four organizations besides Z - Utne Reader, Syriza, Dollars and Sense, and the U.S. Green Party - have decided to host WorldSocial sub sites. Have you approached other organizations that have declined your offer to act as hosts for the system and, if so, what reasons have been given?

Yes, we have approached a few. It is a little hard trying to bootstrap this into existence a small step at a time - without real resources behind it. At any rate, the first potential host we contacted was Le Monde Diplomatique. They were, however, very busy with a transition in their operations to a digital edition - though I don't really know the details of that. So the issue dropped from their attention - there was really no other reason offered. 

The Progressive, a U.S. periodical, said no rather definitively, but again, without offering a substantive reason, at least that I remember. We tried to contact The Nation, another U.S. periodical, but without luck so far. No reply, no decision, so of course no reasons. 

I am waiting on hearing from the German left party, Die Linke, from Germany.

In the UK, Red Pepper was standoffish, I guess you might say. There has been no final decision I am aware of. But they did have a reason for holding off. And actually, Democracy Now in the U.S., though again they have given no definitive answer, had the same concern as Red Pepper. This concern, indeed, coming from those two operations, is the only actual substantive reason for not being a host we have heard so far. 

The concern was whether the operation was using open source software. I found this rather strange, honestly. If an operation is open source it means is that the code is made publicly available and folks can use it, try to develop adaptations, try to make additions, etc. So basically, all you have to do to be open source besides writing some code, is to put it in a publicly available place, for people to access. However, done as meagerly as that, it would not be very useful. Too much work to decipher. So really what I think you have to do to be responsible about it, is put the code somewhere and include extensive documentation, as well as means for interacting. This would take a considerable investment of time and energy that we don't now have available. But nonetheless, if we think one jump further about going open, what does it accomplish?

Who does making the code open source mean has access? Programmers, and certainly not users. And what they can do is voluntarily work on code - which may or may not be used in the actual project. People seem to think that going open source is some huge step toward broad participation or democracy. I don't understand why they think that. It simply provides a way that programmers - a particular small set of experts - can either take the code for their own separate use, or can voluntarily suggest innovations to it. Yes, open source confronts copyright issues, which is a good thing. But that is not an issue in this case. This is not a product for sale or some kind of unique technology or knowledge. It is just accumulated hard work. What open source doesn't do, in any event, is expand the level of involvement in decisions or in any other aspect of an operation, such as the dispersement of benefits.

So take WorldSocial - we are self consciously trying to create a truly encompassing and participatory system, saying (1) each host has a site at no cost with no effort, (2) all hosted sites enjoy the same functionality, (3) the functionality is refined and expanded in light of voting by hosts and users (real participation), (4) one third of the revenues goes directly to the hosts and another third to projects chosen by the hosts and users (more real participation). (5) Users and hosts can operate online with their own community, or can toggle to instead engage with the whole universe of all users in any hosted system (real solidarity). And in response to all this, the first and actually the only substantive comment from a couple of prospective hosts is, is it open source? A yes answer, or a no answer, as far as we can see, not very important, since neither would imply anything remotely like the level of commitment to user and organizational involvement that is embodied in the WorldSocial idea. 

Still, no - WorldSocial is not yet open source - was the actual answer. The code is still being developed. We can't now handle volunteer input which with all the tasks involved, would slow rather than speed results. Providing textual commentary and oversight for folks viewing the code, for example, would detract from progressing with writing and refining the code. And, in any event, far beyond merely being open source - available to programmers - WorldSocial is  committed to being user defined and movement oriented in as many ways as we feasibly can, both materially and socially. And finally, in any case, we added, once there is real code and a real system, at that point, supposing there is any prospect of people benefitting from our doing so, sure, we could make the code publicly available. It just wouldn't matter much, in our view. Not least because the issue for WorldSocial is not to have lots of separate instances of social networking based on one batch of code used, however, differently and separately by different hosts, but, instead, precisely to have hosted subsystems highly entwined, so as to attain diversity but also solidarity.

I wish I had more to report. Soon we will ask new potential hosts. Perhaps there will be concerns we can act on to make the whole thing better. We'll see. 

WorldSocial is still in development. For more about the project see ZSocial

Ed Lewis is a co-editor of New Left Project

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