Tag Archives: Natural Monopoly

Google Buzz: The Corporatization of Social Commons

While many people are understandably upset that Google Buzz was implemented through an opt-out process, and with auto-follow (email contacts as followers unless explicitly unfollowed), I would like to argue that there is a bigger, underlying issue that would not be solved if Google had introduced an opt-in feature: our social commons on the Internet are now mostly corporate controlled. It would certainly be preferable if decent privacy controls were implemented but this would be an individual-level solution and would not avoid the systemic issue as most people would, reasonably, not bother with fine-tuned privacy controls. The sum of individual actions, however, creates a consequence at the societal level which can be quite undesirable. And that is why Google’s CEO Mark Schmidt’s statement that “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” just does not address the issue at all.” (Besides, who wants everything they do to be known by everyone? That is not the same as having secrets that must be guarded at all costs).

Many online environments (Facebook, now it seems Google) force an architecture that allows for meaningful participation only if you play by rules that are designed for maximizing profit, not optimum social and personal interaction. Most users go with the flow and use the system as designed even if it is possible to change the settings. For most people, most of the time, that does not create major issues (even while creating dramatic consequences for few), but the totality of these interactions creates a tragedy of commons – actions that may be reasonable for individuals creates an environment which has dramatic consequences for everyone. In our case, the consequence we are headed for is  a world of near-complete surveillance of everyday actions that is searchable, permanent and public. We are slowly but surely creeping into this world and it is high time for a serious public discussion to take place.

The answer cannot be: well, people who are unhappy shouldn’t use those services. Presence on the Internet is effectively a requirement for fully and effectively participating in the 21st century as a citizen, as a consumer, as an informed person and as a social being. Further, many such services are natural monopolies: Google, Ebay, Facebook, Amazon, all benefit greatly from network externalities which means that the more people on the service, the more useful it is for everyone. This makes it very hard for a market leader to be challenged. (Wikipedia is also such a natural monopoly but it is not corporate controlled).

Facebook or Google are optional in the sense that electricity, telephone, modern medicine are optional. Don’t like the medical establishment? Don’t use antibiotics! Don’t like how deregulated electricity markets are run? Well, don’t use electricity! Hey, solar panels are available. Telling people to opt-out of major streams of sociality, information and markets on the Internet makes almost as much sense. While I’ll readily concede the urgency of antibiotics differs from the urgency of social interaction, sociality is a fundamental part of being. It is not optional. It is not a coincidence that solitary confinement is the most severe legal punishment –short of the death penalty—that is legally imposed on people.

The next argument is: well, use an alternative service! That too is as valid as telling people to use a different cable company or an electric utility if they don’t like the current one. In most markets, there is only one or two such utilities, and for good reason. The investment in laying cables and connecting doors is large enough that most markets cannot support multiple, truly alternative services. Similarly, especially in the lives of young people, Facebook acts like a phone directory used to and opting out of Facebook during college would significantly constrain social options for many. Facebook has become de facto social commons, especially in college but now has spread to other cohorts. It takes effort to maintain a profile and people are unlikely to duplicate that effort in multiple services the same way multiple electric companies don’t put down parallel cables to each neighbor to compete with each other. Google is such an environment for searching and for many people who do not have an institutionally-supplied email account they can freely use for personal matters, Gmail makes a lot of sense.

The trick is that architecture matters in shaping social interaction. Anyone who has taken a class in a lecture classroom where everyone faced the teacher versus a seminar classroom where you sat around a table can tell the difference the organization of space makes. In online environments, the architecture of the space is the design and the terms-of-service — in the sense Lawrence Lessig argues. Design choices constrain and structure sociality. For example, profitability often goes along with maximum visibility which is what many corporations are pushing, from Facebook’s recent changes to Google’s Buzz.

Let me explain the issue from a non-online example. Why do lots of teenagers hang out at the mall? Because in modern cities, there are few other alternatives, and once some kids start hanging out at there, the mall becomes the place to see and to be seen so others also hang out at the mall. Soon, it’s the place to be. Schools have very little time in the schedule for socializing and are highly controlled spaces. Homes have parents in them; hardly need to explain why that’s not so attractive to teens. Also, homes can only hold so many people at a time. You can’ talk or eat at the library. The park, if you have one nearby, is rarely designed for hanging out (some places like Central Park in New York are obvious, wonderful exceptions). Corporatized culture and brands are already deeply integrated into the adolescent experience. So you go to the mall.

The problem with the mall is that it is a controlled environment designed explicitly to sell you crap commodities. It encourages shopping, browsing for future shopping and  eating crap Mccrap. You will not see protestors or homeless people because they would be quickly escorted out as you would be trespassing on corporate private property. You will not see ads for local small business or a used car on the bulletin boards. Nobody will strum a guitar or have a drum circle; you will instead be subject to crap muzak piped through loudspeakers. Nothing that interferes with the shopping experience will be allowed and everything will be designed to entice you to shop.

I am not saying all those things that won’t be there are always great, or always worth preserving. I’m just saying they won’t be there because this is a controlled environment. And increasingly, such private malls are also becoming the main outdoor spaces available to hang out. Downtown Silver Spring in D.C. is such an example. It feels like a town square except it’s not. It’s all privately owned, even the streets, and it is the only such space within many miles. Hence, on many weekends, you can find hundreds of people who go there to hang out and not realize they are in a privately-owned space — even when walking on the street! Malls and corporate-owned spaces have become de facto social commons in many cities.

Such a process is now taking place online. It usually goes unnoticed until someone makes a change that causes people to realize they are not in control, like with Google Buzz or with Facebook terms-of-service changes or redesigns. Our social commons have moved online, and into corporate-controlled spaces. It is better to have opt-in and it is better to have meaningful privacy controls. However, as we see with Facebook, many people will use the system as the it is designed and that will create a particular type world. I hope the debate will move beyond fine-tuning privacy controls and also include what kind of world we are creating.