“Prior to the Internet, the last technology that had any real effect on the way people sat down and talked together was the table,” observed Clay Shirky in a 2003 speech. One thing you can say about a table, as a social-networking technology, is that it doesn’t have an agenda. It is agnostic about the conversation that goes on around it. The table is a mute and neutral host; all the action occurs at its edges, where the people are. And so, when Shirky discussed the essence of online communication in his speech, he focused not on the role of the table but on the roles of the people around the table and in particular on the dynamic tension between the interests of the group and the interests of the group’s individual members.
Shirky’s reference to the table as a precursor to the Internet was a joking one, but, as the thrust of his speech made clear, it also reflected the prevailing sense of the Net’s role as a neutral host, or “platform,” for online social interaction. Here is Yochai Benkler discussing the rise of “social software” in his 2006 book The Wealth of Networks: “The design of the Internet itself is agnostic as among the social structures and relations it enables. At its technical core is a commitment to push all the detailed instantiations of human communications to the edges of the network — to the applications that run on the computers of users.” The Internet, in other words, is just a very, very big table. It convenes, but it doesn’t intervene. All the action occurs at its edges.
Benkler’s mistake, we can now see, lay in underestimating the Net’s capabilities and its commercial incentives. He missed the fact that, with cloud computing, the essential functionality of applications, along with the data they process, would move from “the computers of users” to the data centers of big Internet companies — from the edges to the center.
Here’s something else that Shirky said in that 2003 speech: “The normal experience of social software is failure. If you go into Yahoo groups and you map out the subscriptions, it is, unsurprisingly, a power law. There’s a small number of highly populated groups, a moderate number of moderately populated groups, and this long, flat tail of failure. And the failure is inevitably more than 50% of the total mailing lists in any category. So it’s not like a cake recipe. There’s nothing you can do to make it come out right every time.” What’s most interesting here, in retrospect, is the trivial role that Shirky attributes to Yahoo. People gather through Yahoo, but the company otherwise stays out of the picture. Yahoo is just another table carved out of the larger table of the Internet. It’s a neutral platform that doesn’t involve itself in the social dynamics playing out along its edges. It, too, convenes but doesn’t intervene. It certainly doesn’t fiddle with the recipe. In Benkler’s work, as well, the corporate conveners — the Yahoos, Googles, MySpaces, Facebooks, etc. — are notable largely by their absence. For his thesis to hold, they need to be agnostic and relatively uninteresting players. They need to be tables.
The revelation that Facebook is something of a World Wide Skinner Box, routinely conducting behavioral-modification experiments on its unknowing members and then incorporating the results of those experiments into the algorithms that determine the shape of its members’ conversations, tells us how naive we were to look at social-networking platforms as high-tech versions of tables and to believe that the Net had a “commitment” to push social interaction to its edges. Facebook, and every other large social-networking and information-aggregation company, both convenes and intervenes. Indeed, it convenes in order to intervene. The platform is the conversation. To fully analyze online social dynamics, one has to attend not only to the tension between the group and the individual but between the platform and both the group and the individual. The problem is that whereas the group-individual tension is visible, the manipulations of the platform are invisible. With the publication of the Facebook study, the veil trembled. We all knew the veil was there — we all knew we were inside a Skinner Box — but suddenly we had to admit the fact.
“The platform is the conversation.” I intend that to be taken not as a literal fact — all of Facebook’s experiments and algorithmic tweaks may in the end have a trivial influence on people’s conversations and thoughts — but as a provocation. The old romantic “Internet,” to borrow Evgeny Morozov’s quotation marks, is dead and gone. The center held. The table has an agenda.
Image taken from the Facebook advertisement “Dinner.”