5/10/2013 4:32:00 PM
The rise of
corporate-owned social media raises many flags about our online security and
the future of the digital commons. The solution, says theorist Michael Albert,
is a different kind of network altogether.
In many ways, social media seem almost designed for
activism. Efficient, user-friendly, and above all, inexpensive, sites like
Facebook and Twitter are invaluable communication tools for any activist.
Planning a rally outside a college president’s office? Create a Facebook group.
Find a nifty guide to protesters’ rights online? Share it on Twitter. Worried
about police brutality at an illegal march? Live-stream from your phone so more
people can see what you see.
No shock that, “Twitter revolutions” aside, social media
have undoubtedly played an important role in activism and social change over
the past decade. In Egypt,
the revolution in some ways began with Facebook groups like the 6 April Youth
Movement and “We Are All Khaled Saaed.” Here in the U.S.,
it was a “We Are the 99 Percent” Tumblr page that gave many future participants
their first glimpse of Occupy Wall Street—more than a full week before the
first encampment in Zuccotti
Park. Achievements like
the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street were of course about so much more than
Facebook or Tumblr, but without social media they would likely have been very
Which, when you think about it, is probably the exact opposite
of what the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world thought social media would do. So
much of what sites like Twitter or Facebook are designed for, how they’re
organized and governed, and how they make money, could not be further from ideals
like social justice or goals like ending student debt. Many sites, like
Facebook, even have a history of giving private data over to government
the U.S. and abroad.
But here’s the good news. It doesn’t have to be like this. There’s
no law of nature that social media need to be run by giant corporations or that
users need to put up with government spying and manipulative advertising. So,
what’s the alternative?
Michael Albert, social theorist and co-editor of Z Magazine, has come up with one solution—and
it’s worth taking a close look at. It’s called FaceLeft, and it embodies the
very best of social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter, but emphatically
without the spying, concision, and commercialization users have long put up
with. Ad-free, substantive, and as open or private as users want to make it,
FaceLeft is the first social network designed by and for activists—or anyone who
feels uncomfortable with corporate-owned social media.
“Can social networking itself better reflect and address needs of people
who are trying to improve the world?” Albert asked in an email exchange. “I
think the answer is of course it can.” It’s just a matter of creating an
alternative space, one that “allows brevity but emphasizes substance, that
rejects ads but enhances mutual aid, that protects privacy and of course also
seeks to subvert spying.”
For a first time user, the site may look and feel a lot like Facebook. Users
can set up profiles, connect with others, join groups, and follow stories
through a news feed. There are also spaces for events and easy ways to share photos,
videos, and links from other sites.
But that’s where the similarities end. In countless ways, FaceLeft
delivers more substance and more genuine interaction than a typical social
network. News feeds include your contacts’ updates, but also RSS feeds from
media outlets like Democracy Now! and
Al Jazeera. Groups are built around actions
and topics like Food Not Bombs and Indigenous Activism, and facilitate informed
discussions that would be unthinkable on a more typical social media platform. Users
are encouraged not only to interact and comment, but to stay informed and ask
Even more importantly, with FaceLeft, there’s no hidden agenda. The
site’s hosts won’t catalogue your private information and sell it to
advertisers, or allow the government to spy on its users. To that end, users
are asked to subscribe to the site for no more than $3 per month. The idea,
says Albert, is to be upfront about how the site tackles operating expenses, as
opposed to a “free” site where users pay with their private data.
At the same time, FaceLeft is by no means meant to compete
with sites like Twitter or Facebook. Rather, it’s about creating more diversity
in an increasingly homogenous internet. When the web started, Albert recalls, users
relied on platforms like America Online to do pretty much everything. But within
a few years more people figured out how to navigate for themselves and the
internet began to blossom. With low costs and few barriers, users created a
uniquely free landscape to interact and share information.
The problem with sites like Facebook and Twitter, Albert
says, is that they’re “trying to get everyone back under one umbrella,” meaning Facebook and
Twitter. And they’re succeeding. Countless organizations, from local restaurants
to immigrant rights groups “now see their most important web presence as their
activity on and within the confines of Facebook.” What this means is that more
and more of the web is being mediated by private, commercial hands. It’s as if the
web itself has been suburbanized: Where once friends and colleagues could meet
in fairly public spaces—chatrooms, message boards, independent sites and blogs—now
the most important online meeting place is the equivalent of a digital shopping
“The issue is, do we want our own ways of doing important things,”
Albert asks, “or do we want to settle for what we can eek out of corporate
offerings?” It’s an idea that’s starting to take off. Already Utne Reader, Z Magazine, and the widely popular Greek party Syriza have created
their own sub-networks on the site (where users can create a profile and join
the larger FaceLeft system)—and Albert hopes there will be many more. For now, it’s
worth considering the potential of a social media alternative, of a more public
For a quick how-to on getting
started with FaceLeft, click
here. To join FaceLeft as part of Utne Reader’s sub-network, called UtneSocial, click here.
Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight
Center, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/7/2012 2:30:06 PM
This post originally appeared at Shareable.net.
The future of the cultural
commons looked dim in December 2002: Napster had been shuttered a year earlier,
while record labels treaded warily into selling DRM-locked music online. The
FCC dismantled regulations forestalling the consolidation of media ownership.
And as the housing bubble inflated, privatization — of media, public space,
scientific and technological research, even the military — became the
watchword of the day.
A decade later, the cultural
commons remains threatened, but stands on somewhat firmer ground. The record
industry abandoned its futile efforts to lock music to users or devices, a
costly lesson movie studios and book publishers seem determined to learn for themselves.
An emerging generation of cultural producers acknowledge that “good theft,” as Austin Kleon puts it, is
a fundamental part of the creative process. And Creative Commons — a once
heretical notion to develop a copyright system for cultural works based on the
principles of open source software development — is celebrating its tenth year.
Founded in 2001 by Lawrence Lessig, then a Stanford
Law professor, and a board of directors that included Duke
James Boyle and Eric Saltzman of Harvard’s Berkman
Center for Internet and Society, Creative Commons announced its first
copyright licenses on December 16th, 2002. In an announcement, the
organization’s Executive Director Glenn Otis Brown stated “One of the great
lessons of software movements is that the choice between self-interest and
community is a false choice. If you’re clever about how you leverage your
rights, you can cash in on openness. Sharing, done properly, is both smart and
The organization — and the
larger free culture movement in general — is not without critics, now and then.
Some are intent on rehashing arguments about the dubious economic and artistic
value of retaining inalienable and irrevocable rights to intellectual
property. Purists take exception to licenses that state “some rights
reserved.” More pointed critiques question the efficacy and impact of
Creative Commons, observing that the licenses remain untested in many courts,
are often embraced by creators as their careers are either on the ascent or
But anyone holding their breath
for the Rolling Stones or Michael
Bay to embrace Creative
Commons might want invest in ventilators. Meanwhile, the purists’ definition
and parameters of what constitutes free culture remain situated, as such
notions often do, at the fringes of culture and academia.
The pragmatic critiques hold
more weight: A decade in, the organization and its licenses has achieved only
modest success in the courtroom. Creative Commons has been ported to over
70 jurisdictions globally, it has only been upheld in a handful of
perhaps, is the cultural capital accrued by the principles that Creative
Commons champions. These concepts are taking root in the mass psyche, albeit
incrementally. They’re espoused by bestselling author Jonathan Lethem, whose Harpers essay “The Ecstasy of Influence,” a manifesto comprised of scraps
from other texts, makes a powerful case for the artistic value of preserving a
free, widely accessible, and endlessly mutable shared cultural heritage. Lethem
their surrogates who fall into the trap of seeking recompense for every possible
second use end up attacking their own best audience members for the crime of
exalting and enshrining their work. The Recording Industry Association of
America prosecuting their own record-buying public makes as little sense as the
novelists who bristle at autographing used copies of their books for
collectors. And artists, or their heirs, who fall into the trap of attacking
the collagists and satirists and digital samplers of their work are attacking
the next generation of creators for the crime of being influenced, for the
crime of responding with the same mixture of intoxication, resentment, lust,
and glee that characterizes all artistic successors. By doing so they make the
world smaller, betraying what seems to me the primary motivation for
participating in the world of culture in the first place: to make the world
The free culture movement that
Creative Commons helped kickstart has provided legal support and ample
publicity to struggling
creators like filmmaker Nina Paley. It’s been embraced by unlikely
institutions such as The World Bank, whose Open Access Policy requires that its
research papers are licensed under a CC Attribution license. News outlets such
as Wired and Al Jazeera release works of photojournalism to the commons, while
the likes of Naturerelease genomic research under the license.
As was the case a decade ago,
the future of Creative Commons and the free culture movement may be predicted
by developments in the open source community. In recent years, git, a
version control system for software development, has become a prevailing way
for coders to collaborate, share, and build upon each others’ work. The most
mainstream iteration is GitHub,
a public hub for developers to easily connect, collaborate, and iterate on
code. Using GitHub, modifying an existing project to serve your own needs or
goals is as easy as clicking the “fork” button.
Increasingly, GitHub is not only
hosting code. Designers are posting editable templates and Illustrator files to
the site, while GitHub Pages
hosts writing by forward-thinking bloggers, journalists, and authors.
The notion of a platform that makes it easy to create new
and modified versions of creative works, while retaining chains of attribution
back to those that have come before, may seem radical to some, untenably geeky
to others. But as Creative Commons has demonstrated for the past decade, software
development is a creative and collaborative process from which artists and
other cultural creators can learn much, to enrich their work by preserving and
building upon our shared cultural heritage.
Images by Tyler
Steinfanich and Dawn Endico, both licensed under (you guessed it) Creative Commons.
4/16/2012 10:55:31 AM
What would happen if the government had access to information you share on Facebook and could access it without you knowing? For now, the Orwellian question remains hypothetical. But if a bill before Congress is approved, it might enable that very thing.
The Cyber Intelligence Sharing Protection Act, or CISPA, boasts bipartisan support and the approval of many high-profile businesses, notably Facebook. Its creators claim it will prevent “catastrophic attack to our nation’s vital networks - networks that power our homes, provide our clean water or maintain the other critical services we use every day.”
But the bill has received harsh criticism from groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), and Anonymous. Now, get ready to put all those acronyms to use. The EFF accuses Congress of using fear of cyber threats to distract the public from the bill’s infringements on free speech. To that, CDT adds encroachment on Americans’ fourth amendment right to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. According to CDT, “CISPA has a very broad, almost unlimited definition of the information that can be shared with government agencies […] is likely to lead to expansion of the government’s role in the monitoring of private communications [… and] is likely to shift control of government cybersecurity efforts from civilian agencies to the military.”
It's scary stuff, and groups like Free Press, Demand Progress, and Avaaz.org have jumped to action. Their “Stop CISPA” petitions are currently circulating through social media channels, including Facebook. The response has been extensive enough to warrant a response from Facebook’s Vice President of U.S. Policy, Joel Kaplan. On Friday, Kaplan wrote a letter assuring users that Facebook would not betray their trust. The comments below the letter are overwhelmingly negative, with many using the space to share information about the bill and others threatening to move to Google+.
Facebook isn’t the only one responding. To combat negative press, “House Intel Comm” launched a Twitter account on April 11th. The tweets were composed in glowing Newspeak. “Rogers-Ruppersberger #cyber bill keeps the federal govt’s hands off the Internet, & doesn’t allow the govt to stop access to websites.” Spin this fine would give George Orwell a run for his money. Fortunately, such tweets only show how out-of-touch its authors are with people who actually use the internet. A “best of” collection has been immortalized by the bloggers of Techdirt, where the comment section shows that few have been fooled by the propaganda campaign.
If anything, it is the comment areas of these sites that should give us hope. Americans are not the passive, blundering fools we have been made to seem in the past. When given room to voice our opinions, we’re a feisty bunch (no wonder they’d like to keep tabs on us). The major thing missing from discussion in the comments section is that CISPA is not the only option. The CDT supports a bill proposed by Dan Lungren (R-CA) called the PRECISE Act, calling it “a strong alternative to CISPA by balancing cybersecurity, industry and civil liberties concerns.” This is the bill we should be talking about, in Congress and comments sections alike.
Sources: Congressman Mike Roger’s press release, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Center for Democracy & Technology,Techdirt, Facebook, CISPA homepage
Image: "A New Method of Macarony Making, as practised at Boston in North America," satirical illustration depicting two American colonists tar and feathering an English customs agent at Boston, Massachusetts. Mezzotint, 152 mm x 113 mm. Courtesy of the British Museum, London. This work is in the public domain in the United States.
4/1/2011 12:37:09 PM
Defying the illegitimate authority of his crypto-fascist homeowners’ association, a punk dad issues an uncompromising manifesto.
A couple of Miami Beach buddies score some good weed—and some international arms contracts.
A diet change, instead of Ritalin, might be just the prescription for many ADHD cases.
Glimpse the elusive waterbirds of Manhattan.
“[O]ne day, while screening some episodes of HBO’s The Wire, it hit me: [Charles] Dickens was back and his name is David Simon.” Bill Moyers interviews David Simon at Guernica.
Tax-free online sales are taking their toll in Washington state, the home of Amazon.
Visit the Los Angeles you’ll never know: a city devoid of cars.
Who hasn’t celebrated a major victory by firing guns into the air, a la Yosemite Sam? Slateexamines what happens to the bullets after you’ve emptied your clip (and whether or not they can kill you).
Rupert Murdoch acquires New Internationalist. (Make sure to check the date that this one was posted.)
10/21/2009 5:12:33 PM
The deals are a “stunning one-two punch,” according to All Things Digital: Microsoft announced today that it has struck agreements to integrate real-time feeds of status updates from Twitter and Facebook into Bing. The deals are nonexclusive—which means Google could follow suit—but for the time being, Bing has something the search giant has yet to tap, at least in the case of Facebook. And get this: Microsoft is paying for it—exact terms, of course, haven’t been disclosed.
This is nonetheless “a precedent that the ability of search engines to index and link to content is worth some money,” Ryan Chittum writes for Columbia Journalism Review. “Where this goes from here no one knows. . . . Would the AP yank its news off Google if Bing paid and Google didn’t? Would it be worth it in the lost revenue from not showing up in as many search results? That’s too early to tell.”
One thing is clear, as Chittum says: This will be worth watching.
Sources: All Things Digital, Columbia Journalism Review
Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.
Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!
Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $6 and get 6 issues of Utne Reader for only $29.95 (USA only).
Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 6 issues of Utne Reader!