The Dark Side of the Digital World

The digital world poses a threat if we are not careful to question its power to monopolize and determine, commodify, and commercialize so many aspects of our lives.

| August 2013

  • Off The Network Book Cover
    “Off the Network” critiques how the Internet, social media, and the digital network change users’ understanding of the world.
    Cover Courtesy University of Minnesota Press
  • Digital World Issues
    Quit Facebook Day, as an expression of the desire to kill one’s networked self, illustrates the need for a language to talk about these tensions, to talk about the darker aspects of the relationship between platforms and individuals.
    Photo By Fotolia/iluistrator

  • Off The Network Book Cover
  • Digital World Issues

Off the Network (University of Minnesota Press, 2013) is a fresh and authoritative examination of how the hidden logic of the Internet, social media, and the digital network is changing users’ understanding of the world—and why that should worry us. Ulises Ali Mejias also suggests how we might begin to rethink the logic of the network and question its ascendancy. This excerpt is from the introduction.  

Networks matter because they are the underlying structure of our lives. And without understanding their logic we cannot change their programmes to harness their flexibility to our hopes, instead of relentlessly adapting ourselves to the instructions received from their unseen codes. Networks are the Matrix.
- Manuel Castells, “Why Networks Matter”

On May 31, 2010, an estimated thirty-three thousand people committed suicide in a collective wave of global proportions. In the opinion of the media, however, the aggregated death of those thousands was essentially insignificant. Thankfully, no blood was spilled that day, since the act of annihilation in question involved permanently deleting one’s Facebook account in what came to be known as Quit Facebook Day—an expression of rage over the company’s privacy policies for some, and of disillusionment with virtual life for others. In the words of an early advocate, “The movement could reach epidemic levels if more users kill off their electronic selves rather than submit to corporate control over their friendships. Facebook, and the other corporate lackeys, will then learn that they can’t exploit our social relationships for profit. From viral growth will come a viral death as more people demand that Facebook dies so our friendships may thrive.”

Availing themselves of how--to advice from the movement’s main website, as well as tools like the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine, people removed themselves from the popular social networking site because they agreed with the general sentiment that “Facebook doesn’t respect you, your personal data, or the future of the web.”

While thirty-three thousand is a trivial portion of what was then a five hundred million membership base, Quit Facebook Day was deemed a success even as it failed. The mass exodus that was hoped for did not materialize, but at least the movement generated a public relations disturbance that led Facebook to reconsider its policies or at least to try to do a better job of explaining them. Thus the events surrounding Quit Facebook Day shed some light on today’s frequently tense relation between the rights of the user and the interests of the corporations that operate digital social networks.

Quit Facebook Day, as an expression of the desire to kill one’s networked self, illustrates the need for a language to talk about these tensions, to talk about the darker aspects of the relationship between platforms and individuals. It is obvious that digital information and communication technologies, such as Facebook, act as templates for organizing sociality, for building social networks. They arrange individuals into social structures, actively shaping how they interact with the world. But during the process of assembling a community, not every type of participant or every kind of participation is supported by the technology. While some things can be assimilated or rendered in terms that can be understood by the network, others cannot. As participation in social and civic life becomes increasingly mediated by digital networks, we are confronted by a series of disquieting questions: What does the digital network include in the process of forming an assemblage and, more important, what does it leave out? How does the network’s logic of exclusion shape the way we look at the world? At what point does the exclusion carried out by the digital network make it necessary to question its logic and even dismantle it, and to what end exactly? These are the questions this book seeks to address.

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