XXVIII.6 November - December 2021
Page: 62
Digital Citation

Social media platforms are failed cities

André Ourednik, Jakub Mlynář, Nico Mutzner, Hamed Alavi

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As the astronaut Dave Bowman, armed with a screwdriver, disconnects the murderous computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the machine complains, "My mind is going; I can feel it; please stop, Dave." Similarly, advocates for the alt-right Twitter clone Parler kept on pleading that "we're a town square, not a publication" as Google and Apple pulled Parler's plug from their app stores, as Amazon later did from its cloud servers. Parler's users then made their exodus to Gab and other dark corners of the Internet. Days before, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and many others had banned these users, along with the sitting president of the U.S., to curtail the violence induced by their posts. Deplatforming is a term now used to refer to such bans. According to Google n-grams, its use has increased sharply since 2013, skyrocketing in January 2021. Specifically, deplatforming involves revoking a user's access to his or her social media account and even making his or her past posts invisible to the public. What remains of @realDonaldTrump on Twitter is an empty shell. On Facebook, the former president's last post from January 6, 2021, sticks to the top of his thread like a shameful stain.


It escapes no one's attention that this deplatforming marks a historic turn in the political management of online content. The joint congressional hearing of Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, and Jack Dorsey on March 25 was only the first of a long series deemed necessary in the aftermath of the Capitol attacks. Senators across the aisle agreed that something has to change, though they disagreed on what: In a surprising role inversion, conservatives advocated for free speech, and progressives for more liability from these companies. For decades, social media platforms shunned the latter by calling themselves town squares.

back to top  Insights


back to top  Extending the Town Square Metaphor

Long before Parler, Facebook employed urban metaphors [1] to describe its services. Comparing itself to a public space seems to be a useful way to absolve a social media company from responsibility for its content. Yet it provides an excuse only to the extent to which an urban planner can be excused for the social mayhem taking place in a dysfunctional city. There is, in fact, more to the urban metaphor than Mark Zuckerberg may suspect.

Much like a city, the contemporary Internet is full of communities, ghettos, (fire-)walls and market squares, main streets and secret passages, craftsmen's (Git-)workshops and VIP reception halls, secretive bank vaults, brownfields and junkyards, gambling saloons and brothels, power strongholds and dens of subversion. The main difference between the physical city and its noospheric extension is that the Internet became a thing only in the early 1990s—cities emerged in the Fertile Crescent more than 6,000 years ago. In other words, humans have more experience in organizing cities than in managing cyberspace. Thus, should we ask: What takeaways from our urban background are useful in our new, online, existential realm?

In the recent history of our 300,000-year-old species, we have experimented with militarized city-states, theocratic citadels, capitals of empires, feudal fortresses, suffocating industrial peripheries, and, to this day, with suburban sprawl, in which people commute between their neurotic villas and business-district jobs, closed to the world in two-ton metal cocoons on wheels that we call cars. Most urbanists today agree that sprawl is a terrible mistake. Yet social media platforms imitate it to a great extent. Like sprawl dwellers, their users rarely meet different people by chance, as happens to anyone who walks in dense and mixed urban settings, but usually only by choice. Connecting to social media is the digital equivalent of driving downtown. And while the sprawl dweller hybridizes with a driving machine, the social media user hybridizes with an electric communication device. In the former case, one becomes a honking centaur incapable of lateral movement; in the latter case, a text- and image-spreading content generator devoid of smell and touch.

Most urbanists today agree that sprawl is a terrible mistake. Yet social media platforms imitate it to a great extent.

In sum, two phenomena characterize both sprawl and the contemporary Internet: nonexposure to otherness and a frightening reduction of embodiment.

back to top  Urban Mixity and a Cybernetic Approach to AI

Foreclosure in sameness in the physical world results mostly from economic segregation processes, sometimes from overt discrimination by the real estate market. It can be leveraged by state funding of low-income housing, such as France's Loi Solidarité et Renouvellement Urbains from 2002 (https://www.cohesion-territoires.gouv.fr/loi-solidarite-et-renouvellement-urbain-sru), or by policies such as the U.S.'s Fair Housing Act of 1968 (https://www.justice.gov/crt/fair-housing-act-2). Dismantling such policies has been a central endeavor of Trumpism. In social media, segregation occurs by confinement in so-called echo chambers. They are the direct result of the theoretical—and to some degree ideological—posture of a subfield of artificial intelligence (AI) called machine learning (ML). Most ML algorithms are self-training classifiers; they slice up the world into groups of similar individuals based on a set of variables describing each person: sex, age, geolocation, frequencies of specific words in social posts, and so on. The aim of a classification algorithm is to minimize intragroup variance and to maximize intergroup variance. Once classified, individuals see more posts from users in their group, and are targeted with group-specific ads, hyperlinks, and forum invitations. Such exposure affects their worldview, finally making them captive of a statistically delimited mindset. In cybernetic theory, this is called positive feedback, which despite the name is considered a very bad thing. The cybernetically inspired psychologists of the Palo Alto school, for instance, speak of "symmetrical escalation" when they analyze mismanaged conflicts [2]. Cybernetics emerged just after World War II as an interdisciplinary science that strove to understand and promote systemic equilibria. Its main figures included Norbert Wiener, Warren McCulloch, and Walter Pitts, the inventors of neural networks. Their idea of AI was that of a system of systems that keeps itself in a state of dynamic equilibrium by means of negative feedback: As the temperature rises, a thermostat lowers the heat of radiators and vice versa; or, as a toilet fills up, a floater closes the incoming water valve and reopens it as the toilet empties. Cybernetic AI is conceived in terms of interaction of multiple systems. In Niklas Luhmann's theory of social systems, individuals are not in any way central [3]. Cybernetic AI is a collective intelligence [4]. It is comparable to what Aristotle called phrónēsis, or practical wisdom. The intelligence of ML algorithms employed in our social media is only the individual smartness of self-made classifiers. They excel at a specific task but ignore the broader context; in psychiatric terms, they are obsessive maniacs.

To leverage social segregation on the Internet, we should take a hint from cybernetics and find out means of algorithmic reinforcement using negative feedback loops in public conversation. This would contribute to political self-regulation and dynamic stability. Concretely, this could be implemented, for instance, by exposing a user to opinions from people closer to the "other side"—in other words, those different from his or hers, but close enough to stir reflection instead of defensive aggression. In the multidimensional space of social variables, people should be exposed to content posted by others situated between themselves and the center of gravity of the whole social spectrum, rather than to posts of individuals farther out on the extremes.




back to top  Cities and Laws

When spontaneous self-regulation fails, societies need explicit laws—and the first written laws emerged in large cities. Current legislation of social media platforms sets us back to the times of the Sumerian king Ur-Nammu, ruler of Ur, Eridu, and Uruk. In 2100 BC, his scribes edited the oldest conserved law code on clay tablets. They specify, for instance, that if a man is accused of sorcery, he must undergo ordeal by water; if he is proven innocent, his accuser must pay three shekels. Much like the terms of service of a social media platform, Ur-Nammu's laws were few but strangely specific. Much like Ur-Nammu's laws, Twitter's and Facebook's terms of service are designed by a small elite exercising the power of life and death (by cancellation) over the citizens of their worlds.

Meanwhile, many antique city-states have evolved into democratic nations. The question is how to lead social media on a similar path. The answer is both political and technical. Some weeks before his imprisonment on January 10, 2021, Alexei Navalny called upon platforms to create a more transparent judiciary process, appointing oversight boards whose decisions could be appealed. Facebook did set one up (see https://oversightboard.com) by the end of 2020; on May 6, 2021, it decided to ban Trump for an extra six months. While appreciable, the procedure remains a PR stunt: The sheer quantity of posts on the platform makes concrete appeals to Facebook's oversight board only possible in high-profile cases. For the rest of us, the platform's systems of governance outsource their executive tasks to algorithms. These algorithms are currently secret, but one could envision a better use of the new possibilities offered by the numeric realm. Leaning on well-established frameworks of open-source development, legislators could coerce online platforms into publishing their algorithms and training datasets for detection of hate speech and other prohibited content on a Git repository. (Refusing to disclose such datasets on grounds of "privacy issues" is not an acceptable argument, especially when posts are already public on the respective platforms.) The code of the algorithm would then become transparent and collaborative. If geocultural context is taken into account in the detection of "unacceptable" speech, this too would become explicit and subject to global debate. Social media platforms should then be required to apply these algorithms indiscriminately on all content, regardless of the social status of the accounts' owners. Again, the benefits of such a collaborative stance are well informed by our society's decades-long experience in participatory urban planning.

back to top  Social Media and Embodiment

Finally, one more important urban feature is the fact that cities are congregations of human bodies. They are sites of multimodal interaction in which sociality emerges on a daily basis, achieved by mutual perception, mirroring, and everyday rituals (described, for instance, by the sociologist Erving Goffman). The embodiment of human experience provides a common ground: Despite all differences appearing in verbal and, a fortiori, written arguments, the bodily movement, facial expression, gaze, and tone of voice provide a fundamental sense of others as human beings like ourselves. Most of us have experienced the benefit of resolving conflicts face-to-face or through a phone call rather than via email or text messages.

During the current pandemic, this fundamental access to our congeners has been throttled to an extent, which accounts for a large set of psychological problems, including the exacerbation of conflicts on social media [5]. We have been reduced to bodiless avatars arguing in a digital space. The scale of physical violence of the recent collective outbursts on both sides of the political spectrum and around the world—anti-police, anti-mask, anti-vax, anti-confinement, anti-government—can easily be interpreted as natural reactions to this condition.

According to the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, our embodied experience of the world gives us access to a specific understanding, to a specific meaning, of the world [6]. A lack of meaning induces psychological distress. If we imagine that the current pandemic situation persists, or returns in future pandemics, social media might well be the only substitute to an embodied urban experience. But it does a very poor job at that. Instead of giving each of us access to others as human beings, these platforms allow them to appear as an incoherent thread of stubborn outcries. The search for a more embodied exchange could explain the investment in Clubhouse, a voice-based social platform, or the astounding success of TikTok among younger people. The millions of views of the "Wellerman" sea shanty (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UgsurPg9Ckw) provide a moving example of a digital substitute to our need to share a common voice, our need to feel that we are together in the current crisis. That our greatest gift to one another, as a species, is the embodied expression of our common hopes and inspirations. The emerging technologies of augmented reality should be considered in the design of future digital public spaces.

back to top  Toward a Civilized Social Media

Both cities and cyberspaces are material organizations. The city is one of the most ancient forms of AI: an objective formal structure designed for the convergence of human thoughts and actions toward a common good [7]. In Aristotle's Politics, that supreme good made possible by the organization of the polis was a "virtuous life." The common good of modern cities—described, for instance, in Louis Wirth's seminal paper "Urbanism as Way of Life"—is not a specific objective, but rather the very possibility of existential invention and reinvention. The modern city concentrates a great diversity of people and amenities, allowing exponentially as many combinations of interactions. Its multistory architecture pushes the limits of densification; its transportation infrastructure further facilitates transition between contexts of interaction. At the same time, the city differentiates these contexts, partitioning space, creating as many opportunities to deploy diverse aspects of one's embodied self. The urban dweller is a plural individual. Distinct places inhabited at distinct times partition thought processes and regimes of social engagement, giving space even to one's inner contradictions. As a realm escaping individual control, the city also provides serendipity: exposure to situations one does not seek but that give an unexpected and often beneficial turn to one's life. The city, in sum, is a collective machine for living a complex existence. Insofar as its structure becomes the object of political deliberation, it is a conscious machine.

Designers of microchips imitate urbanists by maximizing the number of transistors per surface area, densifying logical processes, speeding up data transformation. But the microchip never reinvents itself: Its purpose is predefined. So is the purpose of social media, designed for the maximization of engagement with ads, for classifying and forging profiles of product consumers. This teleological confinement is at the heart of all that currently separates social media platforms from physical cities. Like cities, social media platforms provide opportunities for interaction, but they do so in a manner oriented toward the private profits of their owners. They can only become better algorithmic cities if the common good becomes their primary focus.

We have given some suggestions on how to achieve this in this article: true exposure to otherness, technological development of embodiment, transparency, political reflexivity. There are certainly many other aspects, yet to be defined, to try out. This will happen whether or not private companies want it, as legislators around the globe prepare to act. Parliaments of nation-states still possess strong leverage, such as antitrust laws and pending decisions over laws protecting social media platforms from liability for their content. This does not need to be seen as a limitation of social media, but rather as an effort to transform it into an effective extension of the city, the civitas: a civilized space of cohabitation.

back to top  Acknowledgments

This piece has been written in the scope of the project Reimagining Artificial Intelligence—Towards Establishing a Sociological Conception of AI (2020–21) financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation. See https://human-ist.unifr.ch/en/news/news/23558/

back to top  References

1. Strauss, D. Facebook was never just a digital town square. Medium. Mar. 13, 2019; https://medium.com/@_danielstrauss/facebook-was-never-just-a-digital-town-square-2b3ef248a3f5

2. Watzlawick, P., Bavelas, J.B., and Jackson, D.D. Pragmatics of Human Communication: A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies and Paradoxes. W.W. Norton, 1967.

3. Luhmann, N. The concept of society. Thesis Eleven 31, 1 (1992), 67–80.

4. Cassell, J. The ties that bind. Social interaction in conversational agents. Réseaux 220–221, 2–3 (2020), 21–45.

5. Barnidge, M. Social affect and political disagreement on social media. Social Media + Society (Jul. 2018); https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2056305118797721

6. Nixon, D. The body as mediator. Aeon. Dec. 7, 2020; https://aeon.co/essays/the-phenomenology-of-merleau-ponty-and-embodiment-in-the-world

7. Ourednik, A. Robopoïèses. Les intelligences artificielles de la nature. La Baconnière, 2021.

back to top  Authors

André Ourednik is trained in geography, philosophy, and the digital humanities, and has a Ph.D. in geography. He is a lecturer at the College of Humanities of the EPFL, and in data visualization at the University of Neuchâtel. Ourednik is also a Swiss National Science Foundation researcher at the Human-IST Institute at the University of Fribourg and a data scientist for the Swiss Confederation. andre.ourednik@unifr.ch

Jakub Mlynář is a sociologist working as a researcher at Charles University and the University of Fribourg. His current focus is on the use of digital technology in classroom interactions, and on the situated aspects of oral history, narrative, and identity. jakub.mlynar@unifr.ch

Nico Mutzner has a B.S. in criminology and sociology from Royal Holloway, University of London. He is an aspiring researcher in sociology at the University of Zurich working toward a sociological understanding of technology, specifically in the area of artificial intelligence. Nico.Mutzner.2017@live.rhul.ac.uk

Hamed Alavi is an HCI researcher and lecturer at the Human-IST Institute at the University of Fribourg. His research investigates human interactive experiences with and within built environments of the future as they embody various forms of intelligence. He has a Ph.D. in computer science from EPFL. hamed.alavi@unifr.ch

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