First Monday

Introduction: Understanding social media monopolies by Korinna Patelis and Pavlos Hatzopoulos

The ubiquitous presence of social media in everyday life has not been met by equally pervasive research efforts for their critical understanding, due mostly to the increasing specialization and fragmentation of academic research. Unlike Us: Understanding Social Media Monopolies attempts to set out a research platform that overcomes both the dominant quantitative analyses and the privacy paradigm in current social media research.


The Unlike Us Network
The scope of the special issue
A conversation in common




A neoliberal colleague whilst staring at an Unlike Us #3 conference poster hang on a corridor wall of the Cyprus University of Technology mentioned the other day:

“I don’t know what your problem is — Facebook was not designed to empower your revolution, why do you hold it responsible for not doing so?’ ‘You are right’ I said, ‘it was designed to facilitate my consumption.’ He promptly interrupted: ‘Oh you lefties, you see conspiracy theories everywhere!’

The development of social media mirrors the antinomies of late capitalism. Social media are global platforms par excellence, yet their global reach is embedded in diverse localized contexts. Social media form and extend the social space we communicate and interact in and, at the same time, give users unprecedented power to perform these communications in seemingly more open and autonomous ways. On the one hand, social media are forming and extending an explosion of virtuality; on the other, social media corporations have phenomenal power to shape the modes of this virtuality. The often celebrated ‘user’s revolts’ against industry’s handling of social media platforms seem as a mere aberrations to the overall, overarching prerogative of owner companies to, for instance, rewrite the terms of service for using these platforms or revamping the social software that runs them.

The ubiquitous presence of social media in everyday life has not been met by equally pervasive research efforts for their critical understanding, mostly because pockets of research addressing the crucial critical issues in new media studies are too spread out. As knowledge production structures fragment, instrumentally rationalize and further specialize critical thought, so does the idea of developing research platform/s that consolidate critical thought withers away. Academic research on social media has geometrically increased in the past half decade in terms of volume, but it has predominantly been quantitative and social science based, preoccupied mostly with measuring social media use, mapping their social territory and the users investment in such territory. Youth, as well as “illicit” uses of social media, seem to attract more scholarly attention than core questions such as self–governance, self–regulation and so on.

In media studies, and all over the academic ivory tower, a liberal research agenda has assumed center stage, giving rise to numerous new media texts that reproduce massive generalizations, or act as celebrations of the users’ re–appropriation of the social media moment, or that simply perpetuate the fetishization of privacy.

This is not to discount the existing critical trajectories in social media research. The initial impetus behind the creation of the Unlike Us network was fueled by approaches interested in the ways in which social media are the missionaries of capitalism’s accelerated demand for user generated content, the exploitation of collective intelligence and the consolidation of production structures which are constituted through free labour.



The Unlike Us Network

The Unlike Us research network was set up in 2011 with the purpose of analyzing the economic and cultural aspects of dominant social media platforms and of propagating the further development of alternative social media software. Its proposed research agenda embraces philosophical, epistemological and theoretical investigations of knowledge artifacts, cultural production and social relations and, at the same time, empirical investigations on specific aspects of the operation of monopoly social media. Methodologically, the lessons learned from theoretical research activities are intended to inform practice–oriented research, and vice versa. Unlike Us: Understanding Social Media Monopolies attempts to shift away the focus from the obsession with youth and usage to the economic, political, artistic and technical aspects of these online platforms. In this capacity this special issue is part of a larger networked effort for re–orientating research on social media.

Going beyond the culture of complaint about our ignorance and loss of privacy, the Unlike Us network of artists, scholars, activists and media folks has been asking fundamental and long–arching questions about how to tackle these fast–emerging monopoly powers. Issues investigated include the support of software alternatives and related artistic practices, and the development of a common vision of how the techno–social world might be mediated in alternative ways. Without falling into the romantic trap of some harmonious off–line life, Unlike Us asks what sort of network architectures could be designed that contribute to ‘the common’ understood as a shared resource and system of collective production that supports new forms of social organizations (such as organized networks) without mining for data to be sold. What type of aesthetic tactics may be more effective in putting an end to that expropriation of subjective and private dimensions we experience daily in social networks? Let’s code and develop other ‘network cultures’ whose protocols are no longer related to the logic of the “weak link”. Why should networks that refuse the (hyper)growth model and instead seek to strengthen forms of free cooperation be ignored as possible alternatives?

The activities of Unlike Us have so far expanded to the creation of an online research network of 120 researchers, a very active mailing list, the organization of three conference/events — one held in Limassol, one in Amsterdam, and yet another one forthcoming in Amsterdam (to be held on 22–23 March 2013), the publication of one reader, which has just been issued by the Institute of Network Cultures, and this special issue. The Unlike Us network is totally open to any type of appropriation and development from anyone who believes in the tactical advantage of joining a heterogeneous group of researchers.

This special issue collects selected academic interventions that were articulated in the context of these research activities. The selected texts cast a critical eye on the notion of specialization in the theorization of social media and attest to the general orientation of Unlike Us network along 2+1 axes in relation to our ongoing investigations on social media monopolies:

Overcoming quantitative analyses of social media. The current predominance of quantitative methodologies has to be seen in conjunction with the prioritization of profiling, classifying, measuring and quantifying users networking by the social media monopolies themselves. Social media companies depend on these processes for producing advertising revenues. To adopt critical standpoints towards this massive push for quantification one needs to be careful of not mimicking, or of not acting as a supplement to the strategies of social media monopolies.

This does not necessarily make the application of quantitative methodologies to social media research as damnable per se, but it certainly calls for strengthening alternative methodologies and perspectives to the quantification paradigm centred on usage. We have, for one thing, to be more attentive to the unquantifiable or the unmeasurable practices of social networking, and, at the same time, to approach quantification as a tactical means for empowering practices of subversion within monopoly social media platforms.

Overcoming the privacy paradigm. A large part of existing critical thinking on social media has been obsessed with the concept of privacy. This fascination becomes ultimately appropriated by the dictates of a liberal agenda proposing an individualistic activist framework resting on the notion of individual freedom. Reading through a number of volumes and texts dedicated to the problematic of privacy in social networking one gets the feeling that if the so called “privacy issues” were resolved social media would be radically democratized.

Instead of adopting a static view of the concept of the “private” and of “privacy”, critical thinking needs to investigate how the private/public dichotomy is potentially reconfigurated in social media networking, and to pay more emphasis on new forms of collectivity that can emerge in the process of this reconfiguration.

Providing a platform for engaging diverse critical voices. The Unlike Us network, as much as the the narrower group of authors participating in this special issue, are parties to an ongoing conversation, rather than a cohesive collective with common scientific or political positions. With this initiative, we aim at treating these divergences as a research tool for questioning the classic dichotomies of private /public, commercial/political, users/corporations, artistic/standardized, original/copy, democratizing/disempowering in the context of social media research.



The scope of the special issue

To summarize the contents of this special issue is in itself a theoretical exercise. One possible way of approaching the articles of the issue as a relatively cohesive body of work is to focus on how they attempt to situate social media as implicated in contemporary power relations. Along these lines, all contributions can be seen as inquiries into the reconfiguration of contemporary forms of power.

In “Society doesn’t exist”, Jodi Dean problematizes the dominant paradigm about thinking the “social” in social media. Tracing discursive affinities among different versions of the “society does not exist” position (a neoliberal, an actor–network version, and a post–Marxist one), Dean argues that contemporary forms of power operate precisely through dispersion and fragmentation, giving the example of the de–regulation of labour relations under communicate capitalism. Along these lines, the existing critiques of social media monopolies as primarily centralized apparatuses and the articulation of emancipatory politics along the lines of de–centralization or dispersion are ultimately misguided and politically problematic. Dean’s effort is to re–locate the critique of social media within the framework of the wider critique of communicative capitalism, and particularly of the institutions of private property and ownership, while she calls for the re–institution of collective power beyond the confines of the capitalist logic.

Robert Gehl’s contribution proposes the introduction of the concept of noopower in the analysis of social media architectures. Drawing from the work of post–operaist thought and of Maurizio Lazzarato, in particular, Gehl attempts to relate the rise of social media monopolies to the passage from biopolitical to noopolitical societies, the passage from the politics of the management of embodied life to the politics of memory, attention, and perception. Operating via the logic of noopower social media are conducive to making “knowledge, creativity, and desire commensurable, quantifiable, exchangeable, and more productive”. If social media operate within the realm of noopolitics, then, Gehl argues, we have to think beyond the notion of resistance into building systems of radical thought that can be encoded in alternative technologies.

Attempting to map effective tactics of disruption against social media monopolies, Caroline Bassett explores in “Silence, delirium, lies” the potential of silence as a response to the growth agendas of social networking platforms. Criticizing dominant approaches that associate social media with public spaces or public spheres, she argues that they, instead, tend to personalize active engagement and thus give rise to placeless social relations. Bassett invokes silence as a call for a re–spatialization of media politics, an attempt to re–instate a public space where a conversation in common can occur. Instead of treating silence as a negative form of withdrawal from communicative networks, Bassett conceives it as a pre–condition for the positive re–construction of communal communicative spaces.

In “Smell the fish: Digital Disneyland and the right to oblivion”, Oliver Leistert pursues a critical overview of some of the key themes that have preoccupied the Unlike Us network. He manages to bring to light some so far neglected aspects of “social media”, ranging from the Facebook SIM card that is widely used in the non–Western world as representing a shift to existing connectivity regimes to the data waste produced by social media monopolies as an early sign of their ultimate demise. Leistert castigates existing research on social media as relying and ultimately reproducing the algorithmic structures and code design of social media monopolies and reminds us, along these lines, the Foucauldian critique on the conditions of possibility for knowledge about social media.

Korinna Patelis’ article offers a polemical contribution towards the renewal of the radical political economy tradition in media studies, by placing the social text produced by Facebook by means of its user interface at the center of academic inquiry. The paper focuses on Facebook discourses on the accelerated demand for producing, archiving, and manipulating personal content, as well as the demand for contributing to collective intelligence. It argues that Facebook is a transformative space for the “processing” of user experience vis–à–vis customization, a collective archive in which users weave their own standardized personal content, in order to produce more personal data. Patelis argues that the stories told by the Facebook software consolidate a pivotal structuration in global media: the further integration of commerce and communications via the industrialization of personal data. The demonization of anonymity and the strive for customization, as articulated through the endless tabs for further personalizing the Facebook text, are not much more than a demand for the production of more personal data by consumers.

Sara El–Khalili’s piece attempts an empirical investigation of how social media influence power relations in a critical political conjuncture. Taking cue from the Egyptian revolution of 25 January 2011, her article problematizes the much–celebrated role of social media as a spearhead of the revolution. Although, she analyses the ways in which social media have become powerful tools used by citizens to uncover corruption, mobilize for protests, and act as real watchdog over the mainstream media and state agencies, El–Khalili draws attention to their role as propaganda tools used by the Egyptian government. The article, analyses, along these lines, the social media activities of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and its Facebook propaganda, while it also assesses how citizens have reacted to actions or messages propagated by the SCAF on social media.



A conversation in common

There is no definitive research agenda that is set out by this special issue, and ultimately the broader directions followed within the context of the ongoing activities of the Unlike Us network are impossible to synthesize. Instead of entertaining such overarching ambitions, we would be content if the following contributions to this issue become indicative of the development of a conversation in common on the need to radically re–orient current social media research. In this sense, the much more limited ambition of the special issue is that it might contribute to ‘the common’, understood as a shared resource and system of collective knowledge production that supports new forms of social organizations and of social networking. End of article


About the authors

Korinna Patelis is Assistant Professor at the Department of Communication and Internet Studies at the Cyprus University of Technology. Her research interests currently focus around the Web’s commercial taxonomy, the representational structures of Web sites and the power of social media. Attempting to refashion a radical political economy perspective in new media research, the politics of the Internet as well as its regulation lie at the heart of Korinna’s research interests in and outside the academy.
E–mail: korinna [dot] patelis [at] cut [dot] ac [dot] cy

Pavlos Hatzopoulos is a research fellow at the Department of Communication and Internet Studies at the Cyprus University of Technology and works as senior researcher for Mig@NET — Transnational Digital Networks, Migration, and Gender, a project coordinated by the Gender Institute of Panteion University, Athens. His current research interests focus on space/time and social movements.
E–mail: phatzopoulos [at] gmail [dot] com


Editorial history

Received 20 February 2013; accepted 20 February 2013.

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Introduction: Understanding social media monopolies
by Korinna Patelis and Pavlos Hatzopoulos
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 3 - 4 March 2013