Clay Shirky is a techno-optimist. Whether imagining how a distributed version control system like Git could overhaul our legislative process for the better (Shirky 2012) or reflecting upon the increased generosity that results from relying upon social constraints rather than economic ones (Shirky 2010), he believes that social media and other participatory platforms provide individuals with the power to change the world for the better. Christian Fuchs is not a techno-pessimist, exactly; he believes that many popularly-held conceptions of surveillance are too all-encompassing to be useful (Fuchs 2014:198) but takes a more subdued perspective of social media’s role in making societal change, noting that digital communication technologies often replicate existing power structure and so “a lot of ‘online politics’ is harmless” (p. 228) to the status quo. These two theorists may not agree on much, but both have agreed that issues of identity and identification are to be excluded from their analyses of the dimensions of power in social media.
Shirky, for example, posits that cognitive surplus, or the ability of individuals to volunteer their spare time and skills, can be better harnessed towards civic projects through social constraints rather than economic ones (Shirky 2010). People, in other words, are more generous when money is not a part of the equation. But which people have spare time and skills in the first place, and which of those people can afford to be generous with them? Which people benefit from the deprofessionalization of journalism and the use of informal collaboration rather than institutional structure to support collective work? Shirky sidesteps these questions, focusing on the internet’s power to promote good rather than its power to extract value and replicate inequity. GitHub, for example, is indeed a powerful platform for collaboration in large part due to its decentralized nature. However, the lack of centralized control also means a lack of centralized oversight that would prevent at least the most blatant racism, sexism, and homophobia from taking root on the site (Horn 2013). This bigotry might make anyone uncomfortable but it makes it materially harder for some groups to participate than others. This is especially damaging when many employers require programmers to submit their GitHub profiles as part of their application materials. And the bigotry isn’t just limited to code hosted by third parties on GitHub, it’s a part of the company itself:
Fuchs, for his part, discusses the asymmetrical visibility that Twitter provides for its users; those who are more famous in the entertainment, news, business, fashion, politics, etc industries tend to have greater visibility — a larger number of followers — on social media, and therefore a greater opportunity to direct attention than someone who is less famous outside of that platform (Fuchs 2014:232). This framing connects visibility with influence, and influence with importance. However, it ignores another kind of visibility, a distinctly negative one experienced by marginalized populations on social media platforms. Amnesty International recently researched abuse against women on Twitter and found that “Twitter is a place where racism, misogyny, and homophobia are allowed to flourish basically unchecked” and that “Black women are disproportionately targeted” (Anon 2018). Like Shirky, Fuchs focuses on the positive potential benefits without appearing to recognize their limitations or the potential drawbacks experienced by some users.
This fundamental question — [for/by/to/at/etc] which people? — is crucial for us to ask if we want to truly and fully understand the benefits and consequences of participatory (and, really, all) culture. Which people are able to donate free labor towards a common good, and which people does that volunteerism benefit? For Which people see visibility as a benefit and which people see it as a hinderance? Which people are helped by a thriving online pornography industry, and which people are harmed? For which people does Facebook’s real name policy make sense, and for which people does it pose a problem? We all have different ways of being and knowing, and presuming we only need to take one perspective into account means our analysis will lack nuance, or be flatly wrong.
Anon. 2018. “Amnesty and Element AI Release Largest Ever Study into Abuse against Women on Twitter.” Amnesty International. Retrieved February 17, 2019 (https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/12/crowdsourced-twitter-study-reveals-shocking-scale-of-online-abuse-against-women/).
Fuchs, Christian. 2014. Social Media: A Critical Introduction. London.
Horn, Leslie. 2013. “There Is Blatant Racist and Sexist Language Hiding in Open Source Code.” Gizmodo. Retrieved February 17, 2019 (https://gizmodo.com/there-is-blatant-racist-and-sexist-language-hiding-in-o-5980842).
Shirky, Clay. 2010. How Cognitive Surplus Will Change the World.
Shirky, Clay. 2012. How the Internet Will (One Day) Transform Government.