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Hossein Derakhshan: social media apps kill the web's radicality


#1

In 2008, influential Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan was sentenced to 19.5 years in prison for spurious reasons relating to “cooperation with hostile countries.” In late 2014, he was randomly pardoned and has spent the last year as a free man. Derakhshan was once known as the “blogfather” of Iran for publishing an online how-to blogging guide in Persian, which resulted in a blogging revolution in that country. Years after his imprisonment in 2008, the internet has changed dramatically. Blogs have become less popular as publications are more willing to post content online, the web has become more monetized as advertisers have become accustomed to paying for online advertisements. In the article posted in partial below, Derakhshan laments the transformation of the hyperlinked 2008 web’s laterality into the stream. (He is not kind to Twitter or Facebook.) Read his thoughts in partial below, or the full version via the Guardian here.

The stream means you don’t need to open so many websites any more. You don’t need numerous tabs. You don’t even need a web browser. You open the Facebook app on your smartphone and dive in. The mountain has come to you. Algorithms have picked everything for you. According to what you or your friends have read or seen before, they predict what you might like to see. It feels great not to waste time in finding interesting things on so many websites. But what are we exchanging for efficiency?

In many apps, the votes we cast – the likes, the plusses, the stars, the hearts – are actually more related to cute avatars and celebrity status than to the substance of what’s posted. A most brilliant paragraph by some ordinary-looking person can be left outside the stream, while the silly ramblings of a celebrity gain instant internet presence. And not only do the algorithms behind the stream equate newness and popularity with importance, they also tend to show us more of what we have already liked. These services carefully scan our behaviour and delicately tailor our news feeds with posts, pictures and videos that they think we would most likely want to see.

Popularity is not wrong in and of itself, but it has its own perils. In a free-market economy, low-quality goods with the wrong prices are doomed to failure. Nobody gets upset when a quiet Hackney cafe with bad lattes and rude servers goes out of business. But political or religious opinions are not the same as material goods or services. They won’t disappear if they are unpopular or even wrong. In fact, history has proven that most big ideas (and many bad ones) have been quite unpopular for a long time, and their marginal status has only strengthened them. Minority views are radicalised when they can’t be heard or engaged with. That’s how Isis is recruiting and growing. The stream suppresses other types of unconventional ideas too, with its reliance on our habits.

Today the stream is digital media’s dominant form of organising information. It’s in every social network and mobile application. Since I gained my freedom, everywhere I turn I see the stream. I guess it won’t be too long before we see news websites organise their entire content based on the same principles. The prominence of the stream today doesn’t just make vast chunks of the internet biased against quality – it also means a deep betrayal to the diversity that the world wide web had originally envisioned.

*Image caption: ‘For a while, I was the first person any new blogger in Iran would contact’ … Hossein Derakhshan. Photograph: Arash Ashoorinia for the Guardian


#2

Starting from the quoted description of the feed as a filter of popularity, we should consider further qualities of this “mass media product”, as it is called in another text. I would like to point to that other text in order to broaden and support the criticism: http://thenewinquiry.com/blogs/marginal-utility/wizards-of-like/

The text is about how the economy of advertising is shaping the feed:

Any examination of the logic behind the News Feed has to look at not
only how it is designed to hold users’ attention, but why. You would
think you would begin with the idea that there are many different kinds
of attention and many different shades and purposes behind affirmation.
But advertisers don’t subscribe to that affective economy. Any attention
is good attention when attention is monetized. Attention is measured in
time; it doesn’t have any additional dimensions. It doesn’t matter if
you are gaping in horror; you are still paying attention, and that is
all that matters. As far as advertisers are concerned, you like what you
see, because you will see an ad that is stuck on the thing your eyes
are glued to.
So the question is, What sort of attention does Facebook want to
cultivate in its users so they fit the world view of the advertisers who
fund its existence?
What advertisers demand is one-dimensional attention. Part of what
the algorithm achieves is this flattening of attention, by reducing the
potential meaning of a like (or a click or a comment or any other
behavior that is metricized) into an uncomplicated affirmation, a
revealed preference that obviates any ambiguity. This distorts how
people are actually liking on the basis of a complex and irreducible set
of reasons (the undefinable blend that makes us unique and reflects
the unique and ever changing context in which we are consuming media),
but when the distortion is fed back into the News Feed, shaping what
appears there, it renders those other reasons irrelevant and
disincentivizes them. It starts to produce the oversimplification as a
simple fact about users’ actual behavior. The algorithm shapes the
behavior it purports to reflect.

Another strenght of Derakhshan’s text is his clear description of how badly the social media apps compare to the possibilities of hypertext. Maybe the investigations in the second text can also help to further discuss this distinction between blog posts and social media posts.


#3

I read both articles with great interest and have been wondering for quite some time why especially critically engaged people (artists, journalists, activists, musicians?) still cling to facebook. Certainly I underestimate a number of features that it has to offer, but I cannot see how these outweigh the (widely) well known problematic issues. It’s hard to imagine that people are just to lazy to find and work their way into different ways of networking or communicating. So it must have something to do with people not being critical in this very instant and not feeling repelled. Claiming that you just don’t find a way around facebook anymore is more of an excuse to me. It may be “more true” in some cases where businesses’ revenue rely on visibility in social networks. Although in both cases I ponder that this kind of monopoly usually ought to provoke some of the radicality that Derakhshan is missing.

Also I’d like to share and advertise for the Facebook Liberation Army. I admit that I haven’t read into all the details … where they want to make Facebook a better place I’m not supporting them. But where they encourage people to leave I strongly agree. You may find yourself wanting to throw a Facebook Liberation Party alongside your next Cryptoparty.

It would be interesting to discuss to what extent you have to differentiate between FB and other commocial media sites like twitter.


#4

In fact you find a lot of very critical people on facebook and also a lot of criticism inside the plattform. Especially artists are challenging the aesthetic restrictions of the app culture (for example “fb resistance artists”, “game over fb”), others are criticising the “free culture” myth (“pay me fb”, “wages for fb work”). And more importantly, people are using the plattform’s dynamic features to work with art and theory in a networked way that seems not possible with blogs or forums. The feed is a mechanism for this, but as the two texts discussed here also show, it is also at the core of the problem.
Based not only on the mentioned examples of counter-hegemonial movements inside the plattform, I want to challenge your point and say that it is very understandable why people use the plattform. It allows for more “remixing”/restructuring of the content than twitter, you can have a more extended conversation. Also you can have a feed mixed of visual content by artists, personal content, and fragments by theorists who provide notes there. The private persons and theorists seem to share there because of its semi-public format, as the privacy features are more flexible than twitter and instagram where you can only be completely public or completely private. Also the events feature is quite strong, as you get events proposed based on what you select to follow and also what your peers attend.
The weakness of facebook is the feed format and the extension of commercial advertising culture and CV job market pressure to the representation of private persons. The problem therefore is not to how to go back to websites or blogging, but how to discuss and invent the next steps of social media, as initiatives like “unlike us” of the Institute of Network Cultures are doing.


#5

I must admit that my point of view on facebook is not a very differentiated one, and I accept your disagreement. Partly I’m very conscious about this (that’s why I mentioned that I underestimate something), and in a way this might be even a little dogmatic or even be seen as conservative maybe. I think the aspects you mention are very interesting, but in the end I rather resist facebook from an outsider’s position. Thanks for the comparison of fb and twitter.


#6

… So I guess I’m aware that what I express is just an opinion and that I’m not taking into consideration things, that would be required for a more differentiated stance. Maybe I think it’s valid to voice my opinion anyway, because being on the internet at once entangles you in a lot of issues you are unaware of and only gradually can hope to come to terms with.

Reading a text like the one the Facebook Liberation Army use on this website that describes their concerns, I wonder if it’s realistic to try to change (something like) facebook for the better. I’m not thinking about fighting for privacy rights in this context, which is important and which e.g. I at once would agree is a viable step to take. I’m thinking rather about the possibility of changing a profit-based and (very?) powerful corporation, that probably feels accredited by it’s success, into something - for lack of a better word - sort of altruistic. I must admit though that not being on facebook diminishes my perspective onto the topic and therefore glad for differing opinions or assessments or pointing out any shortcomings of my understanding. Also thanks for mentioning the unlike us reader.