platform syndicate

I was reading Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software by Nadia Eghbal (which I highly recommend) and was particularly struck by the section How Platforms Broke Apart The Commons. In it, Eghbal compares the 2006 advent of Facebook to the first highway system and uses Anthropologist Michael Wesch’s term “context collapse” to describe the affect of platforms. Eghbal goes on to discuss ways in which communities regulate themselves on platforms like GitHub, and the inherent challenges therein.

What Eghbal is describing is how platforms undermine community norms by almost strictly empowering the individual. In fact, I would go further and say maintaining a community on a platform is impossible. Platforms and communities are antithetical to one another by definition.

Communities exist by virtue of a set of norms that are, in some part, unique. The maintenance of these norms demands social friction. If there’s no friction, what norm won’t be eroded into obscurity? (The link is a bit tongue-in-cheek insofar as it’s ironic to connect right-wing conspiracy dogma to what the platforms spreading it are actually doing.)

Platforms exist to remove interaction barriers between users. They do this by empowering the user’s ability to act, eroding their privacy, and centralizing ultimate control to a central authority that cannot operate safely at scale. The folly of platforms is believing they can entirely rely on algorithms to control & shape human interaction.

The algorithm will always lose.

In the days of Usenet, every September brought an influx of new users with the latest college freshman to get Internet access. The “Eternal September” refers to AOL granting universal access, effectively turning it into a platform. Norms eroded, and the days folks wax nostalgic for ended soon after.

Next came the forums, independently hosted web apps, that blossomed in the ’00s before ultimately declining as platforms took over. Most large forums today are run by companies, not enthusiasts. Much like the “Eternal September”, platforms took the growth-first (Google-first, share-first) goal of most independent communities and simply did it better and at scale. Call it the Eternal Dopamine.

Platform vs. Community. The blade is double-edged. On a platform, lies spread faster. Hysteria and anger gain low-barrier access to more eyeballs, and women & minorities are openly targeted and harassed. In a community, patterns of small-scale abuse and prejudice may be repeated forever without scrutiny. Neither is perfect. Both models need work. Both must exist, in balance, but are never truly balanced.

Before the rise of the Internet platforms, we talked about the splintering of the American monoculture created by decades of primetime television (the previous generation’s platform), driven by these “communities” springing up online. Little did we realize the pendulum would swing back so soon.

We regulated the last generation of platforms by way of the FCC, making the airwaves a public resource that prevented power from becoming too concentrated. So too must we regulate these Internet platforms that have so quickly become monopolies. I hope it isn’t already too late. The pendulum is primed to swing again, soon, but only if a monopoly doesn’t break it first.

This post has a sequel: black box