The Case For Social Media Socialism

I think we have all been exceedingly patient as we’ve watched Elon Musk systemically detach Twitter from all the things that made it an actually useful means of communication and witnessed the resulting efforts by other wealthy people to launch competing versions that have a good chunk of Twitter’s new awfulness in them from the get-go. This week saw the launch of Threads, a new slice of Instagram and part of Facebook/Meta chief Mark Zuckerberg’s attempts to make All The Internets Belong To Him. Other billionaires are making similar attempts, and a platform called Mastodon is attempting to be the not-billionaire-owned underdog that trades top-down evil for distributed fitfulness.

None of them are what Twitter once was, or even what Facebook once was, before both of those platforms turned positively vampiric in their attempts to extract “value” from your eyes and ears and brains. And you can tell that Threads is going to suck, by design, from the breathless news that “the presence of big-name advertisers like Procter & Gamble and Ford points to the bigger commercial stakes in the fight.” From the beginning, the questions are the same questions that Musk himself focused on: How can we best and most frequently interrupt the experience of you communicating with the people you want to communicate with in order to shove this other thing in your face? How bad can we make it before you get fed up and leave?

No, I think we have all been very, very patient but it’s become quite clear where all this is going, so now it’s time for communism. Or socialism. Oh—specific to Twitter, I mean: It’s time that we put an end to this whole corporate slapfight by seizing the means of production and nationalizing Twitter’s core service right out from under it. Screw this whole fight: It’s time to U.S. Postal Service this thing.

Dan Froomkin points us to a Cory Doctorow piece from earlier in the year that cuts to the core of the problem, one of many pieces in which Doctorow and others identify the core problem of the internet as enshittification, the capitalist drive to bleed value out of any previously captured audience until it is the very worst and most money-squeezing it can be—which turns out to be very shitty indeed, if near-monopoly rules apply and there is simply no plausible way for customers to move elsewhere. Froomkin also notes the obvious answer: mandatory interoperability, the commonplace government move to break monopolistic power by requiring companies to adopt standards that allow exchangeability between products from one company and any other—whether it be electrical outlets, or plumbing fixtures, or boxcars.

Josh Marshall makes much the same argument: The reason Twitter was uniquely successful as a social network in the pre-Musk era was because it wasn’t monetized to the hilt, which is precisely why it was financially struggling even as it became the de facto hub of a very specific kind of multicast communication.

The fundamental truth of it is that worldwide person-to-person communication is not easily monetized in the first place. You can charge for the right to send messages, or charge for the ability to receive them, and charge per-message or per-person and with various add-ons like the landline phone companies did and still do. If you want to simply make and receive calls that’s one thing, but if you want to use a press-button phone or see who’s calling you before you pick up then whoa, buddy, that’s a whole new bucket of fish. And it’s gonna cost you. Or you can sell advertisements to interject themselves into the communications, thereby breaking the value of the communication to begin with on behalf of whoever is willing to hand you the most cash to forcibly communicate with your users instead.

When you make a phone call, are your conversations interrupted every few minutes for a 30-second ad that you and your call partner are subjected to before continuing your conversation? No. And we are at the point in the future where flying cars may still be nowhere near to becoming an actual thing but the notion of “communicate, in text, to multiple people at once” is now firmly entrenching itself as something of a societal requirement. It’s the government itself that has done most of the entrenching, too, so nobody can claim they ought to be hands-off about all of this now.

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It isn’t only regular folks who use Facebook and Twitter. Governments rely on it as well. Federal, state, and local emergency services use the platforms to distribute vital information both before, during, and after natural disasters. If you want to know which emergency shelter to go to, if you want to know which areas are being evacuated and which aren’t, if you want to see maps of predicted floodwaters and also see local road closures, missing person alerts, or other government-pushed urgencies, you can either hunt your way through arrays of government websites and piece together the information you want from each individual department, or you can see them all pushed out to you via Facebook and Twitter. Increasingly, the most urgent warnings are going from state and local governments to Facebook and Twitter first.

It doesn’t have to be Facebook or Twitter. The model of necessity is “small-message multicasting.” There are at least two use cases that are imperative; the government case, in which a single standardized service can be used by all agencies and residents can find and subscribe to the ones most necessary for them, rather than hunting the whole rest of the internet to get to them, and the private case, in which people can subscribe (that is, opt-in) to multicasted messages from whoever they want to. That includes friends, news sources, corporate brands, celebrities—whichever sources want to provide the content.

The current World Wide Web is a standard to pull information; you may have favorite webpages and favorite aggregation sites, but unless you’ve agreed to sell your eternal digital soul to each individual site or company, you won’t know when new information appears on those pages unless you go there yourself and look. We don’t yet have a single unified standard for pushing info to subscribers.

Except we do, of course. It’s called email, and it’s also collapsing under the same avalanche of spam and scams that are systematically killing every communication method from the landline phone to text messaging to, yes, Facebook and Twitter. The problem is the same: An infrastructure designed to allow necessary communication between willing peers was co-opted by all of the companies and schemers willing to force themselves into communicating with you without your consent, even if it meant fundamentally harming the usefulness of the communications in the process.

At some point, burning everything to the ground and starting over begins to look like a good idea. After the fourth call or text about your theoretical automobile’s theoretical extended warranty or the 20th email of the week insisting that you have won the grand prize in a contest you never entered, burning it all down begins to look like the best idea ever. Or we can set some actual rules for these things, so that no matter what level of enshittification companies themselves are willing to subject you to, there are limits.

That is what we usually do, after testing finds too many ground-up human fingers in the average package of hot dogs or after consumers get tired of playing the botulism lottery every time they open a tin can. Everyone gets just fed up enough, lawmakers scramble to appease the anger by actually doing something, and we end up with new regulations limiting the amount of human finger or of sewer rat you’re allowed to have in hot dogs if you’re going to sell them as hot dogs.

At this point it’s clear that “social communication” is rapidly making itself a necessity of modern existence, and that multicasting is going to be an intrinsic part of government information pushes in the future, not just private ones.

At the very least, it’s now something that is too important to society and the all-important “economy” to let corporate America turn into sludge; it’s time for regulating the holy hell out of this until we come away with a version of “like Twitter” or “like Facebook” that’s universal and interchangeable and just another service, like package delivery or telephones or text messages. You have an address; other people can tell you their own addresses; you can pick and choose who to hear from.

It’s time to socialize the bejeebers out of this thing, to be honest, and if the companies currently painting our communications tunnels with their own shit want that not to happen, then Facebook- and Twitter-style small-data multicasting needs interoperability via industry- or government-set standards.

Personally, though, none of the communications companies in America—not one—have shown themselves willing or able to stop their platforms from becoming debris-strewn with bad actors and outright criminal activity. Communication is not compatible with capitalism. We pretend, oh how we pretend, but it ain’t and it’s never going to be. The problem is universality. The problem is that communications, of all sorts, inevitably bend toward monopoly.

I’m something of a failure as a socialist, myself, or at best a C+ version of one. I’m a firm believer in the notion that capitalism is Good, Actually, at least in most situations and when it is encumbered by enough regulations that companies cannot take the optimally efficient route of cheating customers blind and leaving “the market” to pick up the pieces.

But there is one specific case in which capitalism breaks down and the government is nearly obligated to step in. That is the case where:

  • Citizens require a particular product or service in order to survive or to prosper in their society
  • The product or service is of trivial form, in that there are no meaningfully different “versions” of it in market competition
  • The product or service in fact requires near-universality of form in order to be useful (telephone numbers are standardized; you do not need to know which physical network or which company provides service to a company in order to successfully call it)
  • The market has already proven monopoly or near-monopoly status to be the most effective means of providing the product or service, because the cost of competing infrastructures make multi-company competition untenable.

If a product is both a societal necessity and is so standardized and universal as to not count as a product, but a service, world governments have long settled into determining that those things ought to be features of government, not a for-profit free-for-all. Water, electricity, street addresses, telephone numbers, garbage collection: All of these services are typically either provided by the government or provided by private companies acting as monopoly providers under government contracts.

In the last half century there has been an enormous push by conservatives—or more accurately, by corporate lobbyists—to privatize each of these required services so for-profit companies can capture those customers into new, ready-made monopolies, and it’s universally been a boondoggle every time it’s attempted because each of those things is naturally a monopoly, and privatizing them for the sake of extracting profits can only lead to worse service, higher prices, or both. We’ve got more than enough evidence at this point to conclude that monopolies of any sort must be made nonprofit arms of the government, if the service is one vital enough to society that government and society both have a vested interest in not letting it all go to hell based on the whims of one particular billionaire going through one particular midlife crisis.

Communications networks tick off each of the boxes, which is why the government has long had a vested interest in keeping the telephone lines up. Cable television is becoming less of an entity, subsumed more broadly under the category of “internet service provider,” with phone services rapidly being swept up into the same bin. The whole premise of communication is that it is useful only to the extent that it is universal.

If telephone numbers, email addresses, and text messages all failed tomorrow, the economy would collapse. There is no “if.” Without these communications networks, our current society cannot exist; the notion that we can contact companies and each other immediately is now a core economic assumption.

And the ability to push a communication to all those who have subscribed to see it is also now becoming a core economic assumption.

That’s what Facebook is, and what Twitter is, and what TikTok is, and what MySpace and all the rest have been. Each of them has risen to a prominent market position, only to collapse again when some new competitor arrived whose new twist on the theme is that they haven’t yet grown enough to become so thoroughly shitty. The market naturally has proven itself most stable as monopoly or near-monopoly; the whole point of Facebook and Twitter is that they are only economically useful if they do have market dominance, enough of it that customers and businesses, fans and the famous, citizens and governments can all be assured that posting there will do the lion’s share of distributing their message to most of the people who want or need to hear it.

There will never be 20 competing Twitters, because there is no point in being on a network in which only 5% of the people you might want to contact or be contacted by are even signed on. You’re not going to sign up for all 20—or, long term, even two.

“Send a short burst of content to all those who have subscribed to it” is a market need that meets all the criteria laid out above for becoming a responsibility of government, not an ersatz service provided at the whims of a small handful of slap-fighting billionaires. Americans need digital identities like they need telephone numbers. They need a universal index for looking up all of the other digital identities they want or need to find. They need a means of verification that protects against impersonation, if they desire it, or a means of anonymity if they don’t.

All of this can only exist if it’s made universal via regulated standards, so that you can join any of a dozen or 100 companies and expect that, as with email, you’ll get the messages you expect to get and everyone else will get yours. There’s no way this can work without mandatory interoperability—and we need it to. We need it because the government is already using Facebook and Twitter to do immediate, subscriber-based multicasting that gets urgent messages out both faster and with more detail than any other methods. We can argue all day about whether they should have done that, but the ship has sailed. It’s done.

And it’s only going to work if the universal version, like a phone number or an email address, requires a subscription. There is no advertising model that can work, because the very premise of ad-based models is to make the means of communication as close to the line of intolerable as the company can possibly get while still keeping most of its extant customer base. It will always turn into a hellhole of bottom-tier scams, data mining, and commodification of your eyes and ears.

There is little chance that the government will do the objectively correct thing, and socialize social network communications as it socialized package delivery. It ought to, because it would be an enormous and immediate economic boon, but a nation currently at odds over whether or not democracy itself ought to still be a thing is never going to have the wherewithal to create a new, modern-age postal service. But we can certainly come up with universal standards and use government anti-monopoly powers to insist that the big players, like Facebook and Twitter and the rest, abide by them so that a variety of new social media outlets can pop up, all competing with each other to be slightly less ad-riddled and shitty than the others, and that would be a start.

There could be ones that allow you to block Nazis, and others that don’t. There could be ones that police dangerous disinformation and others that just let the hoaxes rip. But there’s got to be a universal base that the rest builds off of, because civilization cannot survive having a half-dozen billionaires at various levels of sanity deciding all of those things based on personal whim and private profit.

We’ve proven the market is there, and that it needs to be monopolistic to succeed, and that if we leave it to the marketplace it will become so enshittened as to become a net negative instead of a net good. It all points to the core premise of social media—subscription-based multicasting—as something the government needs to regulate as a core economic and social good. The billionaires all had their chance, and they turned it all to shit so that they could buy slightly bigger yachts. Screw ’em.

Republished with permission from Daily Kos.

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