Unlike Us #3 conference in Amsterdam, 22nd and 23rd of March

26 Mar

I was lucky enough to attend the Institute of Network Cultures’ Unlike Us #3 conference on Social Media: Design or Decline on Friday and Saturday of last week. I somehow only found out about the conference a couple of days before it took place and so I was very happy that I was able to make it along.

The first thing I thought when I arrived at the venue, the very chic and apparently exclusive Trouw building, was that this was definitely the hippest and sexiest conference I had ever been to. Being used to conferences held in drab university buildings, the sight of the concrete walls, wooden bar and industrial lighting rig was pretty intimidating (you can see for yourself in the picture below); and being surrounded by creative types, hackers and bloggers (the conference involved practitioners as well as academics) certainly didn’t assuage my feeling of being totally out of place. Nonetheless I stuck around and I was very glad that I did too.


The main hall of the Trouw building in Amsterdam, which used to house newspaper printing presses

The conference had a full programme, the videos of which should be available on the institute’s website from the middle of this week, and there was a lot to take in (also a lot to leave out, but you can’t have it all). Some of the highlights for me were those presentations that dealt directly with how activists in various countries are currently using social media platforms and actually developing their own to replace what they perceive to be inadequate tools. The Lorea network and n-1 platform are examples of these, and while these are fantastic projects and worth engaging with, they do face one significant problem: they don’t help activists connect with non-activists.

Given that these networks and platforms are small (and at the moment localised to Spanish-speaking regions) they seem to work as online spaces where activists working on different projects can come together, communicate and share information and tasks. This is no doubt useful and the specific design of these platforms enables things like consensus decision making that popular platforms like Facebook don’t facilitate. However, there is clearly still a need for things like Facebook and Twitter as a big part of activism involves making connections with those outside your own network or scene.

That the value of Facebook and Twitter can be often overstated was also brought sharply into focus by a presentation from Miriyam Aouragh. Miriyam highlighted the communications problems facing Syrian revolutionaries who have to build strategic and tactical information networks in a fight against a government which has a paramilitary organisation dedicated to online activities, the Syrian Electronic Army, and US-manufactured surveillance tools, Blue Coat, and in a country where less than 1% of the population uses Twitter. Revolutionaries have resorted to perhaps the lowest-tech communications methods in order to get much-needed information between locations. A remarkable video that was played showed the use of homing pigeons in getting messages from one village to another.

In addition to the potential reach of social media like Facebook being criticised during the conference, Dutch journalist Peter Olsthoorn also spoke briefly about Facebook’s data-mining activities. For those not familiar with this side of Facebook, it is important to understand that Facebook exists not to provide a handy way to stay in touch with your friends but as database of individual preferences that is used to direct user-specific advertising. This is where Facebook’s real economic value lies. I heard it put once that when a service is free, the users are the commodity. This is exactly the case with Facebook: we, the users, go to work liking and sharing things and in the process provide data that advertisers, for a price, can access; and what’s worse, we do this work for free. Peter has conducted a study of this phenomenon and published it as The Power of Facebook in short, popular and longer, more scientific versions. At his website you can also find out the value you as a user have contributed to Facebook’s market value. Apparently Facebook has made $128 from the work I’ve put in over the years.

Another of the most interesting presentations came from George Danezis who imaginatively outlined three ways of looking at networked decentralisation. He began with the famous images of a disorganised school of small fish being chased by one large fish contrasted with the large fish being turned on and fleeing as the small fish come together to form an even larger fish. These images are always presented to show the assumed strength of collective, decentralised organisation. George instead used these images to highlight the potential pros of centralisation (e.g. resilience and privacy) and cons of decentralisation (e.g. high costs associated with emergence and individuals actors being easily picked off).


The classic image of decentralised organisation

More interesting, however, was the third image George presented: that which is found on the cover of most editions of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Hobbes’ notion of the state of nature was presented as corresponding to decentralisation and the social contract with the state as the rational form of emergence. This is a very intriguing challenge to the orthodoxy around decentred networks, and while I don’t want to dwell on it here, I may well pick it up and look at it more closely in the near future.


The cover of Hobbes’ Leviathan showing the body of the state made up of different individual bodies

All in all then, the Unlike Us #3 conference gave a lot of food for thought. I might not feel any sexier for having attended but I definitely came away with a lot to think about.


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