Despite all my fears about data ownership, privacy, algorhythmic addiction, there is one reason I haven’t left facebook: they have my identity. To the extent that who I am is a node in a network, that who I am is revealed through my relationships and connections, who I am is controlled by Facebook. My identity is captured.
If I leave I will loose access to, and the ability to interact with a few organisations whose only channel is facebook and some people who I only connect with through the platform. I will cease to exist to them, they will cease to exist to me. If I leave, I will be unrecogniseable to those sites and organisations I log into with my Facebook ID.
They’ll just be one follower less. One less friend. Out of site…out of Stalin’s playbook.
In his account of ‘network effects’ W Brian Arthur (who coined the term) notes that “a technology that by chance gains an early lead in adoption may eventually ‘corner the market’ of potential adopters, with the other technologies becoming locked out.”
While would be competitors are locked out, the user base is also locked-in. In the digital realm, that lock-in is accompanied by tracking, monitoring, offering up for manipulation. Because competitors are locked out and the user is locked in, we tolerate being treated as product.
As the platform modifies users reality for its own ends, the user comes to see the world through the platform’s prism.
Visibility is a trap
In Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish — The Birth of a Prison , he notes of the prisioner in Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison (a central tower that can see into all the prison cells but cannot be seen into): “He is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information”.
Another feature of an architecture in which the subject is always visible while the patrolling power is unobservable, is that it ends up institutionalising the subject. The prisoner internalises the rules and norms of the prison guard and the power structures beyond.
“He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”
There is evidence of the platforms letting users know they are watching — an ingredient in driving internalisation of norms. Content producers from across the political spectrum claim that their posts are reaching fewer followers on Facebook, they are being blocked from Twitter ,their youtube accounts are being demonetised, and Amazon is now issuing warning letters to people who don’t shop right. The threat is virtual exile. Because the platforms also hold our identity, exile is loss of digital personhood.
According to Foucault, users will internalise and enforce the norms upon themselves (if they aren’t already).
In the case of the platforms that algorithmically tweak user experience, a user’s subconscious is not the only entity self-policing. Their avatar, their virtual identity, is self-policing for them. The data points they create feed into an algorithm that allows the platform to present them with a reality most likely to lead to a sale. Both their subconscious and their virtual self is now collaborating with the power structures.
These platforms are bahaving like monopolies, or utilities, in that they reduce user choice. By locking out competition and locking in users, they end up creating uniform experiences. There are of course differences in terms of the content of conversations, content consumption and contentedness of users, but the product is the same. The effect of lock-in is to reduce choice.
Lock-in is achieved through the rapid capture of users. In moving early the big firms that surveil/monetise our data have starved new entrants into social platforms of the vital ingredient — users. Platforms built to connect users wither if they cannot attract enough users to generate network effects.
Exchanges as examples
In facing the platform problem, social platforms are analogous to (crypto)currency exchanges. For exchanges — where people sell or buy from other people — size of the userbase translates into liquidity in the market. Higher liquidity invites further participation, better price discovery, and encourages bigger transactions. A trader wouldn’t want to accumulate more of a currency than they knew they could then dispose of. Since exchanges make their money through fees as a percentage of trades, volume and size of trades is important to their model.
Securing users and therefore the liquidity they bring puts the exchange ecosystem in the pattern of delivering the spoils to the victors, like the early winners of social media. This feedback loop ends up strengthening the position of early winners while making it difficult for new participants to join in.
One solution to the problem of how to start a new exchange without users, is to use federated liquidity pools. These pools can be accessed by any new exchanges, giving these up-starts instant liquidity. In other words, the first new users to arrive at the exchange are not faced with empty space, inability to trade, or prices that are wildly off the mark. Instead they can trade across participating exchanges, their orders are matched with buyers and sellers across the exchange landscape.
Hydro Protocol and the 0x Project offer these liquidity pools to new and established exchanges. Their solution could see exchanges collaborate on the total market, while each maximising their appeal to their particular audience. This behind the scenes connection allows all of them to benefit from the liquidity, while each is able to bring new participants to the table using their own distinctive user experience, pricing structures, branding and outreach.
In this model new entrants can focus on their product, innovation and user experience, not simply user acquisition. The result is user choice is allowed to flourish, which could increase total participation in the market. With user choice comes the freedom from internalising platform norms, and freedom to find aligned norms instead.
Lock-out for good
There is a further feature of the Hydro Protocol that could illustrate a way to liberate identity.
Exchanges typically require the user to deposit their financial capital. The exchangebecomes the custodian (or captor) of it.
However, exchanges using the Hydro Protocol, are not custodians/captors of the users tokens. The tokens don’t leave the users own wallet until the orders are matched. At that point the tokens they’ve sold disappear and the corresponding amount of the tokens they’ve bought appear. The tokens are locked-out of the exchange. When orders are matched, the exchange benefits in fees for its role in matchmaking.
The trades themselves exist independent of any single exchange, they are not locked-in because they are recorded publicly on the blockchain. Once recorded, the trade would go through even if the initial exchange disappeared. While there is still room for competition to attract users on the basis of user experience or pricing, this ecosystem acknowledges that there is a pre-competitive commons — the health of the marketplace and user choice.
Social wallets and Federated Identity Pools
Could this approach help liberate our identities and offer us genuine choice? Could future social media platforms simply be the interface I use to record a comment, post a photo, tweak a meme which is visible to whoever I choose across a whole range of platforms.
In this model as a user I would be part of a federated identity pool, so that any of my public posts, photos, content, would be visible to a user of any new platform in the ecosystem. This would allow a proliferation of user experiences because new platforms could offer meaningful content, existing contacts wherever they are and opportunity for interaction from day 1. It would also mean that creating experience niches, would not necessarily lead to ideological bubbles.
Since all my interactions sit in my personal “social wallet”, I remain in control of them. If I decide to change platform, I can still take (or port) all my interactions with me.
If my main interest is in carving myself a longbow and I don’t care too much about seeing ads, my portal would have primitive technology graphics, curate a list of bowyer groups and offer me adverts for shooting ranges. Alternatively you could opt for a paid news service to avoid adverts altogether and see a stream of user comments on the news of the day. But those different versions could engage with eachother, say around a news story of arrow gambling in the markets of Northern India, from within their own user experience. If either of us changes user interface, we keep our relationship.
During teer betting, 50 archers take aim at a single target. Around them, in the marketplace, bookies at kiosks compete to take bets on how many arrows will hit the target, winning punters on the basis of their odds, personal rapport and design flair.
As well as freeing our identities, federated identity pools could allow each platform to perfect their aim, while we could place our social bets with the one that most took our fancy.
The “Oh the irony” update After posting on twitter, I saw this sponsored tweet in my timeline.