Sunday, June 2, 2019

Is this all just a mall?

It seems like every day there a new suspension or ban on the major social media platforms and it's just getting to be too much. Too many people locked out of accounts. Too many hard to understand reasons for it. There is no recourse.

In brilliant blog post from 2010, sociologist Zeynep Tufekcia used a mall analogy to describe Facebook. She explains, it's a highly controlled/surveilled space, specifically designed to push you towards buying crap and the owners can kick you out pretty much whenever they feel like it.

That description always stuck with me. Because when you take a step back, it seems like a silly thing (getting kicked off a social media site). It's something we used to laugh about and decry the overzealous mall cops giving you trouble. Yet these days, social media bannings feel more...upsetting. More oppressive.

And maybe that's the core of the issue. Most of us are now congregated in these digital communities and it's not all that clear what they are. Where we are. What are the human ramifications and rules of the road in these communities? What is the bleed-through between "digital life" and "real life"?

If social media communities are just malls, this discussion is pointless. The bleed-though between a mall and "real life" is very limited. We have a home, a work place, a school etc. That's where we live. We go to the mall to hang out sometimes, maybe watch a movie, shop, eat out, but it's not a place where you would have carte blanche to organize politically oriented groups, share intimate photos of your family, argue with strangers, etc. A mall is a public place with a specific purpose and we all agree to their arbitrary rules when we enter.

If however these social media communities are something else, something more, then the somber to angry response to the recent bannings makes sense.

Continuing this (now way overstretched) mall analogy, it's like we're meeting real friends at this digital mall. People that we find shared interests with and enjoy their company and, in some cases, learn from. But because of some silly thing, Paul Blart rolls up and kicks our newly found friends out of the building, forever.

And now you can't really find the banned friends to reconnect outside of the mall. Or wherever they now congregate, it just doesn't seem like a suitable place for you to be.

None of this would be an issue if the mall wasn't so damn good at connecting you with cool people. Connecting people around the globe is what Mark Zuckerberg apparently set out to do way back when and he did a bang up job at it.

Maybe I use social media differently than most people. Having grown up in one of the most thoroughly liberal areas in the country, I have always fought against a tide of robot-like ideological groupthink surrounding me in a physical sense. The digital realm offered a way to defeat the groupthink by bringing in opposing ideas and contrary opinions.

Social media made it possible to search for and follow real, actual humans with fascinating, if contrarian, ideas and hear "their truth" and even be able to ask them about it directly. It's fantastic.

And there is actually an upside to following people from the extreme ends of the ideological spectrum because it saves time. You get to see what the extremes are thinking and then you can fill in the middle ground with logic.

But malls don't like extreme people shouting from soapboxes, understandably. It scares the customers and hurts business. Do that elsewhere.

So we're left with kind of pickle. There is demonstrable upside to running wide open social media platforms. Big ideas ideas get discussed, people (like me) learn, humans connect in cool ways etc. On the other hand, someone has to run the platform and, if it's a private company, make money.

Right now though, I just want them to stop messing with my friends. 


  1. Good piece.

    I know exactly what you're talking about with the friends thing. Twitter has decided that I am not allowed there anymore (they haven't told me why, but I'm nobody) and really the worst part is I cant interact with friends I have made because Twitter was the connection. I don't really give a sh*t that I can't mock liberals but when you are suspended you can't even follow anyone...

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