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Surveillance Capitalism

Rory Hamilton

Yesterday (6th July), Instagram/Meta’s new Twitter-competitor app Threads launched, and soared to ten million users within seven hours (now 30 million in 24 hours and the second time I’ve had to update this statistic). Their timing couldn’t be any better. Last weekend, Elon Musk introduced rate limits for Twitter users (10,000/ day for verified/Twitter Blue users, and 1,000/ day for unverified/unsubscribed users). This means that users will only be able to view a set number of tweets per day, and for unverified users this amounts to around 45 minutes of “scroll-time”. This severely limits the ability of brands and organisations to communicate with followers and build digital campaigns via Twitter.

Twitter is a community of users first and foremost, and that community has become the “medium of choice” (Prof Paul Bernal) for journalists, and politicians, and by extension the wider political and activist community. This is because it enables people to comment on and engage with real-time events, either through simple tweets, or retweets, or sharing articles with comments, and engaging in conversation with others. More of my thoughts from the takeover in November 2022.

So the measures put in place by Twitter to limit tweet views have direct implications for activists and organisers, including us at Common Weal – we rely on the ability of as many people as possible to view our content so we can grow a progressive movement. Social media’s ability to help the far right and the spread of disinformation also helps social movements to build broad support and solidarity, and express political views. Think back to the Arab Spring of 2011, the building of mass support was enabled through digital connectivity between Arabic countries, encouraging organising and building momentum. More recently, news coverage of the conflict in Sudan has relied heavily on social media to report timelines and keep up to date with in-country developments.

While we shouldn’t be reliant on billionaire-run platforms, we evidently are able to put them to effective use. So it is important that a space like Twitter is available for organisers and activists on the Left. Elon Musk’s moves to maximise monetisation on the platform through the Twitter Blue service will (and has) drive(n) people away – the more features put behind a paywall, like TweetDeck which soon will be, along with number of tweets available to view and verification and tweet promotion, the more people will look for a free service elsewhere. It’s like a hot shower, once you’ve had one you never want to go back to cold showers – people have tasted free at the point of use access to social media for so long that they are not incentivised by a platform which suddenly takes away that access. 

Enter Threads, with a 500 character limit, a layout and performative functions similar to Twitter, with access to a huge user-base (there are around two billion Instagram accounts, and you can simply transfer your account across from Instagram making, reducing the number of hoops to jump through). The feel is very familiar, and the trusted (maybe not ‘trusted’ but established and reliable) brand name of Instagram gives it credibility for many would-be Tweeters.

Instagram’s Adam Mosseri explains in this Thread how we should interpret the app: https://www.threads.net/t/CuWQr7VtRJl/?igshid=MzRlODBiNWFlZA==

However, the social media landscape remains unclear. It’s a game of patience. So many of the developments in play are just that: in development. We’re waiting for a full version of Blue Sky to become available, with former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s new platform looking to (re-)build a shared public commons. We’re waiting for Threads to become compatible with ActivityPub which will enable your different social media apps to “talk to each other”. We’re waiting to see what happens at Twitter because there’s a new CEO, Linda Yaccarino, and debts to be paid by Elon Musk, that may change the platform’s orientation if it begins haemorrhaging users – not to mention the lawsuit potentially headed Meta’s way over theft of Twitter’s intellectual property.

…aaaaand Threads isn’t even fully off the ground yet because it hasn’t launched in the EU because of concerns around data privacy. Industry website, TechCrunch explained,

“Information provided about the app’s privacy via mandatory disclosures required on iOS shows the app may collect highly sensitive information about users in order to profile their digital activity — including health and financial data, precise location, browsing history, contacts, search history and other sensitive information. Given that Meta, the developer behind the app, the company formerly known as Facebook, makes its money from tracking and profiling web users to sell their attention via its behavioral advertising microtargeting tools this is hardly surprising.”

Concerns about our data on social media platforms are hardly new, and I doubt this will stand in the way for many joining, given the data we have likely already given to Meta via Facebook and Instagram. In 2020, the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma highlighted the ills of what’s known as ‘Surveillance Capitalism’. In it, former Google Design Ethicist and co-founder of the Centre for Humane Technology (CHT), Tristan Harris pointed out that only two industries in the world describe their clients as “users”: the illegal drug trade, and the software sector. And this addiction description might not be far wrong – just look at the way people flock to the next platform in search of the next fix.

Despite the obvious benefits of staying connected and looped into current affairs in real time, we run the risk of neglecting social media’s nefarious undercurrents. My time on Threads so far has seen a lot of comments revelling in the lack of argumentative engagement and the relative absence of big brands so far – but also complaints of the randomness of the app (its not chronological, and your feed isn’t limited to your followers. Of course, as the community grows this will change, and brands will respond to emergent trends based on its popularity. And that’s because we are not the customers, they are. In the attention economy, our attention is what social media is selling to companies. In the same documentary co-founder of the CHT, Aza Raskin, and former Facebook and Google engineer, and founder of Asana, Justin Rosenstein shared this sentiment,

“When you think about how some of these companies work, it starts to make sense. There are all these services on the internet that we think of as free, but they’re not. They’re paid for by advertisers. Why do advertisers pay these companies? They pay in exchange for showing their ads to us. We’re the product. Our attention is being sold.”

While Threads is in its infancy, companies/brands haven’t all flocked there because the ‘product’ (us) isn’t fully developed yet – they are holding out on the same patience that many other activists are holding out on but for very different reasons. As Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff remarked that companies are looking for a guarantee that if you place an ad it will be successful – in other words social media “sells certainty”. And right now there isn’t a lot of certainty in social media. Old platforms are unpopular, and users have become increasingly aware of the prevalence and underlying meaning of adverts, meaning that new platforms such as BeReal and Threads are popular while they remain unplastered with branding.

So where does that leave us?

Well I, for one, am not entirely thrilled at Twitter’s disintegration, nor am I thrilled by the prospect of Mark Zuckerberg having control over three of the most used social media platforms in the Western world, not to mention messaging services WhatsApp and Messenger. However, I don’t think the question we’re left with is “What would a non-profit social media platform look like?” Because that’s what’s driving this – data scraping for profit to push products and “changes in behaviour” (Jaron Lanier), and on the flip side is the monetisation of platforms to the maximum extent. But there are alternatives – we tried using Mighty Networks for a while, but it can again be oriented to monetisation, and we couldn’t quite get the by in; and Blue Sky by the sounds is aiming to change things again. With all the ethical tech-bros I quoted above, surely there are enough software developers and investors out there willing to develop something that feels good, feels familiar (because to be honest that’s what people are looking for), it works well, doesn’t steal all your data, and is branded well enough to appeal to people. If anyone in the comments knows of developments, any papers to read etc. I would be very grateful for your recommendations.

At this stage, I think there are more questions than answers, so, of course, I will welcome readers’ questions, and there’s probably enough still to happen that I can answer them all in a follow up article.

If it wasn’t so sinister the tussle between tech giants would almost be comical. Remember that iconic sequence in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where Graham Chapman (Brian) is running around being followed by people who believe he is the messiah, some think that the gourd is the sign that he is the messiah, others think his sandal, left behind in his flight, is the sign. At the moment, people are running around between any number of the apps out there (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, LinkedIn, Threads, Discord, Mastodon, the list goes on…) looking for a sign that this is going to be *the one*.

Just remember, whichever platform wins out, the brains behind it is not the messiah, and with all that manipulation and behavioural change turning us into products, they are most definitely a very naughty boy.


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1 thought on “Surveillance Capitalism”

  1. I think this ties in disturbingly with what Matt Kennard and Claire Provost talk about in Silent Coup. Their thesis is that corporations overthrew democracy.

    These developments can be seen as a power grab where billionaires and their companies get to filter public discourse. An independent Scotland needs a plan to operate a public forum that isn’t controlled by companies. There’s quite a track record of these platforms randomly banning media, I remember Novara got pulled from Youtube at one point.

    A truly independent country cannot allow these companies sovereignty over our citizens’ attention. (or at least needs a Plan B ready to roll out).

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