Skip to main content

Internet Ethics: Views From Silicon Valley

The Social Network of Discourse and Discomfort

The Social Network of Discourse and Discomfort

The Social Network of Discourse and Discomfort

Ello, the social media platform that was prominently (if briefly) touted last year as the “anti-Facebook,” is reinventing itself for mobile. Twitter is reinventing itself, too. Pinterest is reinventing itself into a store. And the anti-“anti-Facebook,” i.e. Facebook, is constantly reinventing itself.

But the real “anti-Facebook” is described by the director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, Ethan Zuckerman, in the transcript of a wide-ranging discussion recently held under the auspices of the Carnegie Council on Ethics in International Affairs. Zuckerman notes that one of his students, Sands Fish,

is trying to build social networks designed to make you uncomfortable. Basically, the first thing he does is he takes away the choice of friends. You no longer have a choice about who is going to be your friend. You are going to interact with people whom he thinks you should be interacting with, as a way of sort of challenging us. Will anyone use this? It's a good question. This is why you do this at research universities rather than going out and getting venture capital for it.
Initially, the idea of a social platform designed to make users uncomfortable seems amusing, or maybe closer to a conceptual art project than a real social network. But at a time when scholars warn about “filter bubbles” (and companies who might be blamed for them try to calm the worries, or at least deflect responsibility), a time when we seem to either surround ourselves with like-minded people or get sucked into the “spriral of silence” and stop talking about controversial topics, such a network could become a fascinating training ground. Might it lead to constructive ways to engage with people who have different experiences and preferences, hold different beliefs, etc., yet still need to function together, as people in a pluralistic society do?
Would people willingly submit themselves to discomfort by participating in such a network? Would folks who join such a network be the ones already more comfortable with (or even attracted to) conflict and diversity? Or is it a question of degrees—the degree of discomfort, the degree of diversity, and the degree of thoughtfulness of the conversations that might ensue?
Zuckerman addresses this issue:
A lot of my theories around this suggest that you need bridge figures. You need people whom you have one thing in common with, but something else that is very different. I spend a ton of my life right now working on technology and innovation in sub-Saharan Africa. I work with people whom I don't have a lot in common with in terms of where we grew up, who we know, where we are from, but we have a lot in common in terms of what we do day to day, how we interact with technological systems, the things that we care about. That gives us a common ground that we are able to work on.
Would the designer of the network of discomfort provide us with bridge figures? Or would serendipity offer some?
One final thought: in some ways, for some people, Facebook itself has become the kind of social network that Fish (Zuckerman’s student) is apparently trying to design. When your relatives or co-workers send you “friend” requests, do you still “have a choice about who is going to be your friend”? (Much has been written about how conversations on Facebook have deteriorated as the users have amassed vast numbers of “friends” from diverse parts and periods of their lives; and many commentators have suggested that this kind of blended audience has driven teens, at least, to other social networks not yet co-opted by their parents and teachers). Maybe the key distinction in the MIT project would be that participants would, as Zuckerman describes it, “interact with people whom [the network designer] thinks [they] should be interacting with.” The anti-Facebook would provide us more thoughtfully curated discomfort.
Photo by Kevin Dooley, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.



Subscribe to Internet Ethics: Views from Silicon Valley

* indicates required