Part 3. Engagement

Chris Delatorre. 2015. “Local Communities and Socialized Citizens: The Role of Social Networks in Sustainable Urban Development.” See my highlights on Diigo.

Engagement and Socialization

While mobile technology itself tells of a promising future for CSOs and their communities, centralized communication is less than ideal for civic engagement. Mainstream social networks are not the champions of open communication they were once thought to be. Centralized social networking convolutes the ideal of transparency and impedes individual agency, failing to articulate what early pioneers of cyber culture had hoped the Internet would be — a liberator, the impetus and ultimate facilitator of democratized communication and civic participation.23,24 New evidence suggests a pervasive culture of silence as mainstream social networks grow — a threat to open discourse, even in self-purported transparent societies. A 2013 Pew Research Center report found Facebook users half as likely as others to share their opinions on policy in face-to-face settings.25 This is a concern, considering how Facebook has now surpassed half a billion mobile-only users with nearly a billion daily active users. On Facebook, members are encouraged to participate yet they are given limited control of their data, while a great deal of information remains invisible to them — this despite Facebook’s mission “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected”.26,27

The deficiencies of centralized communication are clear when considering the origin of the Internet itself. In 1964, computer network pioneer Paul Baran described the nature of centralized, decentralized and distributed networks for the U.S. military in the hopes that an improved communications infrastructure might mitigate the effects of an enemy attack. Important to his research were determining both the survivability of a distributed network configuration and the network’s requirements for providing service to a wide range of users, each with different needs. While the centralized communications model showed obvious vulnerability, and the decentralized model was essentially a cluster of centralized networks, the independence of each node in the distributed model showed an adaptive potential lacking in the other two, illustrating a more resilient model that was “of paramount interest” to Baran, and later to the U.S. military. Baran described the system as “adaptive” and “responding to gross changes of environment in several respects, without human intervention.” In the end, what made centralized communication problematic was that the fate of the entire system hinged upon the central node.28

Centralized social networks are vulnerable to corrosive political elements that threaten open societies and the vitality of democratic institutions. During the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, Twitter was shut down as President Hosni Mubarak’s government attempted to silence protesters.29 In 2014 Turkey’s Prime Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to “eradicate” Twitter before cutting it off, calling it “the worst menace to society.” Fourteen days later Turkey lifted the ban after the service complied with its request to remove photographs it had deemed politically offensive.30,31,32 Yet despite apparent victories over bans imposed in dictatorial fashion, the service itself has acted indifferently toward free speech. In 2015, Twitter suspended a popular Spanish user after she participated in a conversation about sexually transmitted diseases. Cancellations and suspensions of Spanish Twitter accounts have since precipitated a migration of Spanish users to Quitter, a federated online service of the microblogging server GNU social.33

The relationship between centralized social networks and their users is exploitive and nonreciprocal. By accepting the terms of these social networks, users license their personal data to companies who in turn provide it to governments, advertisers and other entities. It’s a system that monetizes every keystroke and swipe, the only guaranteed dividend in the form of company earnings passed to shareholders, who are collectively the voice of the system.34 A proprietary culture of data presents a barrier to objective reporting and knowledge sharing. The secretive nature of proprietary datasets deprives would-be collaborators and problem solvers from reaching their synergistic potential. Cultivating a distributed system of social applications might otherwise be impossible, given the prevailing culture of data distribution. Moreover, given that most urbanization in coming years will occur in developing countries, and that human rights defenders currently receive less than one per cent of total human rights funding worldwide,35 the loss of digital privacy and political anonymity could pose a serious threat for any community member whose identity expression or values counteract the status quo.

Distributed networks inspire new forms of social currency, and being able to work independently from traditional funding models is an asset in the social sector. David Orban, founder of Network Society Research, which articulates a new technology-based vision for the next phase of economic and social organization, says “centralized networks leave you and your opinions at the mercy of operators whose decisions are hard or impossible to appeal.” While centralized social networks are easy to silence, decentralized networks “make it harder to extinguish inconvenient opinions and allow for greater degrees of freedom”.36 This translates into greater inclusion and stronger engagement over time. Quitter is one example of a decentralized social networking platform for people who are against data exploitation yet interested in free and open communication. Diaspora, a nonprofit, community-run, decentralized network has built itself on the idea that each “pod” can operate independently, giving members control over their data and their lives. CiviCRM, an open sourced CRM designed by and for nonprofits, puts relationships ahead of data, where each new software release reflects the needs of its users as enhancements are given back to the community.37,38,39 And Drupal is a community of one million volunteers who contribute to open source reality with no immediate return on investment. We might look to this, potentially the most vibrant human activity ever, as a model for civic engagement.40,41 Orban predicts there will be several distributed social networks built outside traditional funding models that reward their members differently — where people will be allowed to make a living by using reputation as a valid currency. “If we collect resources and smart people and act through that coordination, then we can achieve this. New social networks should aim to do so and at the same time support people who participate on their local level.” For this to work, social networks must be interoperable.42

updated 9/1/17

Part 4: The Network

23 Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth
Century,” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991), PP 149-181

24 Barlow, John Perry (1996, February 9). A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Retrieved from

25 Hampton, Keith, et al. (2014, August 26). Social Media and the ‘Spiral of Silence’ (2014, August 26). Pew Research Center. Retrieved from

26 Kokalitcheva, Kia (2015, January 28). Facebook passes 1.39B monthly active users, 890M daily active users, and half a billion mobile-only users. VentureBeat. Retrieved from

27 Facebook (n.d.).

28 Rand Corporation. (1964). On Distributed Communications: I. Introduction to Distributed Communications
Networks, pp 1, 31. Santa Monica, CA: Paul Baran. Retrieved from

29 Arthur, Charles (2011, January 26). Egypt blocks social media websites in attempted clampdown on unrest. The Guardian. Retrieved from

30 Dockterman, Eliana (2014, March 20). Turkey Bans Twitter. TIME. Retrieved from

31 Yeginsu, Ceylan (2014, April 3). Turkey Lifts Twitter Ban After Court Calls It Illegal. The New York Times.
Retrieved from

32 Coskun, Orhan, Asli Kandemir (2014, April 6). Turkey complies with Turkey’s request, ban lifted. Reuters.
Retrieved from

33 Dianes, Daniel (2015, April 3). Thousands of Spaniards leave Twitter for GNU social. Free Software Foundation. Retrieved from

34 Kopstein, Joshua (2013, December 12). The Mission to Decentralize the Internet. The New Yorker. Retrieved from

35 IHRFG. (2014). Advancing Human Rights: Knowledge Tools for Funders [White Paper]. Retrieved from

36 David Orban, personal communication, April 11, 2015.

37 Quitter (n.d.).

38 Diaspora (n.d.).

39 CiviCRM (n.d.).

40 Chris Worman, personal communication, April 13, 2015.

41 Drupal (n.d.).

42 David Orban, IBID.


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