Killing the User: Digital Emancipation and the Reforming of Social Media

Harry Burden discusses the effects of digital and communicative technologies.

Digital and communicative technologies were introduced to our lives as prospective tools of liberation; the vessels by which knowledge, narrative and political influence could be radically decentralised in favour of a more equalised discourse about humankind and our needs. Social media platforms had provided the infrastructure upon which truly deliberative democracies could be achieved: a network of hundreds of millions of users, an international framework largely consistent in its accessibility, and principally egalitarian criteria for involvement founded upon the norm of non-exclusivity. As services such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram stomp through their teenage years, the scholarly dream of a digital republic has collapsed at the hands of amoral, profit-motivated companies who are proud to champion their growth yet remain bizarrely naïve to the social responsibility that their eagerness to create capital has brought upon themselves. The platforms, the technology, the excitability of we - its users - as biologically social creatures who seek comfort and assurance in company and the like-minded: none of these features are at threat of imminent dissolution.

Our subservience to these digital structures is eponymous: we are users, perceived to be consuming a service rather than contributing towards its collective power. This misplaced notion of self-worth negates the fact that such platforms are unable to generate wealth by virtue of their own existence. Instead, they rely on the continued contributions of both their content creators and consumers. These platforms have secured disproportionate hordes of wealth and influence that principally derives from our will to write, inform, entertain, teach, learn and create. Rather than democratise these human instincts away from the market, digital communicative technologies have reinforced the hierarchy of wealth and influence. We are not the users, we are the creators: we become writers when we tweet to our digital audience, we become teachers when we create instructive videos and blogs, we become entertainers when we vlog, we become informers when we report on our favourite pastimes – yet our relationship to this wealth remains inverted.

That relationship is in dire need of reform. Whilst content creators are able to generate wealth for their labour, we as content consumers are not recompensated for our commitment to their output. The profitability of these services relies upon the harvesting of our data, the consumption of our mental bandwidth and the exploitation of our basic need to be informed and engaged in our surrounding communities. They are not goods, but platforms: foundations with no intrinsic value but a structure upon which wealth is generated – a structure which, without the cooperation of the unpaid consumer, would be worthless. Without fair redistribution of the products of our cooperation, this is exploitation. We possess no control as to what content is generated for the platforms upon which we share. We enter the social arena to discuss culture, interact with friends and to share memes; yet our data habits are involuntarily manipulated to direct us towards targeted dogmatic political propaganda and advertising. Content control begins a dialogue regarding the utility of social media and who its platform should cater to. Lastly, any path towards democratisation requires the mandated deconstruction of the tech conglomerates that now own multiple platforms under the same umbrella corporation. This centralisation of power and information strangles the market, stifles innovation, and presents a dangerous litany of data protection concerns.

After almost two decades of engaging in the social experiment, its failures have been laid bare. Our relationship to the capital created through these platforms has been digitally distorted. Only when we realise our pivotal role in the generation of this wealth can we build a more egalitarian social media, one that caters to the financial, social, and medical wellbeing of its users. 

The invisible hand has failed us; the carrot has fallen off the stick. It’s time to be brave in the face of institutional power, as we have before and as we will again.

Harry Burden is studying for an MsC in Political Communication at the University of Amsterdam, researching the influence of the media upon political opinion. With a keen interest in authoritarianism, human rights and progressive futures, Harry's writing can also be found at:

He tweets @HarryBurden97.

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