“Everywhere you look, people are hooked on the things!”, shouts Chris Gillhaney in the second episode of the fifth season of Black Mirror. This expression was part of a highly emotional, positively deranged rant by Chris (played by Andrew Scott) after he had just taken an intern of a popular social media platform hostage. As the episode unfolds, we realise that Chris’s rage against social media is a result of despair from when he lost his girlfriend in a car crash as he was checking his phone after he got a notification alert from a social media site.
While the sci-fi anthology in itself is highly acclaimed, this episode had mixed reviews, with critics reviewing it as too simple a message about social media addiction, which takes on the all-too-often moral high ground of ‘social media bad, go touch grass’.
However, Richard Seymour, author of The Twittering Machine would disagree with the critics. Social media addiction is real and we are all high.
The Twittering Machine talks about how social media organises our online presence; how it programmes it. As more and more people login (the network effect), the more data is generated through which large corporations now have a say in what topics are relevant, what style is fashionable, what lingo is acceptable and who our friends are. All of it funded by corporations, of course, who are selling their products in exchange for our data. This model of communication has given rise to “privately owned spaces which function as a new kind of public space”. An arena where one needs constant attention through likes, shares and comments. Seymour elaborates how algorithms surveil our activity on these sites and suggest content we might not have known we liked or had an interest in. It can pick up behavioural patterns, giving voice to our unconscious desires. “We are writing, and as we write, we are being written,” he grimly observes.
However, these platforms have enabled social change. Or have they? While Seymour has a more critical take towards the role of Twitter and Facebook when it comes to social movements, Zeynep Tufekci in Twitter and Tear Gas – The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest gives us an on-ground account of how exactly ‘network’ movements work, their strengths and the challenges. Being a participant and spectator of some of the first tech-driven social movements, she talks about how the internet and subsequently social media was used to navigate and spread protest.
From the Zapatista movement of 1997 to the Arab Spring protests of 2011 and the #BlackLivesMatter, Tufekci elaborates on the constant tension between digitally fuelled movements and the actual real-life impact they sought but most often failed to make. She talks about how social media gave the layperson a chance to not only be politically active and have a voice, it also gave them the opportunity to be leaders. It took politics from politicians and gave it to the people. She talks about the Arab Spring protests in Egypt and how through a twitter hashtag, people would know and assemble for a protest or rally. It organised protests without the actual labour of political organising (campaigning, spreading awareness, having meetings).
However, due to the lack of leadership and fairly spontaneous nature of such protests, it was difficult to sustain momentum and find common ground.
Furthermore, if Seymour explains how social media constructs us, Tufekci writes about how technology itself is socially constructed. The prevailing social and political factors — the ruling regime and its ideology, the nature of the market, investors and advertisers, the extent of regulations — determine a technology’s design.
With the ubiquitous presence of social media and the ease of automation Big tech offers, it is easy enough to forget the very real human capital working behind the scenes making it all possible. It is often disruptive measures such as the recent mass-layoffs from Twitter, Meta and Amazon which remind us of the vast industry and economy of people behind our technological complex, making a living from it. A reported 11,000 people were laid off from Meta while Twitter fired around 7,500 people across the globe. Yet apart from the extremely qualified programmers, developers and engineers who run these platforms, a large underbelly of people serves Big Tech ensuring that it runs smoothly without glitches.
In Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass, Mary. L. Gray and Siddharth Suri talk about the gig economy which sustains the technological infrastructure and our everyday interactions with it. The authors talk about how tech companies set up platforms to outsource menial tasks, which are ideally supposed to be taken care of by highly complex Artificial Intelligence tools and algorithms. These ‘tasks’, put up by various requesters (companies) include identifying whether an image on Facebook is pornographic or not or whether this tweet is meant as a joke or as an attempt to spread fake news. All these value judgements cannot be made by machines as they cannot differentiate tone and the context in which it was made. This blend of work where computation is mixed with human insight is called crowdsourcing or crowdwork.
It is often presented as tasks which need to be completed within second to minute timeframes on platforms such as Mturk, UHRS etc. Companies present this type of on-demand work as a utopia wherein you could work from the comfort of your home, whenever you want. It is presented as ‘flexible’ work as tasks are posted every second with compensation varying task to task. However, the work is mundane, competitive and precarious. You have to be ever-vigilant in order to get well-paid verified jobs as there is no guarantee that you will get paid. Despite its risky nature, a whole ecosystem of people makes their living off it. Completely dependent on the platforms, they are isolated with no helplines if tasks are not paid or if a system glitch messes with the software. The book tries to highlight the labour that is often invisible and unrecognised yet crucial to the smooth functioning of these platforms. It captures the tension “of the gig economy’s odd mix of independence from a single employer to dependence on a web-based platform”.
The economic model of Big tech platforms and social media intermediaries is further elaborated in Platform Capitalism by Nick Srnicek. The narrative method of the book helps us understand these platforms as purely economic evolutions to growing business needs. Its matter-of-fact tone describes how tech platforms were inevitable to the capitalist process thereby de-mystifying their existence as revolutionary inventions.
While these books outline the economic cost and socio-political effect digital intermediaries have on us and larger society, they also emphasise how social media has become a necessary tool for engagement and communication. How one navigates it keeping in mind the above makes all the difference.