Feed my Feed: Radical publishing in Facebook Groups

Robert M. Ochshorn, The App and the Territory (2014)

These days, Facebook is so widely used that opting out constitutes an act of defiance of the norm. The refusal to participate can be made for personal reasons, but there is a sizeable group who do so as a protest of the corporate control over interpersonal communication. In a 2014 blog post, Laura Portwood-Stacer used the metaphor of "breaking up with Facebook" to describe:

active refusal as a tactical response to the perceived harms engendered by a capitalist system in which media corporations have disproportionate power over their platforms' users, who, it may be said, provide unpaid labor for corporations whenever they log on.

The burdens placed on Facebook's users are certainly significant; they include not only cognitive labor, but also online harassment, dataveillence, and the performance of the profile–which is pulled in multiple directions, at the same time increasingly sexualized (pulled into online dating sites like Tinder) and entrepreneurialized (pulled into sites like Airbnb), even while the display of the body within the profile is regulated in punitive, sexist fashion.

One might question whether opting out constitutes a successful removal from the object of concern, or rather, just another performative act amid the impossibility of ever getting off the grid. In this piece, I want to use the example of the Facebook Group to argue that opting out also involves a disavowal of crucial forms of vernacular culture and solidarity. Through collective, thematic riffing, Facebook Groups offer a crucial form of contemporary social and political experience.

Facebook Groups have a low barrier to entry–for example, one doesn't need to understand domain registration or hosting to build a large network. Domain registrar GoDaddy claims 51 million domain names, but there were some 620 million Facebook Groups as of 2010. More than a third of Facebook's active users participate in Groups; some Groups are public, while others require new members to be approved by an admin. Once in, Groups facilitate communication among members via messages and posts, which may also be moderated. Groups are often established around particular topics, which are can be wonderfully specific: see, for example,"Medical Fashion Quarterly" and "Simpsons Shitposting," and a trove of Groups compiling aesthetic categories including the internet-of-things inspired, "HOMECARE AESTHETICS: Environment and Object, offspring of "CORPORATE AESTHETICS: Environment and Object," that bring iconic anomalies and internet garbage to the kitchen table of your feed so you don't have to waste time in Google image search.

The tech world calls these micro-media environments "communities," as it does many things. The most interesting Facebook Groups are often collective efforts; highly organized spaces that facilitate structured randomness. Take "Cool Freaks Wikipedia Club," a Group of about 35,000 members that has achieved cult status, with around 35 additional splinter Facebook Groups, and that was recently featured at Adrian Chen's Brooklyn live-presentation series IRL Club. Cool Freaks' theme is the re-posting of obscurantist Wikipedia articles, drawing members who enjoy a specific type of media consumption– going down "Wikipedia holes"– clicking from one interwiki-link to the next in search of joy-inspiring esoterica. These kinds of Groups are as vital to the culture of our time as any book or magazine.

Not incidentally, the Cool Freaks Facebook Group has been innovative not only in its choice of topic, but also in its establishment of ground rules on identity inclusion and language and its strict banning policies for "furthering / arguing an oppressive mindset (racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, et cetera)." A recent blog post by Sally N. Marquez, "Week Two: Communication in Digital Spaces" contextualized Cool Freaks' Rules as exemplifying how Groups use "mediated communication in order to enhance a specific type of social interaction, as well as build and reinforce social structures." Cool Freaks' ground rules speak to the power of the Facebook Group to foster intentional, inclusionist practices.

Ben Wilson, one of the moderators or "mods" of Cool Freaks Wikipedia Club Facebook Group, tells me via email: 

The moderation and rules cater to the disenfranchised as opposed to less moderated communities. This has been the guiding principle behind our moderation team as we do not want to suffer the same problems of other Groups. While publications like Vice have called this "fascist hypersensitivity," we remain firm on this position… While the size of the Group builds into a spectrum of political engagement whether online/off—or direct action and other forms, the online forum allows us the chance to bring central issues to the forefront as Leelah Alcorn and Ferguson unrest via the pinned post option… The Facebook Group offers us the opportunity to give back to the community whose core membership leans towards the radical left besides a prominent number of the moderation being activists themselves.

Cool Freaks shows that even a seemingly frivolous Facebook Group may be as much about solidarity-building and collective self-governance as it is about playful, weird content. Amid the failure of Facebook alternative sites like Ello and Diaspora to realize viable alternatives despite significant enthusiasm (and capital investment), Facebook Groups have led to more formal efforts to organize or lobby, and have played an important function in raising political awareness—all this, despite the burdens placed on users by the corporate platform they use.

The "New Platforms" Model

I'm feeling fatigued by the repeated attempts of alternative media to "build new platforms" over the past few years, always seeming to posit that our current sharing platforms are not good enough, or not radical enough, and that more platforms are needed. But the creation of new digital platforms is not necessarily synonymous with empowerment, and may instead splinter existing groups into a confused multiplicity of channels usually characterized by a high barrier to entry or lack of discoverability.

Are platforms publics? Conversations defining the public sphere in the context of contemporary mass media production might help answer this question. Jürgen Habermas identifies the public sphere as a historical condition emerging in the late 18th century, spurred by the merger of state and private life under capitalism concurrent with the abolishment of feudal states. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (1962) describes how capitalism's rapacious reach further into the private, social sphere is responsible for the transformation of the traditional forms of political expression that took place outside the home, into a participatory media landscape characterized by literary cultural/sociological exchange among competing constituencies, which vie for representation. These constituencies stretch into the most private aspects of our social lives in a way not possible under feudalism. In this way, contemporary publics are tethered to evolutions in free speech, where developments of discrete media platforms constitute our most viable forms of representation and expression even as they are entwined with co-opting technologies.

Geert Lovink has drawn from such canonical approaches to explore the creation of alternative publics through internet-based media activities informed by radical, theoretical frameworks, and their subsequent canonization. The noun and adjective "tactical media" describes such alternatives to mass media, where the strategic use of media to intervene in the oppressive, corporatized technologies of the majority, represents a radical approach. Lovink is co-founder of the new media mailing list <nettime>, founded in 1995 at the Venice Biennale. <nettime> is a moderated discussion with a more decentralized approach: most messages are written by participants, and moderators play a minimal role. The list of rules sent to new participants is much looser than those of the Cool Freaks Wikipedia Club; <nettime> moderator Pit Schultz once noted that "The less the moderator appears the better the channel flows." <nettime> is a space of consensus-building and the structured inter-pollination of ideas; it assumes a shared sense of purpose on the part of its users that public Facebook Groups generally do not. The list is quite careful to use like-minded organizations for its server space, ensuring that a hosting service will not exercise censorship.

Along these lines, one argument for the creation of new platforms would be that platforms created by corporations like Facebook or Gmail prevent the kind of autonomous, organic, social organization that characterizes the public sphere at its best. Then again, the "public sphere" has never meant unadulterated, uncensored speech for all, outside of existing social structures. Communication and connectivity exist under gendered, colonial surveillance reinforced by unsympathetic administrative protocol, pre-dating the internet. Full participation in the public sphere is dependent on citizenship, which is itself deeply enmeshed in xenophobia and policing. Citizenship attaches endless paperwork like the Social Security Number Card and the Driver's License to personage as a way of managing bodies to make them more readable by the state. These numbers, increasingly required in everyday transactions, double as state tools: to target and deport illegal and unregistered immigrants, to accumulate pre-emptive police intelligence, and to surveil.

Mailing list-based tactical media projects rely on the corporate, populist technology of email (and often the Google environment) to foster critical perspectives of the very platforms in which they disseminate information and vie for representation. For the <nettime> mailing list's 20th anniversary, its hosts sent around an April Fools message playfully suggesting that it would be shutting down; the message included a line that seemed to acknowledge an implicit elitism in its stance: "really, who cares what a bunch of straight white cis guys—which is 95% of the list's traffic—think about those things? Really." Of course, <nettime> has not shut down, and continues to host an active, vital discussion much as it always has, but the joke was an acknowledgment of the barriers to access that shape putatively open online discussions such as <nettime>.

Responding to the increasingly omnipresent Facebook, recent years have seen several notable attempts by institutions to build their own software-driven platforms for online conversation away from the platform. Rhizome was a pioneer in this, shifting in the mid-2000s from a mailing-list centered model to a blog with comments and profile pages, almost a quasi social network that mirrored Facebook saturation. 

A more recent foray into institutional platform-building, e-flux Conversations, is more like a Facebook Group with a professional editor. The hybrid discussion / blog platform and event blogging ecosystem started in October 2014, can be seen as an attempt to facilitate communication among networks of multiple and geographically dispersed voices and readers. A critical viewpoint could also construe this gesture as an institutional strategy to resist critique by subsuming it. e-flux Conversations isn't a Facebook Group because its wants to avoid the many constraints of that platform, but essentially functions as a familiar mirror of Facebook's conversation style. In this way, it presents the problem of duplication, contributing to the contemporary problem of having to many platforms to choose from to post an idea, which usually results in laborious cross-posting.

e-flux Conversations and <nettime> represent two kinds of alternatives to the dominance of the Facebook Group; there are many more. The argument on behalf of such alternatives is clear: when communication is monopolized–as it is on Facebook—users cede significant control. Some of this control may be clawed back by using platforms and e-mail hosted with non-profit organizations, which at least make regulation and surveillance a bit less convenient, or using software platforms developed by for-profit organizations with compatible values.

Meanwhile, a 2013 Pew Research Center study found that 64% of adults use Facebook, while 30% of Americans use it as their primary news source. Its scale and omnipresence make Facebook Groups an ideal environment for vernacular culture as well as consciousness-raising and political organizing. Embracing Facebook and its corporate aesthetic doesn't have to be read as giving in, or as an accelerationist acceptance or even pursual of corporatization. Rather, in spite of seemingly insurmountable barriers like corporate centralization, solidarity and resistance can be, and are perhaps most likely to be, forged from within the very structures that seem most totalitarian.

The Anti-Facebook meta-discussion on Facebook

These days, Facebook's publics are responsible for "loading the canons" of the political subconscious, and we must be delicate in not dismissing their cultural value. Orit Gat in her recent Rhizome essay, "Has the Internet Changed Art Criticism? On Service Criticism and A Possible Future," argues that crowdsourced criticism "messes with predetermined economic structures, especially in the art context: scarcity." But it also produces some exciting new ground as the smaller, granular levels of conversation become fodder for the public sphere.

On February 17, 2014 I started my first Facebook Group: Immaterial Digital Labor. Having recently read Tiziana Terranova's 2003 essay, "Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy," it started as just a status update:

I started the Facebook Group partly as a web of disseminating critical writings with a critical, activist agenda springing from Terranova's paper, but also partly as a social experiment. It became evident early on that the Group was built with a sense of irony, insofar as it sought to call out discrete, and sometimes minute, new forms of labor embedded in its very platform of choice. But perhaps the irony is not unique to activist link-sharing on Facebook, or by mailing list, or any of the mediums through which we might attempt to speak in the present day, so much of which is subject to considerable surveillance, click-mining, and digital labor, no matter how precautionary one tries to be.

Irony must also be embraced as Facebook becomes the cultural lexicon for serious political and theoretical organizing. Facebook Groups allow for the formation of critical and engaged publics through the sharing of links and the forming of definitions for patterns in the media. We might be better off focusing on the strategies of solidarity endemic to its space, recognizing the irony of the situation in which creativity and modern-day organizing often take place, than being seduced by the escapist rhetoric of dismissal.

Dorothy Howard is a writer and internet researcher based in Brooklyn, New York. @DorothyR_Howard