August 30, 2018
We’re members of a platform that houses an innumerable array of intersecting communities. The communities have their own lingos, visual and social grammar, rituals, and norms. The platform managers position themselves as upholders of these communities, but the communities are not their customers.
This important distinction explains the use of banning, purging, and silencing users based on a myriad of reasons. From hate speech to ‘inauthentic behavior,’ the potential violation of ‘community standards’ of these platforms has become a widely utilized tool to signal the platform’s cooperation with certain expectations, whether from Congress or from some of their vocal critics.
I was recently post-banned. Facebook requires you to log back in and shows you the post that violated their community standard, then tells you how long you are not allowed to post. First strike is 24 hours, the second is 3 days, third and beyond are 30 days. This time, I hit my third strike. I was sentenced to 30 days in Facebook jail.
In a way, it’s a form of digital incarceration. You get to see everything happening as you normally would, but you can’t react-response to anything, you can’t comment, you can’t message others, and you can’t operate any pages or groups that you admin. The only thing you can do is accept or reject friend requests, unfriend current friends, and allow tagged photos to show up on your timeline.
There is an almost beautiful order to this. The more invested you are into the Facebook platform, the more reason you have to police yourself and the greater reach you have on Facebook, the more people there are who can report and police your behavior. The punishment is intermingled with your value of the platform itself. The punishment is of human design, but its impact is considerably worrisome.
In the early days of social media circa-2006, this new era was being heralded from Silicon Valley to DC as the beginning of Web 2.0. The internet was going to be democratized and people across the globe would be invited to participate in their communities to such a wonderful degree. The spirit of the time was absolute excitement for a free and democratic future. Who could resist such an optimistic sentiment for open and free platforms?
But they missed the keystone to the structures of social media companies—who’s paying for it?
Advertisers, as much as I have interest and positive feelings for, are simple people. When it comes to social media communities, things are either good or bad: if it’s controversial, it’s going to make bad-feelings, and bad feelings are not what they want. Only good-feelings are allowed.
There can be some nuance here. Good-feelings can include a sense of purpose or righteousness that comes from a politically charged piece from Buzzfeed or NowThis, but ultimately, that too boils down to a matter of good-feelings for their specific audience. Any actually challenging brand is at worst, bad-bad-bad, and at best, simply too difficult to place into any audience. When you consider the kind of enlightened liberal ideals of rigorous discussion and democratic virtues of participation, the demands of advertisers are absolutely opposed to it.
A rigorous discussion is often painful to endure. Have you ever been challenged over beliefs integral to yourself and your vision of the community around you? It would categorically fit into the ‘bad-feelings’ branch of content. That’s not something Glade scented candles wants to pay for. More worryingly, it’s not something you yourself would want to pay for, either. In fact, the only people who pay for that kind of stuff are donors to academic institutions and nonprofits. They pay academics to go study and debate things—the academics themselves aren’t even paying to do it! They get paid to do it, and as we’ve seen, even their donors can be scant with whims of their own. Democratic values are indeed much more rare than we may assume.
Such ideals have only been achieved through absolute inevitability. You may crash into someone else who doesn’t see it like you do. Maybe it’s because you’re geographically locked in, like in a classroom, a team sport, a workplace, or an extended family dinner, but with Web 2.0, we now can curate a community entirely of our choosing. This removes the inevitability of encountering disagreements. This would be fine if only disagreements weren’t fundamental to sharing perspectives and growing from the experience.
It’s here that Facebook Jail becomes such a curious notion to me. It is a mechanism that is component to whatever reorganizing of social systems is already underway. It reinforces something—a sort of conformity towards some blurred social policy, but again, the policy is ultimately dictated by advertisers. I was handed a 30 day post-ban because I offended someone who saw a post on my 10,000-follower meme page. That instance of offense was all it took to tell an advertiser that I’m a bad-actor. At this point, I’ve already had to sit-out 1/12th of 2018.
The more our general society develops into a digital society, the more serious this becomes. Traditionally, we remove people from civil society through a system of due process for the purpose of protecting liberty and wresting the hands of power away from abusiveness. If we have a large component of civil society existent upon digital life, then will we have the same apprehension towards punishment, and not just punishment, but from actually removing people from society? Should we?