The aim of Unlike Us is to establish a research network of artists, designers, scholars, activists and programmers who work on ‘alternatives in social media’. Through workshops, conferences, online dialogues and publications, Unlike Us intends to both analyze the economic and cultural aspects of dominant social media platforms and to propagate the further development and proliferation of alternative, decentralized social media software.
Whether or not we are in the midst of internet bubble 2.0, we can all agree that social media dominate internet and mobile use. The emergence of web-based user to user services, driven by an explosion of informal dialogues, continuous uploads and user generated content have greatly empowered the rise of participatory culture. At the same time, monopoly power, commercialization and commodification are also on the rise with just a handful of social media platforms dominating the social web. These two contradictory processes – both the facilitation of free exchanges and the commercial exploitation of social relationships – seem to lie at the heart of contemporary capitalism.
On the one hand new media create and expand the social spaces through which we interact, play and even politicize ourselves; on the other hand they are literally owned by three or four companies that have phenomenal power to shape such interaction. Whereas the hegemonic Internet ideology promises open, decentralized systems, why do we, time and again, find ourselves locked into closed corporate environments? Why are individual users so easily charmed by these ‘walled gardens’? Do we understand the long-term costs that society will pay for the ease of use and simple interfaces of their beloved ‘free’ services?
The accelerated growth and scope of Facebook’s social space, for example, is unheard of. Facebook claims to have 700 million users, ranks in the top two or three first destination sites on the Web worldwide and is valued at 50 billion US dollars. Its users willingly deposit a myriad of snippets of their social life and relationships on a site that invests in an accelerated play of sharing and exchanging information. We all befriend, rank, recommend, create circles, upload photos, videos and update our status. A myriad of (mobile) applications orchestrate this offer of private moments in a virtual public, seamlessly embedding the online world in users’ everyday life.
Yet despite its massive user base, the phenomena of online social networking remains fragile. Just think of the fate of the majority of social networking sites. Who has ever heard of Friendster? The death of Myspace has been looming on the horizon for quite some time. The disappearance of Twitter and Facebook – and Google, for that matter – is only a masterpiece of software away. This means that the protocological future is not stationary but allows space for us to carve out a variety of techno-political interventions. Unlike Us is developed in the spirit of RSS-inventor and uberblogger Dave Winer whose recent Blork project is presented as an alternative for ‘corporate blogging silos’. But instead of repeating the entrepreneurial-start-up-transforming-into-corporate-behemoth formula, isn’t it time to reinvent the internet as a truly independent public infrastructure that can effectively defend itself against corporate domination and state control?
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