LASMAN: The social engineering network

Until recently, it was quite easy to declare your public endorsement of rape jokes. You had only to log onto Facebook, navigate to fan pages like “We’re gonna have sex tonight. Why? Because im stronger than you are,” and click “like.” Your risible lack of taste was then broadcast to your entire social network, and you publicly joined the ranks — which reached the hundreds of thousands — of those incapable of distinguishing humor from violence against women.

But no more. This week, in response to a furious Twitter campaign, a Change.org signature drive, and pressure from advertisers, Facebook took down the targeted pages. When the controversy first arose over the summer, the site defended the pages, partially on First Amendment grounds and partially as “pub jokes” — harmless man-talk. In a matter of months, “bar humor” had been recast in an official announcement as “content that is hateful, threatening, [and] incites violence.” In a more nuanced aside, Facebook explained that the pages’ “satirical” purpose was not marked clearly enough.

Of course, this made almost no one happy. Those who had demanded the removal of the pages pointed to a new crop of offensive jokes and asked the company for an unambiguous condemnation of rape humor. But plenty of others cried censorship. There were comparisons to Chinese Internet control and the blocking of Wikileaks. And so a rift was exposed in the ranks of the Facebook faithful.

Over 10 percent of the world’s population uses Facebook. While the variables are tough to crunch — new users, growing populations, restrictions on global Internet access and the potential rise of new networks — it doesn’t seem inconceivable for the next decade to see at least a fifth of the globe linked, however nebulously, through online social networking.

Precious few communities or networks in human history have reached a similar proportion of the world’s population, and most of those have hardly been enviable — oppressive empires, world wars, fatal pandemics. The vast majority of people involved in each of these networks have become so unwillingly. Conquest, infection and conscription usurp private wills and destinies.

Facebook is thus probably the largest voluntary, participatory community in history. Yet seeing it as such — rather than as a popular product, like an iPod — highlights key points about what sort of community it is. It is not democratic. Its laws and systems are created by a tiny group of people and imposed upon other users. Feedback and dialogue is possible, but this is little more formalized (or guaranteed to be effective) than a medieval vassal’s petition to his king.

For an autocracy, Facebook is not particularly oppressive or intrusive. But because of this governance, and especially because of its technological vexperiment in social engineering. At root is the question of whether the site should be a reflection of society, with all its complexities and irregularities, or whether it should use its unique power and streamlined structure to create an ideal community, a digital Levittown of unprecedented dimensions. These two poles represent the different Facebooks imagined by those protestors who cried censorship, on the one hand, and those who called for a firmer line on unacceptable speech, on the other.

The company has made statements supporting both interpretations. The “pub joke” analogy belongs to the former approach, as does the statement that offensive discourses “are a reflection of those happening offline, where conversations happen freely.” Yet the actual removal of the rape joke pages suggests the latter approach. This seems a likely direction for the community to move in, as it mediates the interests of an ever-larger and ever-more-sensitive user population.

Facebook has no obligation to protect free speech. As it creates a utopian world of global interconnectivity, why shouldn’t it exclude those whose views are antithetical to such a vision?

Yet the furor over the company’s censorship — for censorship it undoubtedly is, whatever the reasoning — reveals a profound discomfort among many users. While most, one hopes, do not endorse rape jokes, they nonetheless want to be part of a community where such jokes could be made. They sense a disconnect between their lives as citizens of the free, flat, real world and their lives as members of a utopian but arbitrary digital world. They want Facebook to function as a liberal democracy, committed, whatever the cost, to the ideals of their messier outside lives.

We students are likewise idealistic members of a fundamentally undemocratic community — or at least one in which we do not have full democratic rights. We have agreed to be part of it, yet we often chafe at its rules. We want it to be better than the outside world, yet we complain about its disconnections and its arbitrary abuses of power. As we enmesh ourselves in such systems — online, in schools, at work — we have a choice. Either we can learn to hold different ideals in different worlds, or we can risk the huge unrest of trying to reconcile them.

Sam Lasman is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at samuel.lasman@yale.edu.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    Utopian censorship? That’s unutopian. Sounds like propaganda to me.

  • River_Tam

    Those morons at Facebook just took away the easiest way for me to identify assholes on the internet.

  • JE11

    Hey River, could you make a list for me? Thanks.

  • ethanjrt

    Thoughtful article! Really well done.