Social Network Neutrality, Anyone?

By on June 29th, 2017 in Editorial & Opinion, Magazine Articles, Societal Impact

Having recently relocated to a country where I know very few people, I tried looking for a local branch of a hobby group of which I’d been a long-time member in my home country. There are, as far as I can tell, no members of the group in the city in which I live, though the city is nominally covered by a far-flung branch servicing a smattering of members across Asia. After several false starts searching through out-of-date web sites and emailing out-of-date addresses, I managed to get into email contact with the branch.

I was told that, in order to participate in the branch, I could join their Facebook group. Now, I’m not a member of Facebook, so I asked if they could instead just send me a calendar of events (thinking I might be able to travel to one sometime) and/or pass on my email address to anyone they knew of in the same area as me. I have not heard anything since.

I felt a bit like the contrarian character, Mercer, who refuses to join the social network in Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle [1]. Scott Eldridge reviewed the novel in the March 2015 issue of this Magazine [2], but I took a quite different – though not necessarily mutually exclusive – message to the one suggested in that review. For me, the major issue was corporate power, and the eagerness of the novel’s characters to submit to a system created and maintained by a private company.

Some of the Web’s most successful inhabitants have begun to chip away at its principles.

Eldridge draws attention to the “unraveling effect” described by Scott Peppet, in which individuals make some personal gain from revealing private information, such that everyone else needs to follow in order keep up, with the result that no one has any real choice but to reveal their information. Social networks might be subject an analogous effect – call it the “raveling effect,” if you like – when, as more people join the network, those who refuse are at a greater and greater disadvantage and eventually have no real choice but to join the network.

Consider my hobby group. I can join the Facebook group, becoming a consumer of Facebook and its advertisers, or I can remain out of reach of others who share my hobby.

Large social networking sites are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the Web.

Tim Berners-Lee drew attention to the potential for social networks and other closed systems to fragment the web into a series of non-communicating propriety ecosystems, or to become monopoly providers like The Circle, in a 2010 Scientific American article:

Some of (the Web’s) most successful inhabitants have begun to chip away at its principles. Large social networking sites are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the Web [3, p. 80].

In another part of the article, Berners-Lee expresses concern about Internet service providers favoring one kind of traffic over another. “Net neutrality” has since become a familiar catch-cry, but his fear in the quote above seems to have been largely overlooked or forgotten.

Take what happens when I catch up from news from home via the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (“ABC”). The ABC is a public broadcaster, and prohibited from showing advertisements by the Act under which it operates. Yet sometimes it seems that announcers hardly go a talk break, or a web site one screen, without inviting the audience to jump on Facebook, or Twitter, or (most recently) WhatsApp. Somehow promoting or offering the services of these companies has ceased to be advertising, but an unremarkable way in which one communicates with the public.

Can or should anything be done? One can imagine competition regulators stepping in to break up Facebook, or compelling social networking services to interoperate so that individuals can join the provider of their choice without fear of losing their friends on other networks. Scandinavian regulators have, in fact, have taken action to curb undeclared advertising of social media companies on their public broadcasters [4]. One can further imagine public broadcasters establishing public social networks (see [4, p. 152]). But these are all relatively heavyweight solutions, and perhaps some lighter-weight options deserve consideration first.

Firstly, to be fair to the ABC, it also invites its audience to communicate through text messaging and (sometimes) telephone, allowing those who choose not to join its favored social networks to participate.

Secondly, to be fair to my hobby group, the previous branch to which I belonged had a policy that all official announcements were to be made via email, and that its Facebook group was only for social chit-chat. This policy ensured that everyone with email knew what the group was doing, and served to remind Facebook users that not everyone read it.

My last point requires me to tell a quick story first. I was once a member of LinkedIn. having received an invitation from a colleague back when social networking services were new and I thought it worth a try. After a few years of failing to find anything I could do with it, and hearing little or nothing from “connections” via LinkedIn or otherwise, I began replying to new invitations with a personal email explaining that I didn’t really use LinkedIn. In response to one such email, my would-be connection admitted that she didn’t really use LinkedIn either; she just felt compelled to click on the “Do you know?” button.

In a later conversation about the worth or otherwise of LinkedIn, one of my colleagues observed that it felt rewarding to accept connection requests, and rude to decline them. I countered that this was exactly why I’d deleted my LinkedIn profile: it seemed superficially rewarding to accept connection requests, and at first I thought they might lead to something, but this quickly turned to disappointment when I realized that I wasn’t actually connected to these people in any meaningful way. I wonder if we instead ought to feel rude for allowing Internet companies to exploit our relationships in order to build their customer bases, and to present contrived social networks built up by automated messaging and idle button-clicking?


Nicholas Paul Sheppard is with the Singapore Institute of Technology – Infocomm Technology Cluster, Singapore 138683, Singapore.