I Can’t Believe this Digital Feudalism is Free

The metaphor that resonated the most with me this week was Alex Singh’s analogy of the internet transforming over the span of 25 years from nomadic culture to a “mostly agrarian one.” An agrarian society involves the cultivation of the land. Singh notes the transition from HTML-only sites to CSS and JS, citing it as a move that shifted the power from the masses to the privileged and elite few. Initially, web users used to navigate from link to link, and site to site discovering new content. In this sense, the web used to be boundless. In utilizing medieval terminology for the analogy, Singh equates the emerging elite class with the “literate Priesthood,” arguing that the few at the top of the hierarchy can build, interface, and moderate the web, but the vast majority of users are “peasants” whose labour is exploited by the lords of the land, and whose convenience comes at the cost of their freedom.

 

Countless times on twitter and Facebook I have encountered posts where people remarked “I can’t believe this website is free.” It is possible some users mean it in an ironic way, but the reality is that most major platforms are not transparent about how they monetize their platform and what we, the lowly peasants, are sacrificing without our knowledge. The analogy makes me think deeper of how platform creators regard their own user-base and where the value of that platform is really generated from. Dragging Tumblr into the conversation once more, I cannot help but compare it to platforms like Youtube. I once read a post where users complained that Tumblr was the worst platform to invest one’s time into – unlike Youtube, where users can make a living off subscriptions, or Instagram where users can get sponsorships and leverage their popularity, Tumblr offers no monetary reward to its producers.

The platform is monetized through ads, but none of those funds are circulated to its content creators. Another Tumblr user complained that her posts had been screenshotted and shared on other platforms, including Buzzfeed, with listicle writers making a profit off of the free labour she has been providing for years. Tumblr’s userbase is becoming increasingly aware of their exploited labour while platform owner Yahoo becomes increasingly aware of how unprofitable it is to be the feudal lord or king of Tumblr. Yahoo’s likely solution? Abandon the land altogether or poison it until the peasants grow dissatisfied enough to migrate to the land of another lord.

For Tumblr, the greatest resource to mine is attention. But Facebook and Twitter have thrived at monetizing not only attention, but also data. We users, the peasants (or serfs), are creating videos, art, stories, and all while surrendering data to our lords (platforms) who are siphoning that data and monetizing it. As Zach Scott and Singh point out, this process is neither fully consensual nor voluntary. The “give me all your data so that I can sell it” part is usually buried in fine print. Any time people start mass migrating to a new platform, or a platform changes its rules and regulations (whether discreetly or publicly), there are usually a small group of users who take the time to thoroughly read through the policies before vocally raising flags about clauses and terms that the vast majority of us would have never noticed. In 2018, Tumblr released a safe mode that by default set every user account to hide any potential adult content. It was users who brought this new feature to light and who shared information on how to disable it. Another example is Snapchat, an app that surprised users by adding a feature that automatically tracks users’ locations and display them on a map. This, too, can be disabled, but the fact it is the default setting makes it ethically questionable. A user’s freedom to make choices about their privacy or online experience has been abused by lords who value their users only as labourers.

As Singh mentions in his tweet thread, there is also class and accessibility to consider. With websites shifting to CSS and JS, many of us do not have the skills and resources to code our own websites. It is a dilemma we discussed in class and not one that has an easy solution, especially since users have gotten used to having their digital services conveniently but dangerously centralized on a handful of platforms. And then there is algorithms. Instagram’s algorithm is a mystery and twitter has rallying against chronological feeds for years now, allowing popular posts to thrive while new posts get buried. Not only that, but our communication within the land is defined based on the restrictions of our lords – Tumblr now hates images posts, Twitter has a maximum word count, and Snapchat is near impossible to use as a chat platform.

In “I Can’t Believe this Blockchain is Free,” Michael J Casey writes:

“The challenge, then, is to design an architecture that allows the producers of data – we, the users – to become less beholden to these centralized aggregators and create a more decentralized digital economy in which we can trust each other’s data and make better personal use of it…should, in theory, result in better economic and political decisions for all.”

We have to bring the power back to the users. It is time for users to start demanding more transparency to ideally dismantle the feudalistic hierarchy by becoming less dependent on a system that exploits and polices us.

Sources:

Digital Feudalism
I Can’t Believe This Blockchain is Free
Web’s Neolithic Revolution

One Reply to “I Can’t Believe this Digital Feudalism is Free”

  1. I like that you latched on to the feudalism metaphor as the basis for your blog. I think the metaphor offers a powerful way to discuss what is happening on the web and to start to think of alternatives, as you have done here. While the piece touches on some very good points and is rooted in useful examples, there are places where your argument becomes muddled. Is the issue exploitation or privacy? Are these one in the same? If so, how? Explaining what is at stake would set you up for exploring solutions. If transparency is, as you suggest at the end, part (all?) of the solution, how so? Having set up privacy as the issue it might become clearer, but without having explained that at the beginning it is less clear. Still, a good read on the powerless position we hold in today’s web.

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