Facebook, Google, and Internet Environmentalism

I know FB/G+ comparisons are tired and lame, but I wrote up this comment in+Ciro Villa‘s thread, and it seems to lay out a position that I’m not sure has been explicitly stated before. Comments or suggestions in either thread would be appreciated!
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The typical complaint about G+ relative to FB is that “there’s no one here”. This is a curious sort of argument that pervades many aspects of the contemporary popular discussion. It is a kind of argumentum ad populum: an appeal to the people. 

Consider the following arguments that share a similar form: 

I’m not going to put solar panels on my roof because no one else on my block is doing it, and I don’t want to be different. 

I’m not going to conserve energy and reduce consumption, because no one else is doing it and I want to keep up with their lifestyles. 

I’m not going to reduce my meat consumption, because everyone else’s meat consumption is going up and I don’t want to be left behind.

Etc. You get the point. These are obviously bad arguments, but they share the same formal structure of the justifications used to rationalize the use of Facebook. Regardless of the context used, an appeal to the people is a logical fallacy. 

G+ is a better social network, not just in the “easier to use and I like it more” sense, but in the much more important sense of “open, inclusive, and user-controlled”. I think we have an ethical obligation to prefer open networks over closed networks not just for our own networking experiences, but for the sake of the networks themselves. Moving to G+ for me is closer to a kind of “internet environmentalism” whereby I’m trying to make choices that I hope benefit the whole internet ecosystem. From my perspective, we have an ethical obligation to use and defend open over closed networks. The longer we continue to use FB, the easier it will be for private interests or governments to wrest control over the network, and this amounts to a failure of the network. From my perspective, the users who remain on Facebook are in some sense being derelict in their public duties. 

More importantly, the reasons offered for this dereliction is an appeal to the people, which surely isn’t sufficient cause for rejecting other kinds of environmental claims. In the case of the actual environment, we think we have a special obligation to go against the “normal” behavior for the sake of everyone, and we should encourage others to do the same. Whether or not others are using solar panels, or reducing consumption, or eating less meat, we think that there might nevertheless be some ethical pressure to change those behaviors about ourselves, and to encourage others to follow suit through our example. In the case of the real environment, not changing our behavior is a moral mistake. The digital case here is no different: every contribution you make to closed, walled networks helps make the case for more closed walls in network’s future. 

It is curious, then, that this normative pressure leave FB has resulted in so much rampant rationalization on the part of FB’s still-active users who continue to refuse to move, sometimes despite openly feeling guilty about their continued use. Such users appeal to the people on FB as their main reason for continuing to use the service, but clearly such appeals to the people don’t hold water in any other context. I wonder why we think these are acceptable arguments in this case.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argumentum_ad_populum

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1 Comment

  1. Archiving a relevant comment from here:

    https://plus.google.com/u/0/110352049954858592591/posts/HqURKKkHe85

    There’s a huge problem with that kind of live and let live argument, and we see such problems dramatically represented in the environmental case. With regards to the physical environment, we can’t just let everyone behave however they want; environmental carelessness has consequences for all of us. So it isn’t enough to say “I’ll live my life green, but if you want to be wasteful that’s your prerogative”, because when they damage the environment, it’s your environment they are damaging.

    Similarly, Facebook is ruining the internet by making it walled, tiered, privately owned, and corporate run. Facebook is deeply engaged in the process of commodifying its users and selling them to the highest bidder. Not only is this dramatically inhumane, it has brutal consequences for the structure, legal framework, and ethos of the internet as a whole.

    The more people who continue to use Facebook, the worse the internet is. The surprising thing isn’t that this is a fact: we all know Facebook is awful and getting worse by the day, and that young people are leaving the network in droves as it gets populated by mostly clueless over-40s.

    Instead, the surprising thing is that despite knowing better and despite the existence of better alternatives, we still nevertheless refuse to collectively change our behavior.

    The parallels with the environment are pretty obvious. If we can’t consciously and deliberately ween ourselves off Facebook for the sake of fixing the internet, how can we ever expect to deliberately change our consumption behaviors for the sake of fixing the environment?

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