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Platform politics in Europe – Where is the user?

(Cover: Fabrice – Muiderpoort Station, Amsterdam 2010, detail. Photo: Giulia May)


In a dystopian present marked by physical isolation, digital platforms are acquiring an even more central role in our private and social lives. They enable us to connect with our loved ones, to look for useful (or misleading) information, rethink our work connections, find online yoga courses, buy goods and share uplifting or emotional contents – in short to live in and feel a system of interconnected close and wider communities.

While the social, cultural and psychological outcomes of these new patterns of interaction with digital media are yet to be seen, just before the beginning of the pandemic era a series of studies were trying to assess the impact of digital platforms on political participation. The International Communication Journal’s last issue of 2019, with its special section dedicated to Platform Politics in Europe, looks like an ideal occasion to try and resume some of the many open questions on digital platforms and their political use – as we try to process other uses in a version heightened by our hyperconnected isolation.

Edited by Marco Deseriis and Davide Vittori, the feature included six case studies on the use of digital platforms in different European contexts and involving various political actors. While the common thread was how each platform makes some degree of political participation possible, one central question remains mostly unanswered, and even unasked: who are the users of these digital platforms, how do they use the platforms, and why in these studies they are almost never given a voice?

1. Digital platforms shaping the “long 2010s”

Social media platforms and digital democracy platforms. The “long 2010s”, as Deseriis and Vittori call them, have been dominated by anti-austerity and anti-authoritarian movements incorporating social media in new and disruptive ways. While the “inner logic” of commercial social networks might have facilitated social movements in their emerging phase, it appeared to be less suited to long-term strategies (van Dijck & Poell, 2013). This is why some groups moved to specialised (and open) software tools for their organisation and decision making, creating new digital democracy platforms. Deseriis and Vittori insist that the communalities between political use of social media platforms (SMPs) and digital democracy platforms (DDPs) are more relevant than their differences. Still, they are significant: SMPs are mainly focused on commodifying user data and extracting profit from this information, although, thanks to their large user base, they have surely contributed to revitalise political action. DDPs, on the other hand, can in principle support democratic participation and deliberation, but they tend to have limited impact and scope.

How is algorithmic logic affecting participation? One important theme in recent debates is how much ‘algorithmic logic’ conditions the agency of Social Media Platform users. On the one end of the spectrum there is the idea (e.g. van Dijk & Hacker, 2018) that an algorithmic logic, replacing the editorial logic of earlier media generations, is more pervasive and shapes users’ participation in subtle ways. At the other end there are those who emphasise users’ creativity and resourcefulness (e.g. Clark et al., 2014), showing how people can play with platform affordances, repurpose features, and circumvent limitations. Another author contributing to the special issue, Maria Bakardjieva, concludes that “citizens’ participation … cannot be reduced to the design of the platforms alone, but it is certainly affected by it”. What makes the difference, she argues, is “Who participates? In what? For what purpose?”.


(Street mosaic in Grodno, Belarus. Photo: Victoria Strukovskaya)

2. E-government, party and civic platform users

Can a digital platform empower party members? Deseriis and Vittori try to assess the impact of the platforms used by Podemos and 5Stars, respectively “Participa” and “Rousseau”, on internal party democracy and power imbalances. Both parties show a “technopopulist orientation” (Deseriis, 2017), but also strong differences in terms of political and ideological trajectories. These are also reflected by diverging organisational models: a variety of centralised and decentralised decision-making bodies (Podemos) versus no intermediary party bodies at all (5SM). Deseriis and Vittori argue that despite these important differences, in both cases “the affordances of these platforms are often employed selectively” and mostly used to just confirm decisions already taken by the party leaders. This might be one of the reasons for the sharp decline in voter turnout both platforms registered after the first year. Other possible reasons include the drop-out of early adopters or the fact that members are asked to vote too frequently, or – in the case of the 5SM – that when it comes to controversial issues, Rousseau only provides members with their leaders’ viewpoints and no alternatives. New studies would need to confirm these hypotheses, and include extensive feedback from the users of both platforms.

Can a platform preserve the quality of a debate over time? Looking at social media platforms one might be inclined to say no, but digital democracy platforms used by local administrations in Europe have also tried to reshape participation and deliberation. In their study on Decidim, the platform allowing citizens to contribute to Barcelona’s Strategic City Planning, Borge Bravo, Balcells, and Padró-Solanet looked at “the deliberative quality” of the debate on tourism and hospitality in the city. What emerges from their analysis is that time is a key factor, as conversations on platforms like Decidim go through different stages. While at the beginning most users focus on developing persuasive and rational arguments, as the discussion continues there is often noticeable “degradation” of the debate. This can make other users less interested in taking part and lowers the threshold of acceptable arguments, while the few active users left might turn the debate into a personal confrontation. The conclusion is that spontaneous online deliberation is possible, but that the difficulty lies in “ensuring and preserving the quality of deliberation over time”.

How are users positioned in e-government platforms? As Bakardjieva argues, it very much depends on who created the platform, who takes part and what strategies the users adopt to influence political powers. Her study compares three different online platforms created in the Bulgarian city Stara Zagora: an e-government platform; a citizen-lead collaborative platform, My e-Municipality; and a Facebook page.  On the e-government platform established by the municipality, citizens can report faults or request documents, and, as happens in similar cases, users are positioned as clients. What makes the collaborative My e-Municipality different is that it has been “conceived and designed by citizens”. Through interviews with the activists’ core group, Bakardjieva describes how My e-Municipality users are “not only enabled to issue a comment or signal, but also entitled to a timely response”. Most importantly, this collaborative platform built a strong negotiating position over time and is now recognised as a stakeholder by the city administrators, while maintaining a clear autonomy.


(Photo: Peyman Farmani)

3. The user of commercial digital platform

Is one platform enough to promote participation? Bakardjieva also provides a textbook example of how each platform can serve different scopes. When another group in Stara Zagora started campaigning to save a local park from development plans, it became clear that contention “needed different tools than cooperation … and the activists found them in the multipurpose platform Facebook”. To this group Facebook offered “a generic communication apparatus that was well understood and skilfully used” by the citizens. At the same time, Bakardjieva concedes that “effective participation … could not be engineered through Facebook (or, arguably, any platform) alone”. In the case of the park, the support offered from other groups was crucial to mobilise the larger city population. In general, as it has been argued since the early 2010s with the idea of media convergence and similar frameworks, it is essential to keep looking at how digital platforms connect (and overlap) with other political and media forms.

Can a platform combine participation and representation? In another contribution to the special, Louise Knops and Eline Severs presented the case of the Citizen’s Platform for Refugee Support (CPRS), a Facebook page created in Belgium as an answer to the 2014-2015 refugee crisis to coordinate first-hand assistance with basic logistics. They analyse how over the years the CPRS “has increasingly taken up the role of spokesperson”, speaking on behalf of Belgian people who support more inclusive and welcoming immigration policies. This resonates with previous studies arguing that online social networks can strike a compromise between the logic of participation and the logic of representation (Gerbaudo, 2017).
Interestingly, the article also underlines the important role played by the CPRS Facebook page administrator, constantly filtering and selecting content posted and shared by members of the platform, thus remembering that editorial logic can coexist with algorithm logic, and in some cases still plays a central role. In this case however, as the authors admit, more research with platform members would be needed to validate their results.

Can a platform combine participation and social learning? Dan Mercea and Helton Levy explore the relationship between participation and social learning on Twitter, looking at a set of retweets for the British “People’s Assembly” from mid-2015 to early 2016. So far, network theory has approached social learning mostly as a diffusion process needing social validation, which on Twitter can correspond to retweets. At the same time, as Mercea and Levy note, retweeting can also be seen as a process of “knowledge curation” in as far as “it filters out noise such as spam”. In the case of the People’s Assembly, they argue that retweets “helped distribute knowledge that made visible the grounds for association and cooperation” among different actors on Twitter, while maintaining “a common and public pool of knowledge about the movement”. Their study involved a small number of interviews with Twitter users, but – again – Mercea and Levy suggest that more empirical data would be needed to expand their findings.


(Photo: Vladislav Nikonov)

4. The user as a target: it’s just (computational) propaganda

Are online platforms just facilitating reactionary politics? While this special issue looks mostly at barriers to participation, other recent studies focused on what someone would call the dark side of online platforms. After all, Brexit did happen, and other reactionary campaigns have been pretty successful in Europe and beyond. One of the features explaining this unexpected popularity of digital platforms with far-right parties is their participatory dynamics, which according to Gregory Asmolov (2019) create ideal conditions for “participatory propaganda”. The concept of propaganda, although digitalised, is clearly problematic, as it recalls the old and luckily surpassed debate on the media “effects” on mobilisation. Still, Asmolov rightly point out that the outcome of manipulative information is not necessarily mobilisation: in several cases – think of Cambridge Analytica or Breitbart – it rather aims at political disorientation and social disconnection.

Are the users helpless targets of bots and trolls? Since 2015 the Computational Propaganda project (Oxford Internet Institute) has been investigating the assemblage of social media algorithms, autonomous agents, and big data involved in information manipulation. Their last report on the “Global disinformation order” claims that investments in this field saw a 150% growth in the last two years all over the world – in liberal and authoritarian, Western and non-Western states. “Cyber troops” are now operating through bots, and human and cyborg fake (or stolen) accounts; they work to discredit political opposition and drown out political dissent. Despite there being plenty of alternatives, Facebook seems to remain “the platform of choice” not just because of its global scale, but also its key features: the close ties that make up the network, the incorporation of political news, the capacity to host groups and pages.
What is clearly left out of this picture is the meaning people give to the information found on social media. And, while one would expect political communication and political sociology to be dominated by the view of the user as a target, among new media theorists also seem to gain popularity apocalyptical views of “an invisible, oppressive system that tries to deceive us” where trolls are allowed to “permanently disrupt our thinking and behaviour” (Lovink, 2020).


Photo by Ashkan Forouzani / Unsplash

5. Conclusion – Stuart Hall and platform thinking

Platforms as meeting points. So, what are we left with? As Emiliana De Blasio and Michele Sorice argue in another piece included in the special issue, one non-controversial point is that the idea of the “platform” has slowly become a meeting point between very different perspectives. Interestingly, at the end of their encyclopaedic tour de force on political participation literature, De Blasio and Sorice also mention Stuart Hall and his unmatched capacity to combine “methods and tools from political sociology with those from media studies and social analysis of antagonistic cultures”. This multimodal, critical but solid analytical perspective is precisely what seems to be missing in most contemporary media theory, which can be at best inspiring but often inaccessible and/or politically barren.

Platforms for critical times. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 emergency measures in Asia and in Europe, commercial platforms have shown some of the best and the worse practices of content sharing and connection building. Social networks are conveying disinformation, fake news and staging the performances of unlikely pandemic experts or professional narcissists. At the same time, such a crisis opens to an actual social and technological reset, to which digital platforms could contribute with information aimed at supporting communities, finding solutions to shared problems and redistributing resources. While it is too early to see the development of ad- hoc and non-commercial platforms, a possible direction is indicated by early initiatives such as groups, pages or wikis built to gather and coordinate local and global solidarity efforts.

Prescribed users and missing users. The most useful suggestion in the special issue possibly comes again from Bakardjieva, who borrows from de Certeau (1984) the view of platforms as “ensembles of possibilities and interdictions”, characterised among other things by their “prescribed” user (Latour, 1992) but also “their anticipated and manifested uses”. Comparing different types of platforms, as Bakardjieva does in her study, is necessary to understand more about the variety of subject positions that platforms create for their users. The only piece missing from the picture is once again the users: we need more of their voices to learn what they actually do with all of the platforms designed for (and against) them, in ordinary as well as extraordinary times.

#hope2026 Una splendida giornata

Ti racconto del #lavoro anche se ormai la parola mi suona strana, per fortuna, dal mese scorso hanno attivato il reddito di base; non è ancora attiva la forma “incondizionata” che verrà attivata al termine della sperimentazione (tra 2 anni se tutto va bene); per cui adesso per accedere al reddito è necessario iscriversi a una piattaforma che si chiama “LavoroComune” con un database caricato su un protocollo BlockChain in cui si elencano conoscenze e competenze e mettersi a disposizione per eventuali lavori socialmente utili (ce ne sono tantissimi in lista e aumentano ogni giorno: dall’assistenza agli anziani alle educative territoriali, dalla nettezza urbana alla riparazione delle luci, dalla digitalizzazione dei vecchi archivi cartacei alla catalogazione bibliotecaria, dalla ristrutturazione di edifici pubblici all’installazione di impianti a risparmio energetico); la messa a disposizione rispetta una quota prestabilita tra tempo di lavoro e tempo di vita sostenibile per la quantità di lavoro socialmente richiesto e per la capacità lavorativa, ed è compresa tra un minimo di 8 a un massimo di 16 ore a settimana, la quota media di 12 ore è quella sufficiente a garantire a fine mese (con 48 ore lavorate) l’erogazione del reddito. Milioni di disoccupati della confederazione autonoma del centro sud (che comprende per ora l’ex Campania, Molise, basso Lazio, Basilicata e nord della Calabria) stanno tornando a lavorare per fornire beni e servizi alla comunità. La formazione teorica e pratica sembra stia diventando l’asse portante di una nuova concezione del lavoro, considerato qualcosa di utile alla comunità e non una necessità di sopravvivenza data dal suo contraccambio in salario. Stamattina andrò a svolgere la mia seconda giornata di lavoro come tutor didattico in una scuola superiore sperimentale con un curriculum interdisciplinare di storia, filosofia, letteratura, biologia e fisica costruito in collaborazione con altri docenti e con l’apporto degli studenti. Mi sento sia nervoso che eccitato, ma ho avuto il tempo e la comodità (risorse, attrezzature) per poter preparare al meglio il modulo didattico, ora non mi resta che entrare in scena e vedere come funziona coi ragazzi e le ragazze, che per me è sempre stata la parte piu divertente e dura della cosa.
Sui telegiornali indipendenti si parla di #giustizia, mi metto in ascolto sul servizio, forse qualcosa mi riguarda. Le nuove norme di giustizia riparativa stanno svuotando progressivamente le carceri del paese: oggi altri 200 detenuti per reati comuni del carcere di Poggioreale (tra cui un mio amico caro, penso, che proprio oggi esce) sono stati scarcerati sulla base di una loro istanza volontaria di mettersi a disposizione della comunità inserendosi nei percorsi di LavoroComune e proponendo un’istanza di conciliazione con le vittime dei propri reati impegnandosi in attività comuni stabilite e negoziate insieme alle vittime per riparare il danno ed effettuare una completa riconciliazione. Dopo la lezione a scuola vado a prendere il mio amico all’uscita del penitenziario e noto che un’ala del carcere è in fase di ristrutturazione, gli chiedo come mai e mi risponde che stanno realizzando una “Scuola di Prossimità” per far interagire i detenuti con le altre scuole del quartiere e con attività d’impresa (artigiane, commerciali, e con le istituzioni di quartiere tra cui la commissione Giustizia dell’Assemblea degli Abitanti) attraverso corsi di formazione, programmi didattici, colloqui e momenti d’incontro, per aiutare i detenuti a formulare l’istanza (che è una sorta di progettazione della loro vita fuori dal carcere). Gli sorrido e non mi sembra vero! Non è la fine dell’istituzione totale come ho sempre sognato, ma è un passo enorme verso la sua estinzione e verso l’adozione di altre modalità per amministrare la giustizia e operare il reinserimento delle persone accusate di reati.
Abbiamo perso decenni a parlare di #ambiente per poi scoprire che la transizione ecologica è un fatto semplice. Nella casa in cui vivo, che è in questo condominio misto, requisito a una società immobiliare e messo a disposizione come abitazione temporanea a tutti coloro che sono impegnati nel programma Educazione di LavoroComune, nonchè a una quota di visitatori stranieri che possono usufruire delle agevolazioni pagando una quota minima di iscrizione in cambio di piccoli lavori di manutenzione, gestione e miglioramento degli ambienti o di organizzazione di iniziative culturali o didattiche, nella casa in cui vivo, dicevo, sono partiti i lavori per la rifunzionalizzazione ecologica ed energetica dell’edificio. I lavori avvengono fino a sera tarda: siamo stati noi condomini a dare l’autorizzazione perchè la squadra dei lavoratori di LavoroComune che aveva accettato l’incarico aveva chiesto, come preferenza, di lavorare di sera, perchè di giorno (si conoscono quasi tutti!) amano giocare a basket sul nuovo campetto sportivo che essi stessi hanno recuperato sul lungomare. Noi abbiamo accettato il “disturbo” dei lavori serali in cambio di una priorità sull’intervento che infatti è cominciato in anticipo sui tempi previsti. I lavori consistono nell’efficientamento energetico di pareti e infissi, nell’installazzione di un sistema di pannelli fotovoltaici, turbine, impianti di depurazione, una lavanderia comune e una cantinola per lo smaltimento dei rifiuti comune (compostaggio e suddivisione, ma comunque il problema è molto semplificato da quando sono stati vietati gli imballaggi non riutilizzabili), e un ingegoso sistema di coltivazione sospesa progettato dal gruppo di ricerca della Facoltà di Agraria che ha aderito a LavoroComune e pubblicato in OpenSource sulla piattaforma stessa, che abbraccia terrazzi, ballatoi e balconi per produrre una piccola quantità di erbe aromatiche e officinali, qualche ortaggio e fiori per preparati, che serve sia le cucine dei vari piani sia il laboratorio per la trasformazione dei prodotti al piano terra. Al termine di questi lavori il palazzo sarà autosufficiente da un punto di vista energetico (dicono ma secondo me dobbiamo anche darci una regolata con ventilatori e impianti HiFi).
Tutto sembra andare meglio anche se tra mille difficoltà che però tutti sembrano di buon grado disposti ad affrontare e superare. So che ci sono gruppi paramilitari che si organizzano per seminare il terrore e restaurare il vecchio ordine fondato sulla proprietà privata e sullo Stato, ma che le milizie volontarie stanno svolgendo un buon lavoro di intelligence e autodifesa neutralizzando gran parte dei sabotaggi e degli attacchi. Anche se non mancano episodi di violenza e talvolta anche qualche morto, sono tutti fiduciosi che ce la stiamo facendo, e anch’io, nonostante un pizzico di apprensione, non vedo l’ora che arrivi la mia settimana da volontario per dare il mio contributo alla difesa collettiva di questa specie di rivoluzione che assomiglia a una rinascita della società che nessuno si aspettava, ma che pare stia arrivando, con fatica e con gioia!
La sera mi sento stanco, e come capita ogni tanto scelgo la solitudine e il riposo, metto su un disco favoloso che mi ricorda di quand’ero ragazzino, e anche se c’erano un po’ di problemi a casa, mi sentivo invincibile e pieno di aspettative, e pensavo che il futuro sarebbe stato carico di sorprese e avventure, idee a cui stavo per rinunciare ma che oggi sono tornate alla grande: ATOM HEART MOTHER dei PINK FLOYD!

Platform Capitalism and the Government of the Social. Facebook’s ‘Global Community’

Some days ago, Facebook’s CEO and founder, Mark Zuckerberg, published on his page a letter where he makes some very interesting statements about the ongoing direction of the platform, its current priorities and the general vision underlyng its strategy of development. The document has been mostly and inevitably read against the larger debate on how the largest of the global social media platforms has changed political communication.


Actually, Zuckerberg does address in the letter two of the most frequent charges which have been moved to the gigantic social networking site by its critics. The first allegation claims that Facebook creates ‘filter bubbles’ and ‘echo chambers’, that is that it exposes its users only to similar opinions (what Zuckerberg names the problem of ‘diversity of viewpoints’, and the ensuing polarization of the political climate). The second accusation concerns the ways in which the medium allegedely does not make a difference between false and true information (as in the virality of ‘fake news’), defined by the American billionaire as the risk of ‘sensationalism’. Defining these issues as basically a question of ‘risks’ and ‘errors’, Facebook promises to invest more into its Artificial Intelligence program, announces great progresses in its capacities to increasingly distinguish ‘true’ and ‘false’ news while also promising to tweak its algorithms to increase the diversity of its users’ feeds – thus addressing the problem of misinformation and political polarization. In addressing these criticisms, what seems to me most significant, however, is the way Facebook seems to admit to be in the unprecedented position to govern the global social life of information, thus becoming the new infrastructure of a transnational, (post)civil society.

It has been quite a change lately from the days when Facebook, following Google in this regard, rejected the idea of being a media company, defining itself first of all as a high tech company. By acknowledging its responsability in creating the social environment or medium where political communication unfolds, Facebook is starting to look more like a medium, hence facing the kind of issues that the news media such as TV or the press have to deal with, such as bias or misinformation. The letter reads as Facebook’s admission that it is willing to take on the political responsability to govern its platform. Technology companies are not new of course to governance – an issue which is keenly felt by businesses operating in the areas of the Internet of Things, Smart City, the Sharing Economy, the Gig economy and so on. Facebook, however, sees itself in the position to regulate what the letter defines as the ‘social fabric’ woven by processes of association and dissociation and the ‘collective values’ that emerge from such processes.

largerIn the aftermath of Trump’s victory, with the possible exception of Uber, mostly Silicon Valley companies have positioned themselves with the opposition, presenting themselves as the stalwart representatives of both American liberal values and globalization (the letter closes with a quote from Abraham Lincoln). If Facebook’s mission is ‘to make the world more open and connected’, then it is a mission which does not agree well with the nationalist closures indicated by events such as Brexit or Trump’s election. The letter presents Facebook as engaged in weaving of a global social fabric which is not homogeneous, but composed of overlapping and yet culturally specific parts. The heterogeneous transnational cultures which make for Facebook’s social fabric produce variable cultural norms, which cannot be determined or governed starting from a single norm. A normative, variable and differentiated curve, such as that described by Foucault in his discussion of mechanisms of security, displaces ‘normality’, while openness and connectedness realize the continuity of economic valorization. (Almost) the whole world, or at least those parts that are ‘open and connected’ is now the ‘inside’ of Facebook – literally lying side by side in its servers.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 22: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivers a keynote address during the Facebook f8 conference on September 22, 2011 in San Francisco, California. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg kicked off the 2011 Facebook f8 conference with a keynote address (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – SEPTEMBER 22: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivers a keynote address during the Facebook f8 conference on September 22, 2011 in San Francisco, California. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg kicked off the 2011 Facebook f8 conference with a keynote address (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)


A few years ago, authors such as Celia Lury and Maurizio Lazzarato among others, described the change by which post-Fordist businesses do not primarily produce goods, but are engaged in the production of worlds to live in. Here Zuckerberg presents the mission of his company as emtailing a ‘journey’, which involves the creation of a world, obviously open and connected, which realizes the long journey of humanity towards wider and wider forms of social aggregation: from tribes, to cities, to nations, and now, thanks also to Facebook, to a ‘global community’. There is of course more than a a Eurocentric hint of linear progress at work, an arrow of time pointing to the destiny of a global society. Facebook thus presents itself, implicitly like the Silicon Valley as a whole, the historical representative of the forces of globalization which oppose the nationalist closure of Brexit and Trump. Facebook’s mission then becomes implicated in facilitating and expanding globalization as a process which presents ‘challenges’, ‘risks’ and ‘opportunities’ which no single nation or people can take on but that need the mobilization of a ‘global community’.


The overall focus of the letter is thus on the challenge of building new ‘social infrastructures’ which enable the global community to get organized and to strengthen the ‘social fabric’ paradoxically compromised by globalization. It’s interesting to notice how this intention to build a global political community is given by data on the growth of ‘groups’ in Facebook. The focus on groups triggers a shift of attention from interpersonal networks (friends and family) and pages (which are the engines of economic valorization with their ‘likes’) towards ‘groups’ as priority for future investment. This shift to groups returns Facebook to questions asked by the inventor of sociometry and of the ‘social graph’, the psychiatrist Jacob Moreno who in thsociogramma-morenoe mid-twentieth century posed the problem of mapping ‘the mathematical properties of the psychological life of populations’ – that is of the psychosocial regulation of social life starting from groups.


The question of groups allow for the formulation of the vision and model of society which Facebook proposes as the solution to the global crisis of governance (but significantly not the economic crisis). I am convinced that it is not by chance that the question of the ‘social infrastructure’ has risen around the popularity of groups, and in particular what Zuckerberg defines as ‘very meaningful groups’ which quickly become an essential source of support and identification for those who join them. Unlike interpersonal or egotistic networks (friends, family and acquaintances), groups take us back to the old image of the caring ‘virtual community’ which Howard Rheingold described in the early 1990s. The old virtual community is here integrated into a ‘global social fabric’ which is also an infrastructure which is the platform as a whole. Facebook’s communities or groups are by far the only ways by which communities form on the Internet, but what the company seems to claim is they are in a privileged position to enable such processes within a single, private network with a centralized, cloud computing architecture which hosts a population of a couple of billions of accounts modeled according to the diagrams and methos of graph theory and social network analysis. Such social is not significantly conceived as essentially made of isolated and connected individuals (alone together as Sherry Turkle put it), but as composed of groups and sub-groups. I would argue that in social networks, the individual is always somehow defined by the groups it can be seen to belong too in as much as there is no individual in a social network who exists if not as part of a group – even the smallest group of two. The model of society evoked by Zuckerberg under the name ‘community’ is a set of connected sub-sets, topologically discrete and yet continous which returns the image of an heterogeneous and entangled planet. Implicitly evoking the fist social network analysts, Zuckerberg describes society as a granular fabric of unevenly sized communities, which merge and differentiate, but within a single plateau provided by the platform’s body. One has the impression that it is this specific composition which allows for the social network to become in Zuckerberg’s vision the problem-solving infrastructure of global crises, significantly and mainly identified with terrorism and climate change.


Some years ago, anthropologist and activist Joan Donovan told me how the Occupy movement managed to use and orient politically the logistical capacities of social networks, that is their capacity to change from networks where opinions are shared to networks able to coordinate action at a large scale. When the Sandy hurricane hit New York City, she told me, Occupy managed to collect and distribute resources, thus proving the capacity to produce an autonomous government of emergencies, which national and local government are increasingly inadequate to do because of the budget cuts. In the letter, Zuckerberg keeps quoting examples of such uses of the platform autonomously organized by users, by the intelligence of the general sociality captured by such media. As the number of individuals and groups engaged in thinking and experimenting with p2p and/or -social production grows, Donovan has started to define ‘hypercommon’ the potential of the technosocial to cooperate and govern in ways which differ both from the market and the State’s modalities of government.


Significantly, Zuckerberg does not include in the list of political priorities for the global community the debt crisis, precarity, exploitation or forced migration, but stops at pandemics, terrorism and climate change. The platform thus becomes the was in which an emerging global society defends itself against ‘harms’ and prevents them. If the platform is positioning itself as an alternative to the extreme nationalism of Brexit and Ttump, it does so remaining firmly within the boundaries of what Nick Srnicek has called ‘platform capitalism’ – which will be discussed early in March in an event organized by the free university network of postworkerist inspiration, Euronomade, in Milan’s ‘liberated’ space Macao.



To sum it up, for me this letter makes it even more clear how Silicon Valley is formulating what Foucault would describe as a new ‘political rationality’ which takes on the legacy of liberalism and neoliberalism in identifying as the main problem the government of populations (billions of users), the maximisation of their social, political and cultural life, and the protection from ‘’risks’, ‘harms’ and ‘errors’ inherent in the circulation of information (false news, sensationalism, polarization, divisiveness, terrorism, climate change and pandemics). This is accomplished within a market economy that never questions ownership or accumulation. Together with the smart city movement, platform capitalism intensifies its vocation to become a new form of social government.