We Read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's New Article on Social Media Ethics

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So you don't have to. (Service journalism!)

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Flickr/Nic McPhee

Updated, 2:10pm.

As far as online encyclopedias go, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy may be the best. Created in 1995 by Stanford Professor Edward Zalta, it took one of the first stabs at creating a truthful, rigorous reference resource that could thrive on the web. Experts write and edit and update its articles. College professors use it in their syllabi throughout the world.

So when it publishes a new article, it's a signal: This thing is an increasingly big deal in the philosophical world.

And last Friday, the Stanford Encyclopedia published an article explicitly on the ethics of social networking, by Santa Clara University* professor Shannon Vallor.

Vallor's piece is, well, an online encyclopedia article: a high-quality distillation of the most unsettled, alive issues in the philosophy of social networks. If you want to acquire a rounded, comprehensive knowledge of what about social networks concerns philosophers, there's few better things to read.

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Flickr/Liam Quinn

But the full article's also 22 printed pages long. #prettylongreads. And you're busy! Instapaper groans under the girth of your Read Later list, and you have a sudden haircut scheduled for later today.

So let me offer you the mother-penguin version. Call it the Buzzfeed Edit: in one pre-digested form, here is the article's best sentence, most badass paragraph, most memorable point, and lesson to take home.

And, as a bonus, I'll throw in at the end one of the most hopeful descriptions of Facebook's Newsfeed I've ever read.

The Best Sentence

In the first decade of the 21st century, new media technologies for social networking such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube began to transform the social, political and informational practices of individuals and institutions across the globe, inviting a philosophical response from the community of applied ethicists and philosophers of technology.

Okay, I cheated here. This is the first sentence of the article. But what's worth noting is how it situates Facebook and Twitter within the context of a history that stretches into both the future and past. "In the fourth decade of the 20th century, new weapon technologies began to transform warfare...", it could read. Or: "In the seventh decade of the 24th century, new Brain Florgle technologies transformed Zorgle praxis..."

What does this sentence imply? Assuming humanity perseveres, there'll be technology well before Twitter and well afterward. It's part of a general movement the article makes throughout: It makes Twitter and Facebook into worthy object of study by placing them in their historical context.

The Most Badass Paragraph

Philosophy, and the ends of our knowledge, sometimes works by imagining extremes. Machiavelli's exclusively feared ruler. Schrodinger's existentially-troubled feline. Vallor adds to this list a new breed of contra-social media warrior:

(Worth knowing before you read: Bakardjieva and Feenberg are just two philosophers, and by "such communities" the author's only referring to sites like Facebook and Twitter.)

In an early study of online communities, Bakardjieva and Feenberg (2000) suggested that the rise of such communities predicated on the open exchange of information may in fact require us to relocate our focus in information ethics from privacy concerns to concerns about alienation; that is, the exploitation of information for purposes not intended by the relevant community. [...] Such considerations give rise to the possibility of users deploying "guerrilla tactics" of misinformation, for example, by providing SNS hosts with false names, addresses, birthdates, hometowns or employment information. Such tactics would aim to subvert the emergence of a new "digital totalitarianism" that uses the power of information rather than physical force as a political control, a trend which itself would beg for ethical contextualization (Capurro 2011).

Except we've all been information guerillas. In fact, we may be systematically training kids to be information guerillas: When kids sign up for social networks before they're 13, they have to lie in set-up screens about their age (and perhaps also give anonymizing information, like the wrong zip code). Those 6th grade Facebook users are also youthful data insurgents.

The Most Repeated Point

The article splits contemporary ethical concerns about social networking services into five categories. Philosophy, Vallor writes, has something to say about social networking sites' interaction with:

  • Cybercrime
  • Privacy
  • Identity and Community
  • Friendship, Virtue and the Good Life
  • Democracy, Freedom and the Public Sphere

Cybercrime is quickly dismissed. "[C]ybercrime has a history that well pre-dates Web 2.0 standards," writes Vallor, so ethicists tend to leave it to sociologists and other empirical researchers.

The other four are more interesting. And in each Vallor reviews the options, and then -- in all four of the above categories -- links them to one concern.

Privacy? There are lots of ways to theorize it, Vallor writes. Whether or not a piece of information is "private" might depend on who can control it, who can restrict access to it, or what it means contextually. But any idea of "privacy" depends principally on culture, and "narrowly Western conceptions of privacy" might limit worthy ethical critiques of Facebook or Twitter. The philosopher Rafael Capurro:

notes that in addition to Western worries about protecting the private domain from public exposure, we must also take care to protect the public sphere from the excessive intrusion of the private.

And like that, we've moved from talking about privacy to talking about the public sphere.

The other categories follow similar routes. When discussing issues of identity, philosophers fret, Vallor writes, that social networks might highlight certain demographic identities over others, and that users might surround themselves with others who share a common demographic (whether those demographics are conservative, gay, Catholic). Philosophers also worry that frenetic social networks could limit our ability to process information rationally -- at which point it's worth considering whether social network users retain the "capacities of critical rationality required for the exercise of liberal democracy." E.g., whether they can function adequately as citizens of the public sphere. 

The subsection on Friendship and the Good Life lends itself to a discussion of whether online activity nourishes offline communities -- the public sphere, again. And the article explicitly on the public sphere explicitly concerns, well, the public sphere.

Perhaps this is just the way the article's framed. But all the philosophical concerns presented about social networking sites seem to link back to this central question: How do social networks change or affect our understanding of the public sphere?

Lesson to Take Home

As I already mentioned, the article begins by situating social networks vastly in the scope of history. "In the first decade of the 21st century..." It's the article's "One upon a time...," and it's a great way to begin the story. It makes the present strange and treats this decade as we might treat any other. (In doing so, it meets the old Russian Formalist definition of literature: it estranges us from our present reality.)

But that's not the only rhetorical move the article makes. The article's intro ends with a call to action:

The complex web of interactions between social networking service users and their online and offline communities [...] will continue to require rigorous philosophical analysis for decades to come.

This is the dance the article performs. Step back and look, it says. But then it adds: no, wait, pay attention. Make a decision.

The article's last paragraph goes through a similar dance, although this one happens against the backdrop of despair. "[T]here are pressing practical concerns about whether and how philosophers can actually have an impact on the ethical profile of emerging technologies," writes Vallor. If philosophers write while imagining their audience to be other philosophers, surely they'll both effect little change and suffer the same problem as Minerva's owl. But who else will listen, Vallor pleads, and who else should they write for: Users? Governments and regulators? Software developers? (Ed. Note: The Atlantic Technology Channel.)

Most Hopeful Description of Facebook's Newsfeed

One of the most popular criticisms of the public sphere on the web is Cass Sunstein's echo chamber idea: that on the Internet, we only seek out information we agree with. But Vallor describes the Facebook Newsfeed as positioned against that inclination. Facebook, she writes, "facilitate the sharing of, and exposure to, an extremely diverse range of types of discourse:"

On any given day on Facebook a user may encounter in her NewsFeed a link to an article in a respected political magazine followed by a video of a cat in a silly costume, followed by a link to a new scientific study, followed by a lengthy status update someone has posted about their lunch, followed by a photo of a popular political figure overlaid with a clever and subversive caption. Vacation photos are mixed in with political rants, invitations to cultural events, birthday reminders and data-driven graphs created to undermine common political, moral or economic beliefs. Thus while a user has a tremendous amount of liberty to choose which forms of discourse to pay closer attention to, she cannot easily shield herself from at least a superficial acquaintance with the diversity of private and public concerns of her fellows. This has the potential to offer at least some measure of protection against the extreme insularity and fragmentation of discourse that is incompatible with the public sphere.

Updated, 2:10pm, August 8: The original version of this article stated that Shannon Vallor serves as a professor at the University of California, when she is in fact with Santa Clara University. The version above has been corrected.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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