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

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


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.


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.

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

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