The Snow In The Summer or So-So

The Snow In The Summer or So-So

Tue 18 Apr 2006

Livejournal, advertising, and philosophy

Those of you who are still using Livejournal, the corporatist blogging-for-dummies advertising site, may wish to reflect on the postings to the No LJ Ads group. The latest development is that any popular interests can and will be disclosed to third-party companies, matched with location and age. This is, of course, a breach of privacy - this is enough information to allow an advertiser to run parallel searches and identify the small group of people - or even the one person - who meets all the criteria.

But have a look at the comments threads, especially here and here. Members of staff, people whose wages are paid by the corporatist shills, are taking some interesting stands. While they're not actively encouraging the tactics of those who wish to keep the site free of advertisements, they aren't discouraging in the slightest. Sounds like there's a hell of a lot of internal resentment at the way Six Apart is crucifying its cash-cow.

The second entry details some proposed changes to the site's terms of service that I find impossible to accept. It is not for some here to-day gone to-morrow service to dictate what I can or cannot run on my own computer, and I deeply resent the implication that it should have that power.

The whole sorry affair, of course, is a profound and complete breach of Livejournal's social contract. When they took over the site last year, former owner Bradley Fitzpatrick stated that he had personally vetted Six Apart for a lack of evilness. Mr Fitzpatrick, your evil radar has failed, and it has failed dismally.

There's also a moral and philosophical principle at stake here. A social contract is, by definition, an agreement between people to form a community. In effect, it's the underlying law of the land. Sometimes it's not written, like the British constitution; in the case of Livejournal, it's more formally codified. According to Thomas Hobbes, who invented the concept of the social contract, authority and obligation are based on the individual self-interests of members of society. All individuals are equal to one another, no single individual is invested with any essential authority to rule over the rest. No individual may impose their will on the rest of the community without the assent of everyone else. In particular, no individual may modify the community's underlying structure without explicit common consent.

From this position, it is clear that the recent changes to Livejournal have, piece-by-piece, undermined the site's community spirit and replaced it with a feudal relationship. As the people who claim title to the servers, Six Apart are the barons; the people who work the servers as dispensible as serfs. Compare this with Rousseau's view, that the social contract establishes a government that purports to guarantee equality and protection for all, even though its true purpose is to fossilize the inequalities that the creation of private property has produced. Only in this failing situation, one that Rousseau saw as completely abhorrent, can a selfish individual act to promote their interest at the expense of the community's best interests. Only here can the social contract be changed through unilateral fiat.

What is a right-thinking person to do in this situation? It is not worth attempting to convince Six Apart of the destruction they have wrought upon their property, for the company was founded by morons and run by imbeciles. These people only recognise Hobbes as an associate of Calvin, to whose theories of predestination as manifested by wealth they whole-heartedly concur. They would not know a community if it came up and hounded them out of their cosy office. They do not realise that social technology works only because of social norms to act with honour. They do not realise that by acting in this dishonourable way, Six Apart kills its own society, kills its own source of riches, kills its own future.

The only thing left to do is to learn from this tragedy of the commons, to prevent such an avoidable disaster from recurring. It would be wrong to lever out such plants as have taken root, but it would be right to sow no more seeds. To do so would be to contribute further to a morally indefensible act.

posted 18 Apr 2006, 19.42 +0100

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