Friday, October 05, 2007

Facebook and the Fallacy of Open-Source Politics...

Wired has an article today on how millions of Facebook users have used the social-networking website to organize political protests against Myanmar's recent crackdown on monks' pro-democracy demonstrations. Marches and demonstrations are planned to take place around the world on Saturday, and they were organized at "a lightning pace" by volunteers primarily using Facebook. Wired claims this to be "open-source politics", however this is a complete misuse of the term and does more to confuse observers of political technology than it does to explain what is actually going on.

Only about two weeks ago, a 19-year-old college student from Toronto, Alex Bookbinder, created a Facebook group named "Support the Monks' Protest". Since then, over 300,000 users have joined the group, and it's now working directly with established advocacy organizations like Amnesty International and The Burma Campaign UK to organize real-world political activities.

This case certainly is an example of how social-networking websites can quickly spread viral messages. And in that capacity, the Facebooks and MySpaces of the world are potentially tremendous political tools.

But is this a case of open-source politics? Absolutely not.

First of all, there is nothing open-source about Facebook. The term refers to making the source code that underlies the programming application available for anyone to see, and usually also to edit. Other than a few APIs, Facebook still does not make their source code available - they keep it private and consider it their proprietary intellectual property. Which is perfectly fine, it's just grossly incorrect to label it open-source.

Second, true "open-source politics" refers to how the open-source movement of making source code publicly available has influenced institutional decision-making. For example, the very fact that the operating system Linux is open-source has had great effects on commercial institutions such as Microsoft and IBM, as well as on public governmental institutions who create policies which either favor private commercial firms or else help encourage the development of further open-source projects and nurture its ideology (this can be done through research grants, the implementation of open-source software for their own internal use, etc.).

In other words, "open-source politics" refers to the political effects that have resulted from the existence of open-source software. As Lawrence Lessig has argued, code can be written to embody certain political values, and therefore the characteristics of a particular type of software can - and, in the case of open-source, does - have significant political meaning.

Facebook fails to meet this criteria. While it's a fantastic cause these Facebook users are supporting, and while it's terrific that social-networking websites can help foster this type of political activism, it is simply wrong to mislabel what is going on. Open-source politics cannot exist if the software itself is not open-source.

Maybe "Web 2.0 politics" is a better fit?


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