Is there a link between the internet and freedom? By many accounts, the participatory nature of “social software” — the collaborative systems that draw hundreds of millions of people to websites like Facebook and YouTube — advances freedom. Analyzing several social software systems from the perspective of political theories of freedom, I argue that the formal opportunities and increased participation garnered by social media is insufficient to sustain and promote a robust freedom.
My study uses affordance theory to tie the abstraction of freedom to lived experience. Software affordances account for the immediate actions available to a user. Analyzing the affordances of Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, and Twitter, we uncover some of the social and political implications of social software.
Two aspects of freedom gain relevance in this light. First, freedom requires a robust digital commons — an open pool of all manner of ideas — that can be freely accessed and built upon. Uninhibited access to this pool is necessary, but insufficient. Constituting the commons matters as well. Freedom is served when we expand the boundaries of the common, incorporating new voices into our shared experience. For example, I find that Wikipedia’s design supports a robust commons because it forces us to reconsider who has the authority to declare the facts that make up our world.
I also consider social freedom — reaching beyond the individual conscience, embedding each one’s freedom in social interaction and cooperation. Ivan Illich offers the idea of conviviality to describe tools that privilege human solutions and social control over technical efficiency. Convivial tools support freedom by teaching collective self-reliance. I use the affordances of Twitter as an example of conviviality in the digital realm, finding its restrained functionality compatible with freedom in interesting ways.
In the final analysis, social software offers no direct path to freedom. Freedom requires more than mass participation and formal opportunity. Exploring the digital commons and social freedom deepens the understanding of freedom in our networked society.