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Social (Media) Contract – Weekly #3

February 24, 2010

The Social (Media) Contract

We can learn a lot from our Frenchy friends about getting along and working together. This amitié can be attributed in part to the strong foundation of social agreement set in French history, notably Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Du contrat social (1762).

Rousseau’s The Social Contract is based on the idea of popular sovereignty – which is just a fancy way of saying that the populous – you and me – have the power and the authority.

In a Rousseauian Social Contract citizens must, in at least some circumstances, be able to choose the fundamental rules by which they would live, and be able to revise those rules on later occasions if they choose to do so.

Basically, everyone in a society comes together and decides the rules they want live under by a “general will.” Popular sovereignty decides what is good for society as a whole, and the individual must follow those laws.

Because laws are decided by everyone, they are not really a limitation of individual freedoms, but an expression of those freedoms as defined by the members of a particular society. Laws represent the restraints of civil freedom, they represent the leap made from humans in the state of nature into civil society. In this sense, the law is a civilizing and ameliorating force.

Rousseau in the Digital Age

The problem with applying this wonderful theory to the internet in that there is no round-table, no town hall, no forum for discussion in which all the members of the society will come together and decide on the rules that they’d like to abide under.

The internet is too vast and wily a beast where competing interests abound.

Corporations, special interest groups, governments, and individuals would all be coming to the table with an immensely different set of priorities, goals, and ideas about the environment in which they’d like to “live” online. The fashion student in Milan and the CEO in New Jersey might have a very hard time agreeing on a Social Contract because although they are in many ways inhabiting the same online space, they are coming from drastically different motivations and intentions.

The concept of a Social Media Contract across the internet is laudable, but ultimately, untenable.

What Is the Contractual Answer?

The answer lies in each organization that gathers screen time and data about users providing a unique Social Contract to that set of users. These communities are smaller and have a common purpose. A consensus can be reached. Facebook users should be able to collectively decided how much of their information sharing makes the application better, and how much is a breach of privacy. The New York Times online subscribers should be able to control who has access to their addresses and reading patterns, and who does not.

Each organization is responsible to its users – and ultimately the users are responsible to themselves and each other – to make sure these checks are in place. Demand them. In 2010 much more so than in 1762, you are the populous, and your voices are sovereign.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Liz - we met a few posts ago, but I forgot which email address you know me as permalink
    February 26, 2010 1:31 pm

    This is an intriguing thought. I have been missing the wild west days of the internet. There weren’t a lot of people, but it always felt like anything could happen. A social media contract just sounds like another form of control. I log in to break rules, learn, and experiment. I found an interesting tumblr yesterday ( about unlinking your feeds, so that we can maintain different sub-cultures on the internet.

  2. March 20, 2010 4:53 am

    Thanks the author for article. The main thing do not forget about users, and continue in the same spirit.

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