Recently we came across Zsocial and “discussed” it in Episode 36, or rather I ranted about it and figured I should write out my criticism. Zsocial is a new social network that is being developed by the Zcommunications community, which includes the speaker/author Michael Albert, who wrote ParEcon: Life After Capitalism and Realizing Hope: Life Beyond Capitalism. I recommend reading the books to gain a deeper understanding of the idea and model behind the political economic life in ParEcon.
What is ParEcon?
While taking a course at the UMass Labor Center graduate program, taught by Prof. Stephanie Luce (she now is at CUNY Murphy Institute) I came across the ParEcon model. It is a political economic model, and offers a different perspective to the mainstream system we are accustomed to. I will not be able to explain the entire concept here, but will focus on key aspects that are core parts of the theory. (You can watch this video and skip to the Realizing Zsocial section)
The concept of the ParEcon model focuses on changing the mode of production. As many may agree the capitalist model requires a boss or manager with authority to hire/fire workers at will and command the workforce to produce to meet societies needs/wants. However there is one problem, societies needs are not well articulated in the free market system, otherwise we would not have poverty, malnutrition and starvation. With the faults of the system in mind, ParEcon proposes an alternative to relying on the free market tendencies. Instead of relying on what people purchase to determine wants/needs, ParEcon proposes for two major differences in the structure of the workplace and the way the community voices their needs. In the workplace instead of boss determining production, it is done by a Workers’ Council which is made up off all the workers in the enterprise who come together to determine what to create, how much to create and have control over the conditions in which they work. A similar structure of the community is also created called a Community Council. We see the market replaced with councils and the workplace mode of production without a boss.
The Workers’ Council needs to know information from the Community Council and vice versa, but the Community and Workers’ councils will likely have members from each, further requiring trust and openness of information. If a need is not being met then the councils need to work to either create another enterprise to meet those needs, or develop a mechanism within the existing enterprise. Though many of us have our own critiques of the model it does provide an idea for a future political economic system, though some of us feel it is hard to make those predictions. What is vital for both the enterprise and the community is transparency, access and accountability with information. It is a welcome exercise in research and conceptual ideas that are in practice in many worker-run cooperatives. (See the worker-run cooperative in Argentina). Sharing abilities amongst other cooperatives is also a key part of the ParEcon model as it does not set a value on information like our current system with copyrights and patents.
With this decent understanding of the ParEcon model when I heard about Zsocial I was quite intrigued since it seems to have the potential to be an example of the ParEcon model. I joined the site and took a look around. Initially I searched for a development site and information or discussion on features to include as well as places for the community to participate. However there is limited information on the site about the communities and development, so having a tendency to do corporate research on companies I decided to apply some of my experience to Zsocial.
ZSocial is intended as a social network tool for individuals and organisations striving to build a better world. An alternative to corporate sites, ZSocial has no commercial advertising, is funded by its users and keeps users’ data safe. (found here)
- This mission statement of sorts sound very inspiring to me after all some of you are aware that Walton and I have accounts on identi.ca and diaspora and a good part of the reason is there no commercial advertising and data is safe, so this is a welcome practice. The Zsocial site looks very similar to facebook and like many social networks allows people to create an account using their facebook account (similar to unionbook).
- However in researching I found there is no information on the Workers’ or Community Councils, so knowing the needs of the community and the conditions of the work or new ideas and methods to develop does not appear to be available to potential community or worker members. This concerns me cause as a free software user and advocate I expect a similar structure in development for Zsocial since the workers and the community are able to work together quite effectively. Having seen new social networks as a place for like minded individuals to join and discuss is something new as unionbook, ning and others attempted the same thing I hope they are doing something very different. So back to researching…
- Pretty quickly I came across this article Facebook is Diseased, Zsocial as Medicine and enjoyed the content as it explain many of the same criticism that fellow free software and social advocates speak of, so I had a glimmer of hope, that Zsocial is a free software product that might just be out of compliance. It was not until I read the comments of the article that that any hope for free software was squashed. When one reader asks why they are not using “Open Source” software (we prefer the political phrase Free Software)…Michael Albert’s made this response…
In my own experience – perhaps yours is different – open source is not just apolitical. It is very very narrowly focused, foregoing options to actually have serious impact and positions…There is also nothing I have seen that indicates it is deeply democratic, much less favorable to self management – other than to a modest extent on the quite narrow issue of choosing software and altering it.
So things are not different: Zsocial, like ning and unionbook chose to go a closed-source route and effectively disconnect from a growing leftist community amongst techies. But I’ll grant Albert, that maybe he did only work with the “open source” communities and not the “free software” communities, if so then the statement makes sense. But, I have a feeling this is not the case (Albert can choose to prove me wrong). He is writing off an entire community because there are some examples that are not democratic.
Albert’s implication does two things: 1st it is an assumption that many within the free software movement disagree with and might be turned off from Zsocial; 2nd and more importantly it conflicts with the ParEcon model of working with the larger community and using the same methods of development that other for-profit social networks use. To answer Albert’s question Facebook is a disease, Zsocial is a placebo…filled with the same structure as the original disease.
Maybe we could use something a bit more organic and be political at the same time…
The Organics and Politics of Free Software
Free software is not about being free of charge: it is about being committed to software freedom. It is software that is free to be used in any way, free to be redistributed, free to be examined, and free to be modified, an integral part of the public commons. Free software is at the center of a critical issue for the Internet and the progressive movement.
Zsocial in its methods has chosen not to be part of the commons. With this in mind I drawn to a great statement made by a Mayfirst activist towards end of the book…
Technical choices about how we store the music and movies that we make and listen to, documents and other data, all have social ramifications and are worthy of inspection and political consideration. And if the consideration reveals that there is technical work to be done to improve the social consequences, we need to take that work on, and support others who have similar social goals by adopting their work, even if it means occasional short-term inconvenience or cost.
Zsocial has a choice – they could work under the model of closed-source, like facebook, google, microsoft, apple, etc…, or they can adopt the model that liberates us from the methods and controls of the mainstream economy, in turn it may also bring free software developers/activists into the political action that Albert would like to see.
A call to action
We should send Albert a copy of The Organic Internet (It is under a Creative Commons License) to understand the connections between free software and the social movements. If you want to send a printed copy use the address below and visit this link
C/o Michael Albert
Z Communications 18 Millfield St., Woods Hole, MA 02543
After all maybe after understanding these connections there could be a way for those that work on the development to have some council that works with the potential users.