Still Spooked by Communism

The void in our language for talking about collectivist endeavors is on vivid display in a Wired magazine article by Kevin Kelly, The New Socialism. The piece discusses how “Wikipedia, Flickr and Twitter aren’t just revolutions in online social media. They’re the vanguard of a cultural movement.”

Kelly’‘s point is true enough. The trouble is, he falls back on a tired, wholly inaccurate paradigm — socialism — to describe how these social networking communities work. What they really embody, of course, is the commons. For a magazine that coins new jargon at the least provocation, it’s a mystery why Wired could find no better term than “socialism” to describe online sharing.

Kelly’s article documents the wide variety of online projects that rely upon cooperation, collaboration and collectivism. There are dozens of social networking sites from Facebook to MySpace to Second Life, for example. There are nearly 151 different types of wiki software powering thousands of wiki sites. There are collaborative sites like Digg and Reddit, which let users vote on the most interesting Web stories. Flickr hosts photo-sharing. Free software enables collaborative code-writing. The blogosphere shares the latest news, commentary and cultural memes.

Kelly concedes, “We’re not talking about your grandfather’s socialism. In fact, there is a long list of past movements this new socialism is not. It is not class warfare. It is not anti-American; indeed; digital socialism may be the newest American innovation. While old-school socialism was an arm of the state, digital socialism is socialism without the state. This new brand of socialism currently operates in the realm of culture and economics, rather than government — for now.”

This is something of a token disclaimer, however, because the article includes a sidebar that casts social media as part of a historical tradition that originates in The Communist Manifesto, the Russian Revolution, the Cuban Revolution and Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost. Wired and Kelly are apparently so spooked by communism and socialism — 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall! — that they still cannot talk about collectivist endeavors without associating them with Marx, Lenin and Stalin.

This is just stupid. As a matter of intellectual history and politics, the emerging online collectivism has nothing to do with communist revolutions or state socialism. So why even locate online media in that tradition? One suspects that Kelly or some shallow editor thought that “the new socialism” would be a catchy, provocative hook. Sigh. The silly conventions of mass-market journalism.

Internet-based innovations hold enormous promise for structuring our social relations and economy in more open, egalitarian and meritocratic ways. They help us see the enormous creative role of sharing and collaboration, especially as opposed to traditional markets and proprietary control. But so long as people as smart as Kelly insist upon using archaic and inapt categories like socialism and communism to name the distinctive dynamics of online social media, they confuse and muddy the real story rather than illuminate it.

My advice: read Kelly’s article as a valuable survey of the online commons, but discard the communist/socialist angle as ridiculous editorial packaging. Maybe, soon, American journalism will grow up and be able to distinguish the commons from communism.