Journal of Social Computing


social networks, social media, platform studies, financialization, urban planning, land use


The power of social network platforms to amplify the scale, speed, and significance of everyday communication is increasingly weaponized against democracy. Analyses of social networks predominantly focus on design and its effects on politics. This article shifts the debate to their business model. Built as platform businesses, social networks are privately owned public spaces with structurally limited democratic affordances. Drawing from the history, theory, and practice of land use, I develop an analogy between the financialization of land by commercial real estate development and the financialization of attention by platform businesses. Historical policies, such as incentive zoning and exclusionary zoning, shed light on how platform businesses use systems of measurement and valuation to conflate users’ roles, tokenize the incentives that drive behavior, and defer the ethical responsibilities businesses have to the public. While the real estate framing reveals social networks’ structural flaws and colonial roots, lessons from urban planning, community land trusts, and Indigenous land stewardship can inform their regulation and reform. Building on the broader effort to embed ethics in the development of technology, I describe possibilities to steward social networks in the public interest.