Hoplr going deep, an intro into research about the impact of local social media on our lives

Nederlandse versie

As the saying goes, if you don't pay for the product, you are the product. When looking solely at these corporate products, social media feels like the hellish extreme of late capitalism, Faustian bargains where consumers consume themselves. (Sarah Jeong, 2017)

Hoplr attracted our attention in Ghent on September 17, 2017. Sami Sougir, then the leader of the VLD  in the city council, now the sidekick of the new Mayor Mathias De Clercq, questioned Daniël Termont about its activities. Leaflets had been posted in every house in every street of the city. We all recall Google street view, when spy cameras entered our neighbourhoods. Hoplr doesn’t intrude our privacy that rough, it’s just asking us to do it ourselves, voluntarily… Spoiler alert: more about later.

A Google translated quote of Sami:

“In recent weeks and months, a lot of people from Ghent have received a letter to register for Hoplr, a private social network for your neighbourhood that focuses on social interaction between residents and engagement in the neighbourhood.

Residents can exchange items or services, launch initiatives, announce events, make notifications or simply get to know each other better. In addition, Hoplr allows reports from the city, police, fire department … to be received. In the invitation you can read: “In collaboration with IVAGO”.”

Sami wanted also to know if there had been a consultation about collaboration with Hoplr and:

“Will other city services also use Hoplr to make announcements or to monitor what is going on in the neighbourhoods? For example, the neighbourhood directors of the Policy Participation Department or the neighbourhood inspectors.”

The answer of the former Mayor is very detailed, you can read it yourself, though point 3. should be mentioned because Hoplr is very silent about this. Another Google translation:

“The purchase of anonymous statistical information about the interactions that take place, the topics of conversation that are frequently used, and so on.”

About three weeks later, we read in De Morgen about a completely different proposal from a not-for-profit designer Indienet, for an implementation of Indieweb. This technology makes it possible for everyone to remain the owner of what he/she posts on the internet, he/she always keeps control of its own “content” and makes that content interchangeable with all internet services.  The paper found this important enough to publish two articles on it on the same day: “Gent wil burgers eigen stukje internet geven” (De Morgen, 9/10/2017) and “Surfen zonder uitgemolken te worden is een mensenrecht” (De Morgen, 9/10/201).

Exploratory talks about this proposal between Aral Balkan and the strategic coordinator of the city, Karl-Filip Coenegrachts even reached an agreement to start a first phase of development as you can read on indienet.info:

“Indienet is an initiative led by Indie to explore the development and deployment of Federated Personal Web Sites (FPWS) to empower people with individual sovereignty and a healthy commons in the digital/networked age. The first round of development (Jan-April, 2018) was realised with financial support and development resources from Digipolis at the The City of Ghent.”

Anyway this proposal never reached the city council, worse the support by Digipolis came to an end. Why? No idea. Before, Martine De Regge (sp.a) was responsible for this matter, but she didn’t get re-elected. Now it seems to be a collective responsibility of the municipal council.

More then ever data security and protection are an issue, think about phishing, identity theft, microtargettting as marketing strategy, political advertising online and “psychographic targeting” to win elections-and weaken democracy.

Indienet is a not-for-profit society registered in the UK, promoting and helping to build a fairer and more equal internet. Everything it makes is free and open source. You find its manifesto at ind.ie. Indienet earns money by teaching, giving talks and by funding. It promises never to take venture capital and going to the stock market. So for the followers of this blog it is clear that Indinet would have been a better choice to counter all those worryingly data problems. But does it mean that Hoplr was a bad choice? Let’s have a closer look at Hoplr’s financial structure, business model, network structure and practice.

Financial structure

Hoplr received a quality label from a fancy law firm specialised in ICT-law and intellectual property, ‘De Juristen’. This does not necessarily mean that Hoplr can be trusted by the citizens that register, but it is a bonus when you want to receive money from investors, venture capital or bank loans. It also means that Hoplr will be backed when a citizen wants to sue it for privacy intrusion.

Spreds promoted a convertible loan for Hoplr. Belfius and Matexi invested 1,15 million euro in 2018 and so on. Hoplr wants to use that investment to accelerate its growth in Belgium and the Netherlands. Accelerator Birdhouse is mentoring the Hoplr team. The actual financial structure can be seen here. You can see its expanded financial network below.

Investment structure of Hoplr
Investment structure of Hoplr, source Staatsblad Monitor

Their annual accounts do not show any profit until now. But investors and banks want a return. How is Hoplr going to offer it? It has to grow and find income. It is already expanding to the Netherlands and Walonia (De Tijd, 06/09/2018). This has been the problem for every social network offering free services to its users and paying a continually growing group of employees? It is a fish trap. The fish trap technique is often used, even in academic milieus like academia.edu. Look how Facebook’s intrusion of privacy evolved from 2005 until 2010.

Facebook’s privacy invasion from 2005 to 2010, Source Huffington Post

Hoplr follows you with the usual trackers “Facebook Connect” and “Google Analytics”, plus Hotjar, “the fast & visual way to understand your users”.

Hoplr promises not to sell its data but it collects already more than 90 items per user, including his/her address, latitude and longitude, pets, hobbies and interests. The address is mandatory to register, though it is not on most social networks. What about people being only for a short period in the neighbourhood? And what about people in need, not having a fixed address at all? A woman on the run for a violent husband? A boy or girl not longer having a home when reaching adulthood? A family seeking for asylum?   Hoplr is not inclusive, but exclusive.

Like Facebook Hoplr collects statistical information about the interactions that take place between users, the topics of conversation that are frequently used and so on. And you can also join Hoplr using Facebook, where it can absorb your Facebook data. So far its potential, let’s have a closer look at its official business model for now.

Business model and business environment

For now all we know for sure is that in Ghent IVAGO pays to have access to the service dashboard. How much? To much, because the city could have built a network of its own having the same facilities. So, Hoplr is not free we pay for it when we buy IVAGO sacks in the local shop.

The famous dashboard is offered to a: “local government, public service or project developer,” they write on their blogIn addition to various municipalities and intermunicipal companies, you will also encounter project developers Strabag and Revive.

We know that through their financial network Hoplr is linked to Duval Union including Duval Branding investing in growth. The second major investor is Matexi Group, real estate development and investment. The company is one of the largest real estate developers in Belgium and is also active in Luxembourg and Poland. There are three criteria to evaluate prices of real estate property: “Locality, locality and locality.” The third big investor is DW Consulting offering Geophysical Data Services. Why is a real estate group like Matexi investing in Hoplr?

Duval, Matexi and DW are the the close partners of Hoplr. But it has also competitors on the market of local social networks, Postbuzz is the most important one. Active in Flanders since 2016. Postbuzz offers adds and social contacts by a system of address bound mailboxes. It was bought by Roularta in 2018 (De Tijd, 21/11/2018). Postbuzz and Hoplr are fishing in the same pool. There is a business network law, called the network effect:

“A network effect is the effect described in economics and business that an additional user of a good or service has on the value of that product to others. When a network effect is present, the value of a product or service increases according to the number of others using it.”

People will not use both local networks, because there is a tidal wave of that kind of digital networks in some places, like in Ranst. Hoplr or Postbuzz, one will have to disappear, or they will merge. Roularta Media Group supports Hoplr via Roularta Mediatech Accelerator since 18/01/2017.

Network structure and network practice

Hoplr is not a distributed social network or federated social network like Mostadon  , member of Fediverse. But it is a centralised network supervised by one single authority running a server park in Doorslaar. But, contrary to Facebook users of different neighbourhoods cannot communicate with one another, they are isolated in enclaves. If you live at the Dampoort, you cannot communicate with your friends in Gentbrugge, although they might live around the corner. Do you need a digital network to talk to your neighbours living in the same street? Do you need a digital network to meet people at the market places, at the neighbourhood centres? The city of Ghent distributes the programs of your neighbourhood centre also on paper, every month, in all houses. Our city has a wonderful ‘Gent info’ service.

Instrumental communication doesn’t build a real community, only an imagined one. Computer mediated communication can support communities in the real world. They can be an enhancement once trust has been established through face to face contacts. They are an add-on when organizing community activities in these fast times, but they are not solid ground. Internet is great to bridge long distances, see for instance the digital economy of Aveyron, but it can be a nuisance for face to face communication when people live close to one another. Another important issue: does a group of people, forming a community in the real world, not have privacy rights? Well they won’t have them on Hoplr.

In Brussels, the reactions of residents to “community building” via Hoplr are, for the time being, negative, at least on the Bruzz website.

Privacy invasion by the local bureaucrats

What is real novel about Hoplr? Hoplr calls for ambassadors – in the first version of the application they were called “oprichter”, meaning founder – too obvious fake. You have to volunteer for it but you only become an ambassador when Hoplr accepts you. Hoplr sets the rules, interprets the rules the way they want, and if you manage to become an ambassador, you have to follow the rules the way Hoplr wants. That way Hoplr creates a complicit elite to maintain the order on the local network. Some people are proud to be an ambassador, see for instance Emmy De Smet board member of the nationalist party NV.A in Ghent. NV.A, champion of imagined communities. This is not a coincidence. I leave it to the readers to find commonalities with similar systems that failed before.

A lot of questions wait for an answer. Does Hoplr advance social cohesion, the way it claims, or does it rather inhibit it. On their blog they are giving a lot of examples like this one, but this is cherry picking, , not a proof based on a serious sociological inquiry. Hoplr uses only statistics for other purposes. Does it facilitate community building or not? Does it solve convivial problems or does it ignore them? Does it give a voice to the excluded, lonely and the poor, or does it silence them by intruding their privacy? These questions are the subject of a research project, using semi structured f2f interviews as a method. It is announced on the blog unvirtual.us.

This was a quick approach to Hoplr. In ICT we call it “quick and …”, but let us return to the staged question of Sami Seguir: “Will other city services also use Hoplr to make announcements or to monitor what is going on in the neighbourhoods? For example, the neighbourhood directors of the Policy Participation Department or the neighbourhood inspectors.” At the time Daniël Termont could not answer that question, because the network was still enrolling. But when you live in Ghent, and when you know your town and some of the neighbourhoods you lived in, then you know that most city personnel lives in Ghent also, including police. What would prevent them to be on Hoplr, having access to all private exchanges in the neighbourhood? “They are on it, and they will collect info and they will interfere, Sami.”

A dashboard for the union?

When the bankers in Ireland were on strike during six months in the 1970s, nothing happened, the economy just kept on going, but when the garbage collectors in New York went on strike in 1968, the mayor had to declare a state of emergency after six days (Rutger Bregman & Jesse Frederik, 2015) ). It would be no different today in Ghent. Still, garbage collectors earn much less than bankers while we depend more on it. This low salary does not have to do with market forces but with status. And according to Juliet Schoor (following the example of the American sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen), status has to do with consumption patterns. Whoever has a large income shows off and therefore is respected.

But the undervaluation of the IVAGO workers is felt as an injustice, so the company is very sensitive to strikes. Does the cooperation between IVAGO and Hoplr have anything to do with this? Does the management want to sabotage the solidarity between garbage collectors and the population? Our research must also find an answer to that question, because it is not foreseen that the trade union will also have access to the Hoplr dashboard.

This observation raises another question. Neo-liberalism has led to far-reaching individualism. Can individualism be combined with an efficient control of the majority of the population, so that any resistance is smothered in the bud?

Consulted Sources

Newspapers and weekly magazines: Staasbladmonitor, De Tijd, De Morgen, Knack

Blogs: Indienet, Hoplr, MIT Technology Review, Netsamenwerken, Nie Pleuen, NV.A blog, Open VLD Blog

Sites: Wikipedia, Stad Gent


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