On joining Mastodon

An academic friend asked for help joining Mastodon. I wrote a detailed email in response that I thought it might be useful to others. I’m also going to teach a master class in Mastodon at my school on Dec. 5 — much interest, I’m told — so here is my preparation on the practical stuff. (I will also talk that day about the implications of federation on journalism and of affordances on communities such as Black Twitter.) Keep in mind that I am a newbie, so please correct me where where I stray.

It will be a pleasure to welcome you to the new neighborhood. I’m quite liking it already. Once you arrive, you’ll find it familiar enough: You have a home timeline, a feed of just the people you follow, but with no algorithmic promotion, no ads. You can write posts (the verb to “toot” has, mercifully, become to “publish”) and boost others’ posts (AKA retweet) and reply to posts. You will receive notifications when people respond to you, boost your posts, and follow you.

You cannot quote-tweet posts as of now because of the founder’s belief that this affordance leads to performative over conversational behavior. That contention is being contested by people from Black Twitter, who use quote tweets for their call-and-response culture. Dr. Johnathan Flowers is forceful and instructive on the topic. Lately, Eugen Rochko, (@gargron), Mastodon’s founder, has softened and said he open to discussion. Developers are making suggestions for how to make QTs work (which is the beauty of this open-source project; change is emergent).

The two things that befuddle people getting started are how to pick an instance or server to join and then how to find folks. Mastodon is actually a few thousand servers — or instances, in the parlance — that each run versions of the same software and are all connected or federated in what is called the Fediverse, using an open-source protocol called ActivityPub. Every instance is independently run but can connect to any or all of the other instances, allowing you to connect with anyone on them. Not all of them are Mastodon; there are, for example, other servers for a photo-based social network called Pixelfed. No one owns this; no one can. That is the value of open source and federation. (Here is a post I wrote that examines and explains some of the implications and opportunities of federation.)

It doesn’t greatly matter what server you join as in this federated ecosystem, you can follow and converse with anyone on any server (except those that your host blocks; for example, the far-right, noxious Gab is blocked by most). Each server has its own rules. I am on mastodon.social, which is the biggest and is run by Eugen (@gargron).

If you prefer to be among academics, you might look to join hcommons.social for humanities scholars (though it is temporarily closed to new members until they catch up to the flood) or zirk.us for arts and humanities, where I see lots of smart folks, or perhaps religion.masto.host. Here’s a list of alternatives from the Humanities commons and here is very good reference that lists academic servers. You can go to any server address and add explore — e.g., zirk.us/about — to learn more about the server: who runs it, what its rules are. For journalists, we at Tow-Knight are supporting Adam Davidson as he launches journa.host. There’s another called newsie.social. Note that various news organizations — including Rest of World, Texas Observer, and San Francisco Standard — are starting their own servers for their own newsrooms.My fellow geeks might want to join Leo Laporte’s twit.social; to manage the onslaught he is now restricting it to members of his club.

Don’t stress about the choice; just pick one and go with it.

The only real implications of joining a particular server are (1) that you can view a “local” timeline populated with the posts of all the people from that server and you might find that useful , and (2) you want a responsible host who is going to block the bad guys and moderate wisely. If once on Mastodon you find the grass greener on someone else’s server, you can take your identity and your followers and go there — that portability and interoperability is a key benefit and differentiation of the federated vs. the corporate and centralized internet. Keep in mind that the content you create on your first server stays there.

OK, to get started. Go to one of the addresses above, say zirk.us. Click sign up and you’ll be shown the rules of the house, and then pick your name and such. You’re in.

strongly recommend that you first take the time to fill in your profile with information about you, with your photo, for as soon as you start following people, they will want to know who you are and follow you back if relevant. I find it frustrating to have folks following me without letting me know who they are. It is also recommended that you write an introduction post and pin that to the top of your profile. (If you have a blog or site of your own, you can connect the two so that readers can know you are who you say ou are by using the rel=“me” markup, but that’s a graduate-level course I’ll leave that for another day.)

You will start using the web interface for Mastodon. It’s good, though I have a few key recommendations. Go to the settings (the little gear icon on top left) and under preferences/appearance I strongly suggest selecting advanced web interface. This will look like Tweetdeck. I happen to hate dark mode in all instances, but on Mastodon, it’s particularly hard to adjust to, so I urge you to try light mode.

Now to the next challenge: following people, for until you find folks to follow, you will hear only silence. One way to start is to search for folks you know are on Mastodon and see whom they follow.

Mastodon provides another fantastic way to get a starter kit: Under settings, import and export, click on import and here you can upload lists of folks to follow. For my friend to whom I wrote a version of this email, a book historian, I provided a list of book historians someone has compiled and a list of folks from my Book History Wonks Twitter list. Here is a wonderful list of lists of academics by discipline. Here is an incredibly long list of more than a thousand journalists on Mastodon (unless a masochist for hot takes, I would not suggest uploading them all).

Some of these provide a ready-made CSV to import. If not, copy just the column of Mastodon addresses into a new spreadsheet and save as a CSV. Upload the CSV file into Mastodon under settings/upload (you want to check the merge option). Voilà, you have new friends.

If you wish, you can use debirdify or fedifinder to check your own followers on Twitter for accounts that have Mastodon addresses. Click “search followed accounts” and it will produce a list and a CSV file. Since more and more folks are doing this, you will probably want to go back to your Twitter profile and add your new, forwarding address. My address, for example, is @jeffjarvis@mastodon.social.

By the way, Mastodon does not have a good, full-text search — on purpose (for they also believe that that enables trolls to find their targets). But you can search for names, Mastodon addresses, and hashtags.

Now let’s explore the advanced web interface for Mastodon.

The second column from the left is the most important: your home timeline. This, again, is just the people you follow in reverse-chronological order; no algo, no ads.

The third column is notifications. Once you get your sea legs, click on the settings icon on the top right of the column (the three lines) and you’ll find a plethora of choices for what notifications to receive or not: new followers, posts that mention you, replies to you, and so on. While you’re here, I recommend turning OFF sound on each one; the blips can be quite annoying. Note the subtle blue bar on the left; this is just what is new since you last read the column. (You can click the check atop the column to mark all as read.)**

Now to the first column. Here you can search for names. You can also search for hashtags; that is how people gather around topics and conversations on Mastodon. I have to get back into the habit of using hashtags in my posts. If you find a hashtag very useful, you can pin it as a column that will always appear.

Click the icon with a head and many arms and you will get your “local” timeline in another column. This is just people on your server, whether you follow them or not. Depending on the server you choose, it can seem useful or random. In the setting for this column, you can choose to pin and always show it, or not. The globe icon will open a new column called the “federated” timeline, which is a collection of everything from everyone that all the folks on your server boost on other servers. It can be a firehose. You may also choose to pin or not pin this. Thus far, I don’t use the local or federated timelines much but you might like them as a way to discover serendipitous conversations and people.

Now click on the hamburger menu on the upper left of the first column. If it is not already open, this will open the “getting started” menu with lots of offerings: direct messages to you (with the caution that direct messages are not encrypted so don’t go sharing your innermost secrets here); posts you have bookmarked (I find this handy), posts you have favorited (“liked” in Twitter parlance), lists you create, follow requests (NB this is *just* the follow requests Mastodon thinks might be suspicious; you will find all your follow requests in the notifications column). Note also that you can create lists of accounts you want to read regularly — I use that feature frequently on Twitter — but unfortunately, they are private and cannot be shared. Instead, there are groups. See some examples on the academic on mastodon page.

Click #Explore and you see four nice features: Posts are posts that are popular from across the fediverse. Hashtags are stats on the trending hashtags. News is an ok list of media stories getting links. And for you are recommendations for folks to follow; I find it of limited utility.

Now, finally, to the important part: writing. In that first column, you’ll find the box for that purpose. On most Mastodon instances, the character limit is 500 — generous next to Twitter’s 140 then 280. Some servers up that to 1,000; I have so far resisted the temptation to migrate there.

Here you can add a poll and mark the post’s language. By the way, translation works pretty well; I follow people in many languages as a result.

Mastodon has many norms built up since 2016. Norms being norms, these are likely to evolve as new people arrive wanting change and veterans resist that change; such is society.

One strong norm is that when you upload an image (with the paperclip in the posting box) you are expected to click “edit” and add alt text for accessibility. I was scolded once for not doing so and now I do it.

Another set of norms revolve around the content warning. When posting, click on the CW in the creation box and you can write a small headline others will see with the option to reveal the rest of your post — or not. This was intended to mask triggering or offensive content, important because Mastodon from its start has served vulnerable communities. However, some have extended this norm to contend that the content warning should be used for political posts. Others — especially people of color — insist (rightly, I think) that we should not hide the realities of life behind this veil. How you use it or not is up to you.

Some folks prefer other interfaces for Mastodon on the web and mobile. I’m odd — Chrome OS and Android — so I can’t speak to those for Mac and Windows and IOS.

The ethos of Mastodon, I find, is friendly, polite, curious, open, caring, decent. There will be bad apples in any orchard. Block them. Report them if they’re bad enough. There are more than enough smart people here with whom to have enjoyable, informative, and provocative conversations without the trolls Elon is nurturing in the Other Place.

Keep in mind that nearly everything you do on Mastodon is thanks to the volunteers who run servers and moderate activity there. They are humans, not algorithms. They, like algorithms, will make mistakes. Give them a break.

And give them money. Every server is likely to have a link to a place to give money to the host to pay for very real technology bills. You have left the land of corporatized, centralized, controlled conversation. It’s a new and exciting world. Help support it.

**New tip, thanks to my new Mastodon friend, Maxi5X, who pointed me to the notifications setting for the quick filter bar. That’s the menu bar atop the column. Set the second choice to display all categories…

And this is what appears: 

That way, you can get notifications just for mentions, favorites, boosts, poll results, and new followers. 

That little house icon takes you to another feature I didn’t mention: When you follow someone, next to the follow button is a bell. Click on that and you will be notified whenever that person posts. Thus I see whenever Eugen and my son — and Mike Masnick — post. Cool. 

Telling the story that defies telling

Jonathan Freedland’s The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World is perhaps the single most effective chronicle of the Holocaust I have read.

Freedland does not attempt to convey the full scope of the Holocaust or of Auschwitz; that is an impossibility in any literature. He tells the story of one man, Rudolf Vrba — born Walter Rosenberg — who as a teenager memorized every detail of death in the camp and became one of only four Jewish prisoners ever to escape, so he could tell the world and hope to save lives.

There are, of course, countless excellent studies and stories of Auschwitz. What impresses me so about Freedland’s is his discipline in staying close to his subject, seeing through his eyes alone — and his subject’s discipline, in turn, gathering facts.

Freedland is a journalist, an incisive thinker who, in my experience, commanded any conversation I witnessed at The Guardian, where he was head of opinion and is still a columnist. The Escape Artist is a work of journalism that I cannot help but see as a work about journalism, as it brought me to reflect on my field.

Freedland begins with the escape, then tells of Vrba’s capture, subjugation, and survival and of all he witnessed and recorded in his memory. When he manages to leave and find refuge, he and another escapee pour every fact, every number — even the sequences of numbers registered to and tattooed on prisoners and their relationship to their place of origin and date of arrival — to a committee of Jewish leaders in their home country. Their report is typed up in spare, sparse language recounting only the facts. At first, as Freedland relates, Vrba is upset that it does not include a warning to the Jews of Hungary, for based on what these two men saw and heard, they are next on the trains. The leaders refused to include anything that is not based on verifiable fact — no speculation, no prediction — to assure the credibility of the report. There is a lesson for journalism.

The report, in various versions and translations, makes its way to London and Washington and also into the hands of journalists, who finally begin to get word out about the horrors, though far too little is done. What strikes me here is the value of witness. Vrba committed a profound act of journalism; without his observation and memory and courage, there would have been no reports.

I won’t go on, only will recommend that you read or listen to the book yourself. I am going to try — and likely fail — to post more about books I am reading to share recommendations with you (and hope to read more recommendations from from).

Hope for a post-Musk net

Maybe we’ll look back and see that Elon Musk did us, the civilized citizens of the net, a favor by forcing us off our cozy if centralized, corporatized, and corrupted internet to find and build an alternative future grounded in the founding principles and dreams of this networked age. How’s that for looking on the bright side? 

Well, optimist to a fault that I am, I see a better future. Come along…

Twitter will fail — for all the reasons Nilay Patel’s mic-drop foretells — ending up in the sewer where journalists claim it has been all along, in bankruptcy, in the hands of Saudi princes, or — who knows — in Yahoo!, where all good things have gone to die. I’m not leaving Twitter, I’m still on Facebook, and I’m enjoying TikTok’s honeymoon. But I am packing my go-bag to travel to an internet built on protocols over platforms. Here, I’ll explore some of the opportunities afforded by the likes of Bluesky, Scuttlebutt, the Fediverse, and Indieweb — not to mention good, old, reliable RSS. Nowhere better to start getting one’s head around this distributed vision than with Mike Masnick’s epic explainer, Protocols, Not Platforms: A Technological Approach to Free Speech.

To start with the present, I am on Mastodon and already enjoying it. Come on in; the water’s fine. For me, it is already reaching critical mass — not mass media, mind you; let us leave scale and its debasements behind — with folks I know from Twitter and new and interesting conversants, particularly academics and journalists. Don’t let unhelpful reporters dissuade you with their arm-waving about complexity; you are smarter than they think you are. 

It’s really quite simple: Join any server, set up your profile (say who you are, please), and start looking for folks to follow: search for friends and follow whom they follow, or click on the local (your server) or federated (every server) timeline to see who’s strolling by the front porch, then follow hashtags to interesting conversations and people. A few tips from my vast experience of days: Go to the settings and switch to light mode (really, it makes a difference; it’s not just my dark-mode phobia) and enable the advanced web interface (it’s like Tweetdeck). Boost posts you like (no quote tweets here). Use the verb “to toot” at your option. If it slows down for a bit, just remember Twitter’s Fail Whale of yore, know that your server is run by volunteers (led by the amazing Eugen Rochko), and chill; it’ll speed up speedily.  

There are more than 3,000 Mastodon servers, all built on and connected via the ActivityPub protocol. There are also related services you can connect to (e.g., Pixelfed, an Instagram that doesn’t Zuck). You may follow folks from any server, so where you start isn’t all that important. Later, if you want, you can move yourself to another server (you’ll keep your followers but lose your posts).

Here’s the most important thing about this open architecture: No one owns it. Musk can’t buy it (not that he can afford to buy a bagel anymore). I predict this will give censorious and authoritarian governments fits when they realize that a federated, distributed conversation is impossible to control (just as the printing press was; I have a book about that coming out soon). That immunity from control is a reason to love it — and also to be concerned, for there is no central authority to verify identity or kill bad accounts. 

Which leads us to the next most important thing about this Fediverse: It’s adaptable. Look how already academics are gathering to create groups and lists of folks you can import and follow all at once. I’d like to see journalists and COVID experts and my beloved book-history wonks do likewise. See also Dan Hon’s excellent suggestion for news organizations— or universities, companies, or any organization or institution — to set up their own Mastodon servers to verify and control their users. Say The Guardian set up a server and created accounts for all its journalists, then when you see someone coming from that server, you know for certain who she is. That is a new blue check of verification (now that Twitter’s blue check becomes the mark of the $8 shmuck). Again, if someone leaves the paper, she can take her identity and social graph with her elsewhere. Because it’s open and federated. 

I want news organizations to not only set up their own servers but also to start adding share-on-Mastodon buttons to story pages. That will send a message to Elon et al, endorsing an alternative. 

With me so far? Now is where it gets exciting. In an open, federated, distributed, and/or peer-to-peer ecosystem, folks can come and build services atop it. As both Masnick and Daphne Keller explain — see also Cory Doctorow and Jonathan Zittrain — this might allow you to pick the level of algorithmic and human curation and moderation you want as companies or organizations offer such services. Say you want the Disneyfied social feed, cleansed of all nastiness and filled with unicorns; Disney could provide that and charge for it. Ditto a Guardian liberal feel; you could donate to help them. Or, yes, you could get your crazy Uncle Al’s feed of nothing but conspiracies from Q’s Pizza Parlor. That’d be up to you.

In this distributed future, other services can be offered. Institutions, entrepreneurs, or individuals could provide services including curation and recommendation (of users and content), verification (of users), and authentication (of content). See also our founding webmaster, Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s vision for data vaults that would allow you to hold and control your information; he’s building a service called Inrupt based on the protocol he proposes, Solid. We will see new means to help pay for and support the services and creativity we want. I anticipate new kinds of clubhouses where folks of like interest, need, or circumstance can gather to connect or collaborate.

Then no longer are we caught in an endless, hopeless game of Whac-a-Mole against the bad shit on the net. Now, at last, we can concentrate instead on finding the good shit — and get help doing so. This is precisely what happened when print emerged. See the story of Nicolo Perotti asking the Pope to censor the press in 1470, when what he really wished for was the establishment of the new institutions of editing and publishing: to find, improve, support, recommend, verify, and authenticate the good shit. 

What institutions need we create now, in this new reality? Note that I did not say what new technologies. We have lots of technologies; more than enough, thank you. What we need are human standards, norms, and means to discover and support quality and credibility, talent and utility.

This is not to say that there is not more technological work to be done. It is underway. I have long been enthusiastic about the prospects for Bluesky, a protocol for an open, distributed social ecosystem proposed by Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey and now run by Jay Graber. Bluesky is funded independently of Twitter and Musk (thank God and Jack). They just released the first version of their protocol and an app will follow soon. Here are Bluesky’s principles:

Account portability. A person’s online identity should not be owned by corporations with no accountability to their users. With the AT Protocol, you can move your account from one provider to another without losing any of your data or social graph.

Algorithmic choice. Algorithms dictate what we see and who we can reach. We must have control over our algorithms if we’re going to trust in our online spaces. The AT Protocol includes an open algorithms mode so users have more control over their experience.

Interoperation. The world needs a diverse market of connected services to ensure healthy competition. Interoperation needs to feel like second nature to the Web. The AT Protocol includes a schema-based interoperation framework called Lexicon to help solve coordination challenges.

Performance. A lot of novel protocols throw performance out of the window, resulting in long loading times before you can see your timeline. We don’t see performance as optional, so we’ve made it a priority to build for fast loading at large scales.

My fondest hope is that @jack, who still owns his chunk of Twitter — thus saving Musk $1 billion! — might convince Elon to open Twitter to Bluesky. Imagine if we could control our identities and social graphs and take them wherever we want, choosing the curation we desire, and interacting with folks on many other services. That might just save Twitter and Musk’s own hide, for then his users would not feel so trapped there. 

I’m also excited by the work of rabble, an early employee at Twitter, on the Scuttlebutt protocol. Leo Laporte and I had an enlightening conversation with him about the app he is building, Planetary, and about his fascinating collaboration with the Maori of New Zealand, learning from their social structures and enabling peer-to-peer communication off the grid. I’ll let him explain (the conversation begins with Twitter tales, then gets to the meet of Scuttlebutt, and Rabble returns at the end for more):


And lest we make the mistake of once again being dazzled by only the new, shiny things, also follow the ongoing work of pioneers including Dave Winer ☮, a creator of RSS (and podcasting atop it) and a pioneering blogger. Blogging is a model for the conversation we want and we can still have it there. See also Kevin Marks, a champion of the Indieweb. See also our This Week in Google conversation with Matt Mullenweg about the virtues of open source. The things that work online, that give you choice and some measure of control, are the things built on open protocols: the net itself (TCP/IP), the web, email, and next those explored here. 

Mind you, this is not a net without corporations and capitalism; they can use the protocols, too, and I’m glad Google gives us usable email and spam protection. But it need no longer be a net corrupted by the business model of mass media imported online: the attention economy. And it need no longer be a net under sole corporate control — and thus, potentially, the influence of malign actors, whether Musk or his pals Putin or Trump. 

If we gain this promising future, if we return to the net’s founding principles, keep one thing clearly in mind: It won’t be so easy to blame the bad shit on the corporations and nasty nerd boys anymore. The net will be ours along with the responsibility to build and enforce the expectations and standards we wish for. The net is us, or it can be at last.

*Image from https://twitter.com/sheonhan/status/1588029253496414208?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

<a rel=”me” href=”https://your.server/@your_username”>Mastodon</a>


Habermas online


In 2006, Jürgen Habermas, the preeminent theorist of the public sphere, spoke of the internet for the first time, only in a footnote, all but dismissing the net as “millions of fragmented chat rooms.” Many have waited for more. Now, in a paper recently published and translated, Habermas finally reflects on the internet and its impact on public discourse.

Habermas now calls the internet “a caesura in the development of media in human history comparable to the introduction of printing,” an “equally momentous innovation” to the invention of movable type, and a “third revolution in communications technologies” whose result is “the global dissolution of boundaries” as “the communication flows of our garrulous species have spread, accelerated and become networked with unprecedented speed across the entire globe and, retrospectively, across all epochs of world history.”

As someone who has a book positing just that coming out in June — The Gutenberg Parenthesis: The Age of Print and Its Lessons for the Age of the Internet (preorder now I am gratified, indeed relieved not to be alone. In my book and now here, I will dispute Habermas. Agree or disagree with his provocations, though, they have a way of helping to clarify one’s own thinking. (Sadly, Habermas’ paper is behind high academic paywalls festooned with barbed wire — $351.83 to get inside the special issue — so linking to it does little good, and I am not up to the task of summarizing all he has to say. Instead, I will offer a few reactions and debates of my own about publics, media, and speech.)

Habermas has long sought the substantiation of the public sphere. Many say that ultimately eluded him in his seminal work, in which he asserted that a bourgeois public sphere mediating between populace and state emerged in critical, rational and inclusive discourse in the coffeehouses and salons of England and Europe. Problem is, that debate was far from inclusive, as it was open only to the privileged patrons of the establishments, excluding women and people of lower classes. Neither was the discussion necessarily rational, as coffeehouse historians Aytoun EllisBrian CowanMarkman Ellis, and Lawrence Klein amply document. Nancy Fraser’s feminist critique of Habermas’ theory is convincing: “We can no longer assume that the bourgeois conception of the public sphere was simply an unrealized utopian ideal; it was also a masculinist ideological notion that functioned to legitimate an emergent form of class rule…. In short, is the idea of the public sphere an instrument of domination or a utopian ideal?”

Today Habermas seeks his public sphere on the internet, suggesting that “at first, the new media seemed to herald at last the fulfillment of the egalitarian-universalist claim of the bourgeois public sphere to include all citizens equally.” He has a habit of proposing the emergence of a public sphere and then simultaneously mourning its passing. As for the seventeenth- and eighteenth- public sphere, he lamented its denigration via mass media and the welfare state. As for the networked public sphere of present day, he complains of echo chambers, the dissolution of boundaries, the blurring of private and public, and social media fragmenting this new institution as soon as it appears.

But there never has been and never will be a singular public sphere; that is the fundamental fallacy of the theory. Instead, there are multiple, overlapping imagined communities, publics, institutions, and markets that vie for power and attention through debate, privilege, and protest. Michael Warner proposed counterpublics: the idea that some publics “are defined by their tension with a larger public.” Fraser wrote that alongside Habermas’ bourgeois public “there arose a host of competing counterpublics, including nationalist publics, popular peasant publics, elite women’s publics, and working-class publics. Thus there were competing publics from the start, not just in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as Habermas implies.”

Habermas repeats the mistake much of mainline media make when he interprets January 6 as “the emotive response of voters who for decades have lacked a sense that their ignored interests are taken seriously by the political system in concrete, discernible ways.” He blames political elites, saying they had “for decades disappointed the legitimate, constitutionally guaranteed expectations of a significant portion of citizens.” No. It’s not that the insurrectionists — white men — had been neglected by the power structure; they were that power structure. It’s that white men see their power slipping away at the hands of so many counterpublics — read: people of color and women — who had been neglected and now may finally be heard via the internet. As a European, Habermas fails to account for race in the public Reformation (#blacklivesmatter) and Counter-reformation (MAGA) occurring now in America.

In Habermas’ worldview, there is today a public sphere online that decomposes into “competing public spheres” and “shielded echo chambers.” (Note well that the echo chamber is a trope with little empirical data and research to support it. See Axel Bruns’ Are Filter Bubbles Real? and its answer: No.) Fraser suggests the opposite, a public not decomposing but growing out of “a multiplicity of publics” as “an advance toward democracy” to “promote the ideal of participatory parity.” She warns: “Where societal inequality persists, deliberative processes in public spheres will tend to operate to the advantage of dominant groups and to the disadvantage of subordinates. Now I want to add that these effects will be exacerbated where there is only a single, comprehensive public sphere.” That is, the vision of a single public sphere brings with it the presumption of norms and standards set on high, from those with the power to impose their vision upon all. (See, for example, journalistic objectivity — and Wesley Lowery’s critical op-ed exposing that institution’s roots in white power.)

Fraser says that with a single public sphere, “members of subordinated groups would have no arenas for deliberation among themselves about their needs, objectives, and strategies.” Fraser labels such groups “subaltern counterpublics.” In André Brock Jr.’s book, Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures, which I quote and teach often, he calls Black Twitter a “satellite counterpublic sphere.” All this is to say that rather than imprinting Habermas’ worldview on the internet, it would be more productive to understand the net for what it is becoming and adjust one’s worldview accordingly, not to pursue a single, decaying public but instead to study an interlocking ecology of many publics.

One need also adjust one’s view of media. In his foundational 1962 book, Habermas lamented the damage wrought by mass media on his first public sphere of the coffeehouse. In his current paper, he laments the supersession of mass media by social media and its effect on his new public sphere of the internet. He still imbues in mass media the power — the responsibility, in fact — to shape public opinion. “The function of the professional media is to rationally process the input that is fed into the public sphere via the information channels of the political parties, of the interest groups and PR agencies, and of the societal subsystems, among others, as well as by the organisations and intellectuals of civil society.” He goes farther: “[T]he public communication steered by mass media is the only domain in which the noise of voices can condense into relevant and effective public opinions.” He longs for “a professionalized staff that plays the gatekeeper role.” Habermas says that mass-media journalism “directs the throughput and … forms the infrastructure of the public sphere.”** Extending his electronic imagery, he argues that institutions provide the input, the public receives the output, media throughput. But I say he needs to reverse his wires.

Actually, Habermas made me understand that I have reversed my wires. I now see that the role of media is not to shape public opinion but instead to listen to public opinions now that the internet makes that possible. The goal is not to direct the views of the powerful in institutions toward the public but instead to direct the needs, desires, and goals of citizens to those in power. What has to be shaped is not public opinion about public policy but instead policy to the needs of the public. Whether media have a role in that process — that reversed throughput— is yet to be seen.

Today, media use polls as a proxy for a discerning and disseminating public opinion. Polls are fatally flawed, carrying the biases of the pollster, reducing citizens’ nuanced opinions to preconceived binaries, and warping identities into to prepackaged demographics. As James Carey — whom I also often quote — teaches us, polling preempts the public conversation it is intended to measure. In fairness, it’s all media had: one-size-fits-all publications carrying all-fit-in-one-size polls to represent vox pop.

But the internet changes that, as Habermas acknowledges, “by empowering all potential users in principle to become independent and equally entitled authors.” Now, instead of measuring people in binary buckets, we may listen to them as individuals. Habermas and countless others might consider that the ruin of democracy. He regrets speech occurring “without responsibility” or regulation: “Today, this great emancipatory promise is being drowned out by the desolate cacophony in fragmented, self-enclosed echo chambers.” No, in that cacophony, which media cannot manage, is the opportunity of democracy to hear citizens on and in their own terms, in their own communities of many definitions, as their own publics. That will require a new institution, a media of reversed pipes, to build means to listen well. That does not yet exist.

What shape would that new institution take? On the one hand, I am overjoyed that Habermas acknowledges — as I often argue — that “the new media are not ‘media’ in the established sense.” Yet he then turns around to reveal his expectation that people talking online should meet the standards of media and journalism. He is nostalgic and he is worried. He heralds “post-truth democracy” and regrets the passing of print and even of daily newspapers taking on “the ‘colourful’ format of entertaining Sunday newspapers.” German newspapers are particularly gray. “[T]he dramatic loss of relevance of the print media compared to the dominant auto-visual media seems to point to a declining level of aspiration of the offerings, and hence also for the fact that the citizens’ receptiveness and intellectual processing of politically relevant news and problems are on the decline.” When radio emerged as print’s first competitor, newspapers denigrated the receptivity of ear versus eye and called for the new technology to be regulated, just as Habermas demands that “platforms cannot evade all duties of journalistic care” and “should be liable for news that they neither produce nor edit.” Let us hope the Supreme Court does not read this in its deliberations over Section 230.

At least Habermas acknowledges that this process, whatever its shape and purpose, will take time. “Just as printing made everyone a potential reader, today digitisation is making everyone into a potential author. But how long did it take until everyone was able to read?” He expects speakers online to aspire to the roles of journalist and author, to “satisfy the entry requirements to the editorial public sphere…. The author role has to be learned; and as long as this has not been realized in the political exchange in social media, the quality of uninhibited discourse shielded from dissonant opinions and criticism will continue to suffer.” No. I say we must learn to accept online speech for what it is — conversation — and value it for what it reveals of people’s opinions and for the opportunity to engage in dialog. Habermas is rather befuddled by public spaces that carry the kind of content that used to be reserved for handwritten letters: “they can be understood neither as public nor private, but rather as a sphere of communication that had previously been reserved for private correspondence but is not inflated into a new and intimate kind of public sphere.” Is he not describing Montaigne’s place in the development of print culture?

In the end, I wish for what Habermas desires: democracy underpinned by inclusion and by public discourse as “the competition for better reasons,” as he said a half-century ago. Or as he says now: “I do not see deliberative politics as a far-fetched ideal against which sordid reality must be measured, but as an existential precondition in pluralistic societies of any democracy worthy of the name.” He is an idealist. “The point of deliberative politics is, after all, that it enables us to improve our beliefs through political disputes and get closer to correct solutions to problems. In the cacophony of conflicting opinions unleashed in the public sphere only one thing is presupposed — the consensus on the shared constitutional principles that legitimises all other disputes.” Unless, of course, one is a MAGA Republican, an AfD populist, or the leader of Hungary or Turkey, for whom the goal is not Habermas’ wished-for rational consensus but instead the visceral attractions of hate, fear, power, and insurrection.

Media have failed to get us to Habermas’ promised land. So far, so have so-called social media. Perhaps we have expected too much of either. Perhaps we have expected too much from the mere serving of information. Perhaps media must take on a new role, as educator, for education is the only cure for the ignorance reigning in the land. Or instead, should education take on the role of informing the public after school? (See this recent thread about academics leaving the academy to pursue public scholarship.) Or will we need to create new institutions to serve public enlightenment and discourse, just as we had to await the creation of the institutions of editing and publishing and journalism after the invention of print?

The shape of public discourse is changing radically and trying to pour new wine in an old Weltanschauung will not work. I can hardly blame Habermas for trying to do that, for he has spent a brilliant life crafting his theories of democracy and discourse. I find his effort to understand this new world useful not because I agree but because it focuses my perspective through a different lens. The worldwide network does not corrupt some ideal that was never achieved but instead allows us to imagine new ideals and new paths toward it.

* Not Jürgen Habermas but Dreamstudio’s AI image of him online

** Habermas is oddly italics-happy in his essay; his itals are his. In my book Public Parts, I got in trouble with Habermas adherents for likening his prose to wurst. I cannot pass up the temptation to quote one footnoted and much-italicized sentence of his here: “The lack of ‘saturation’ concerns the temporal dimension of the exhaustion — still to be achieved in the political community and still to be specified as regards its content — of the indeterminately context-transcending substance of established fundamental rights, as well as the spatial dimension of a still outstanding world-wide implementation of human rights.”

20 Post-it provocations on media

Post-it notes: Super Sticky and Super Adhesive!

Recently, I was asked to open an unconference with students and grads from our News Innovation and Leadership program at Newmark. I was also preparing for a Newsgeist unconference (which I unfortunately had to miss). Thus my mind has been its own unconference; I sneeze Post-its. So, for our event, I decided to present 20 provocations for discussion about news and media as virtual Post-its (that is to say, tweets):

  1. I’m thinking about the half-life of media forms. Magazines are going out of print. Studying the form, I’ve come to see how evanescent any publication can be and perhaps so is the genre. Television is in shambles as the institutions of prime-time, networks, linear television, broadcast, and even cable fade. Recently, The Times had a story about the unsustainable resource and risk it takes to make a best-seller. And the death of the print newspaper has been oft foretold but might finally be upon us, for it is fast becoming unsustainable. Nothing is forever. So what might follow?
  2. Journalism is unprepared to cover institutional insurrection. News organizations still seek balance, fairness, sanity, tradition, and the establishment and enforcement of norms, while much of the country seeks to tear down the institutions of society — journalism, science, education, free and fair elections, democracy itself. As Jay Rosen points out, we have no strategy for how to cover this coup.
  3. Should journalists be educators? Educators deal in outcomes, telling students what they will learn, teaching them that, and asking whether they learned it. What if journalism aimed for outcomes — such as reporting why people should get vaccinations or vote or believe election outcomes — and judged its value and success accordingly? Then do we become advocates? Activists? Propagandists? At a gathering of internet researchers we convened a few weeks ago, one of the academics asked whether all propaganda is bad. If the bad guys use it, should the good?
  4. Internet leadership. I’m turning my attention from news leadership to internet leadership. For I think we in journalism need to broaden the canvas upon which we work past stories, content, and publications to the connected society and its data. What should we then we teaching in journalism schools? What of the humanities and of ethics and historical context should technologists and policymakers be taught?
  5. The story as a form is an expression of power. It empowers the storyteller. It extracts and exploits others’ stories. It can tempt journalists into fabulism — witness the scandals over time at Der Spiegel, the NY Times, and Washington Post. It carries with it the expectation of neat arcs and endings. The story is an excellent tool, no doubt. But do we concentrate on it too much? Do we sufficiently warn students of its temptations and perils? Do we imaginatively teach many possible alternatives in journalism?
  6. Death to the mass! In two books I’ve just completed (plug: The Gutenberg Parenthesis, out in June, and another on the magazine as object, both from Bloomsbury), I write about the arc of the mass: its birth with the mechanization and industrialization of print, its fall at the hands of the net. What the net kills is the mass media business model, with it mass media, and with it the idea of the mass, an insult to the public, a way not to know them as individuals and communities. Said John Carey: “The ‘mass’ is, of course, a fiction. Its function, as a linguistic device, is to eliminate the human status of the majority of people.” How do we recenter journalism around individuals and their identities in communities?
  7. Our definition of “local” is too narrow. Communities are not just geographic. I am closer to the people on my Twitter List of Book History Wonks and all the media wonks here online than I am to my frequently Trumpian neighbors. How do we expand our definition of local to communities writ large, to people’s own definitions of themselves and their affinities, circumstances, needs, and interests? Yes, save local journalism — but redefine “local.”
  8. We have much to learn about communities making spaces for themselves from Black Twitter. I recommend Charlton Mcilwain’s Black Software and André Brock Jr.’s Distributed Blackness and I await Meredith D. Clark, PhD’s upcoming book. They chronicle efforts by communities to establish their own spaces, not under mass or white gaze. Communities do not need us. We in journalism need them.
  9. Jack Dorsey regrets making Twitter a company. He wishes it were a protocol so one could speak anywhere and anyone could build enterprises atop that speech layer, adding value — curating, verifying, editing, supporting. Especially now, I eagerly await what happens with his Bluesky. How might journalism fit into such an ecosystem?
  10. Censorship is futile. At the birth of every medium, incumbents fret about bad outcomes — fake news from print (witchcraft) or radio (War of the Worlds) or television (the “vast wasteland” where we “amuse ourselves to death”). How much better it is for us to turn our attention to finding, nurturing, supporting, and improving the good.
  11. Paywalls damage democracy. When disinformation is free, how can we restrict quality information to the privileged who choose to afford it? What is our moral obligation to democracy, to society as a whole?
  12. Fuck hot takes. The answer to abundance in media is not to pile on more abundance.
  13. Journalism is terribly, fatally inefficient. Every outlet copying every other outlet’s stories to make their own content on their own pages to get their own clicks and ads. Enough. We must concentrate on unique value.
  14. We desperately need more self-criticism in journalism. Especially after the departures of David Carr, Margaret Sullivan, and Brian Stelter. Media are actors in the story of democracy but they go uncovered.
  15. We desperately need more research on public discourse and media today. We must consider the entire media ecosystem, not just Facebook and not just The Times and not relying on such baseless tropes as the filter bubble. Doubt me? See Axel Bruns’ book, Are Filter Bubbles Real? His answer: No. We need to work with researchers to examine what we do, what works, and what does not.
  16. We need to reinvent advertising. The attention economy — invented by media and imported into the internet, is obsolete and damaging. Advertising must shift to value, permission, relevance, and utility. We will still need advertisers. Advertisers won’t reinvent themselves. So we have to.
  17. Media are engaged in a moral panic about the internet. See Nirit Weiss-Blatt’s book, The Techlash, in which she marks the pivot from utopian to dystopian coverage with the election of Donald Trump: Media wanted someone else to blame. News industry organizations have become lobbyists, cashing in journalism’s political capital for the sake of protectionism and baksheesh. At a time when freedom of expression is imperiled, we must do better and fight to protect the speech of all.
  18. Facebook is not forever. Even Google is not forever. And Twitter? Who knows what the next day brings? What new functions might we build?
  19. We have time. It is 1480 in Gutenberg years. I do not advocate longtermism. Our obligation to tomorrow begins today. In print, great innovation — the essay, the novel, the newspaper — did not come until 150 years after movable type. How long must we wait for such bold innovation online? Will you be such innovators?
  20. When will the first editor in chief or publisher of a major news operation come from the ranks of the people now known as “audience” or “product?” These are the new disciplines — new to news — that base their work and value on the relationship they have with, to borrow Rosen’s term, the people formerly known as the audience. I hope someone hearing this now will be that person.