Posts about Internet

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):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJieSncsZjA&t=21s

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.

Publishers’ political blackmail

Senator Amy Klobuchar’s oxymoronically titled Journalism Competition and Preservation Act — it might better be named the Journalism Lobby Blackmail Bill — was just dealt a kick to the kidneys by a confused Ted Cruz amendment. It is delayed but not dead. It is still wrong-headed and dangerous and here I’ll examine how.

As ever, Mike Masnick does stellar work picking apart the bill’s idiocy and impact in detail. In summary, the JCPA would require big internet companies — Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon, though perhaps not the incredibly shrinking Facebook — to negotiate with midsize newspaper publishers. Freed from antitrust, the publishers may band together and demand payment for linking to their news. Yes, linking to their news. The value platforms bring in terms of promotion, distribution, and audience is not a factor in these negotiations. If agreement cannot be reached, talks go to a co-called arbitration process and the platforms can be forced to carry and pay for publishers’ content.

Stop right there. That government would force anyone to carry anyone else’s speech is a clear violation of the First Amendment. Compelled speech is not free speech. Keep in mind that the extremist right in Congress is dying to concoct ways to force platforms to carry their noxious speech; Klobuchar et al are paving a way for them. That government would force anyone to pay to link to others is a fundamental violation of the principles of the internet. Links are free. Links are speech. That government would insert itself in any way into journalism and speech is simply unconstitutional.

Let us now consider the wider context of this legislation and where it goes wrong.

Newspaper publishers do not deserve payment

God did not grant newspaper publishers the revenue they had. They chose not adapt to the internet; I spent decades watching them at close range. Competitors offered better, more efficient and effective vehicles for advertisers, who fled overpriced, inefficient, monopolistic newspapers at first opportunity. Readers, whose trust in news has been falling since the ’70s, also fled. Welcome to capitalism, boys.

Today, most newspaper chains in America are controlled by hedge funds. I briefly served on digital advisory boards for one American and one Canadian company controlled by the hedgies and witnessed what they did: selling every possible asset, cutting costs to the marrow, and stopping all investment in innovation. The JCPA offers no real means of accountability to assure that platform money would go to journalism serving communities’ needs, not straight into the pockets of the hedgies. (The JCPA shares that problem with Rupert Murdoch’s similar blackmail bill in Australia.)

Journalists should not be lobbyists

I am appalled that legacy journalistic trade organizations — led by the News Media Alliance (née Newspaper Association of America, recently merged with the former Magazine Publishers Association)— have turned into lobbyists, cashing in news’ political capital and engaging in conflict of interest in the name of protectionism. Newspapers exist to stand independent of power in government, not beggars at its trough. Journalists themselves should rise up to protest what their publishers have ganged together to do: to sell their souls.

Newspapers have a long history of antitrust

This shameful behavior of publishers is not new. When radio emerged as print’s first competitor, papers did everything possible to prevent it from competing in news. Here are a few paragraphs recounting that episode from my upcoming book with Bloomsbury, The Gutenberg Parenthesis.*

In Media at War, Gwynth Jackaway chronicled American newspapers’ opposition to broadcast in a tale of defensiveness and protectionism that would be reprised with the arrivals of television and the internet. “Having been presented with a new technology, contemporary actors voice their concerns about how the new medium will change their lives, and in so doing they reveal their vulnerabilities,” she wrote…. Newspaper publishers tried to disadvantage their new competitors, strong-arming radio executives to agree to abandon news gathering, to buy and use only reports supplied by three wire services, to limit news bulletins to five minutes, and to sell no sponsorship of news. Their agreement also prohibited commentators from even discussing news less than twelve hours old (a so-called “hot news” doctrine the Associated Press would try to establish against internet sites as late as 2009). The pact fell away as wire services and station-owning newspapers bristled under its restrictions.

Print publishers tried other tactics. They threatened to stop printing radio schedules in their newspapers, but readers protested and radio won again. They lobbied to have radio regulated by the federal government and then unironically maintained that radio companies under government control would be unreliable covering government. The newspaper press tried to have radio reporters barred from the Congressional press galleries. They called radio a “monopolistic monster” and lobbied for a European model of government control of the airwaves. They blamed radio for siphoning off advertising revenue, though the Great Depression was more likely to blame for newspapers folding or consolidating in the era. They also lobbied for the government to limit or ban advertising on radio.

All their protectionism was cloaked in self-important, sacred rhetoric, with publishers accusing radio of manifold sins. Radio, they said, spread loose statements and false rumors: fake news. Radio “filched” and “lifted” news from newspapers. Radio seduced the public with the human voice to exploit emotions, to “catch and hold attention,” and to excite listeners. Will Irwin, a muckraking print journalist, wrote in his book Propaganda and the News: “The radio, through the magic inherent in the human voice, has means of appealing to the lower nerve centers and of creating emotions which the hearer mistakes for thoughts.” Radio was “a species of show business, with overtones of peddling and soap-boxing.” Editor and Publisher maintained that “the sense of hearing does not satisfy the same intellectual craving as does the sense of reading” and the editor of American Press claimed that “most folks are eye-minded. They get only impressions through their ears; they get facts through their eyes.”

“Using the doomsday approach that so often accompanies the invocation of ‘sacred’ values,” wrote Jackaway, “they warned that the values of democracy and the survival of our political system would be endangered” if radio took on the roles of informing the electorate and serving a marketplace of ideas….

“Never,” said Jackaway, “is there the admission that public opinion might be manipulated by the printed word as well as the spoken word, or any recognition that by attempting to control radio news the press was actually infringing upon the broadcasters’ freedom of expression.”

Sound familiar? This is the same industry that today wants to be excused from antitrust law and Klobuchar et al are doing its bidding.

Government must not license and limit journalism

The JCPA sets a definition for news organizations eligible for its benefits and thus defines and de facto licenses journalists. Beware: What government giveth government may take away.

To avoid accusation that the bill would transfer money from big tech to big media, the JCPA sets a limit of 1,500 employees. It also sets a floor of $100,000 revenue. Thus, many are excluded. In our entrepreneurial program at CUNY’s Newmark Journalism School, we train independent journalists to serve communities and markets; they are too small. Our Center for Community Media and its Black, Latino, and Asian Media Initiatives work with a wide array of news organizations serving communities; many of them are too small. LION, the wonderful association serving local news organizations, says 44 percent of its members are too small.

These newcomers and publishers of color are the real innovators in journalism, not the old, tired, failing, incumbent newspapers. They are left out of the JCPA. The JCPA is aimed at companies whose papers are, in the immortal words of Goldilocks, just right — that is, the ones controlled by the hedge funds who pay the lobbyists.

The help platforms should give

I am all for technology companies helping the cause of news. In full disclosure, my school receives funds from various of the technology companies to fight disinformation, to independently study the internet, to train journalists in the new skills of product, to train community news organizations in business innovation. For years, I’ve attended Newsgeist, an event started by the Knight Foundation and Google, and there I began what is now the tradition of running a session asking, “What should Google do for news?”

Forcing payments from technology companies as this bill and others elsewhere would do is no business model. It’s blackmail. What we need instead is help to develop new models. Google does that with subscriptions and YouTube players offering monetization. Facebook used to do that in various programs but has thrown up its hands and given up on news (I frankly do not blame them). Apple and Microsoft send audience to news. Jeff Bezos saved The Post. We need more of this kind of help. JCPA does nothing to make news sustainable.

Should news even be copyrighted?

The legislation in the U.S., Australia, and Canada, as well as Germany’s Leistungsschutzrecht, Spain’s link tax, and the EU’s resulting Article 15 are all attempts to extend copyright.

In The Gutenberg Parenthesis, I also write about the origins of copyright. Note well that at the start, in the Statute of Anne of 1710 and in the first American copyright laws, news was explicitly not included. Not until 1909 in the United States did copyright law include newspapers, but even still, according to Will Slauter in Who Owns the News?, some still debated whether news articles, as opposed to literary features, were protected, for they were the product of business more than authorship.

The first, best government subsidy newspapers received was a franking privilege from the Post Office, starting in 1792, which allowed publishers to exchange editions with each other for the express purpose of copying each others’ news. This, too, from my book: “Newspapers employed ‘scissors editors’ to compile columns of reports from other papers. Editors would not complain about being copied because they copied in turn — but they would protest and loudly about not being credited…. It is ironic that newspapers — which since their founding in Strasbourg in 1605 have been compiled from news created by others — today complain that Google, Facebook, et al steal their property and value by quoting headlines and snippets from articles in the process of sending them readers via links. The publishers receive free marketing.”

I came to learn that copyright was created not to protect creators. Instead, copyright turned creation into a tradable asset, benefitting the publishers and producers who acquired rights from writers.

Just as a thought experiment, instead of extending copyright as so many legacy publishers in league with legislators wish to do, let us imagine what journalism might be today without copyright.

Without copyright, news organizations might not concentrate, as they do now, on the notion of journalism as a product to be restricted and sold to the privileged who can afford it. They are returning news to what it was before the printing press, when it was contained in expensive, exclusive newsletters called avvisi. Meanwhile, disinformation, lies, and propaganda will always fly free.

Without copyright, journalists might see news as a service that individuals and communities could choose to support — as they do public radio, The Guardian, and countless newsletters — because it is useful to them.

Without copyright, journalists might then concentrate on creating service of original value rather than employing digital scissors editors to rewrite each others’ stories into trending clickbait to make their own content to fill their own pages to attract their own SEO and social links to feed ever-decreasing programmatic CPMs.

Without copyright, they might turn all that wasted journalistic labor and talent loose on watching, reporting on, and holding accountable the politicians they are instead now lobbying.

Without copyright and the Gutenberg-era notions of content, property, and product, journalists might also feel freer to collaborate with the public, rather than speaking and selling to the public. Journalists might come to center journalism in the community rather in themselves, as we teach in our Engagement Journalism program at Newmark.

Without copyright, journalism might no longer be seen as a widget to be used as a wedge but instead a contributor to the quality of public discourse.

Do I want to get rid of copyright for news? Actually, yes, I do. I know that is not going to happen. But I can at least beg my legislators — I am looking at you, Cory Booker — not to extend and mangle copyright in the service of hedge funds and failed newspaper monopolists. Instead, let us find ways and means to support collaboration and innovation to improve news.


* The Gutenberg Parenthesis is scheduled to be published by Bloomsbury in June. You can be assured I would be sending you to a preorder link now if it existed, but it won’t until November. Watch this space.

How harmful is it?

As the UK gets ready to regulate harmful (including legal but harmful) speech online, the appointed regulator, Ofcom, released its annual survey of users. It’s informative to see just how concerned UK citizens seem to be about the internet. Not terribly.

First, a list of potential “harms” encountered.

Let’s look at these. Scams (27%). Yes, We get those through every possible medium: phone, mail, and net. Misinformation (22%). Well, that requires definition. “Generally offensive or ‘bad’ language” (21%). Oh, that is so broad; it is in the ear of the beholder; and — even without a First Amendment — does government want to be in the position of policing “bad” language? Unwelcome friend requests (20%). Sounds like a bad cocktail party; one may easily walk away. Content encouraging gambling (16%). Gambling is legal in the UK and promoted by many newspapers, which profit from it.

The sixth and seventh complaints are ones worthy of attention and are mostly native to online: trolling (15%) and discriminatory content (11%). Other categories worthy of attention include objectification of women, bullying, unwanted sexual messages, and content about body image (each 8%).

Now how concerned are these users about their complaints? 15% are “really bothered.”

What did the complainers do about it? 30% scrolled past, 20% reported it, 20% unfollowed whoever posted the offending content, 18% did nothing, 11% closed the app or site…

That’s the complaint side of the report. It does not alarm me about the extent of online harm users are reporting to their regulator.

To its credit, Ofcom also asked about the benefits of the net for its citizens. These results are striking.

“Being online has an overall positive effect on my mental health.” Only 14% disagreed; two and a half times more users agreed that the net is good for their mental health.

Oh, but isn’t the net addictive and taking over our lives? To this statement — “I feel I have a good balance between my online and offline life — a solid majority of 74% agree; only 9% do not.

“I can share my opinions and have a voice.” I consider this a critical difference between the net and mass media. 44% agree; only 17% disagree; a third don’t share an opinion about sharing their opinions.

“I feel more free to be myself online.” A third agree; almost a fifth disagree; half, being British, shrug.

Many people see the net less as a means of self-expression and more as a useful helpmate. “Accessing goods and services online is more convenient for me.” A whopping 83% agree; a mere 3% disagree.

Rather than being imprisoned by the desires of algorithms, it seems people see themselves as individuals following their own desires. “It gives me space to pursue my hobbies and interests.” Almost two-thirds — 63% agree — while 11% do not.

So far, as I read the survey, people feel predominantly positive about their use of the net and they do not seem terribly concerned about their complaints. The reason for a regulator to step in would be if users thought themselves incapable of handling problems there. Ah, but UK internet users do not paint themselves as desperate. To the contrary, they are confident: 79% call themselves very or fairly confident as internet users; not so much, 8%.

Well, what about attempts to pull the wool over their eyes by unscrupulous marketers? How confident are they that they can recognize online advertising? 78% are; 7% are not.

But data is/are a problem, everyone agrees, yes? Sure people feel they have lost the ability to manage their personal data online? Not so. A majority — 58% — are confident managing their data; 18% not.

OK, then fake news must be terrorizing citizens. News media say so. How many feel confident judging the truthfulness of online information? 69%; 9% feel otherwise.

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But young people are the most vulnerable to online disinformation — that’s why there are so many interventions to teach them news literacy, right? How do young people compare with their elders? 29% of users aged 16–34 are very confident, and it goes downhill from there.

Most people feel pretty strongly about their own abilities online. But when asked about others, well, they need help. Two thirds of users agree with the statement, “Internet users must be protected from seeing inappropriate or offensive content.”

There we see the third-person effect at work. Coined by sociologist W. Phillips Davison in 1983, the third-person effect “predicts that people will tend to overestimate the influence that mass communications have on the attitudes and behavior of others…. Its greatest impact will not be on ‘me’ or ‘you,’ but on ‘them’ — the third persons.” The third-person effect, I argue in my upcoming book, is the basis of so much regulation and censorship of media since Gutenberg. Ofcom and fellow citizens want to protect them from the internet whether they think they need it or not.

All of this would seem to me to auger against the urgent need for Ofcom and the UK government to guard its citizens from the net.

But perhaps, as we hear in a constant media drumbeat, internet companies are negligent of doing anything to address the problems — problems that humans cause — on their platforms. Ofcom reports the moderation activity of the three big companies:

Facebook took down 153 million pieces of content in the third quarter of 2021 alone, 96% found by its algorithms. Is Facebook censoring too much, as America’s right-wing would claim? Only 2% of its decisions are challenged.

I know I’m being sassy here. I am not arguing against all regulation. The net is already regulated. Neither am I defending its current proprietors. I wish for a more distributed web (a la Jack Dorsey’s Bluesky). But keep in mind that a more distributed web will be much harder for regulators to regulate. And a more distributed web will make it more difficult for moral-panicking media to find folk-devil moguls to blame for all our ills.

Interventions in the internet and our newfound freedom of speech online need to be based on empirical evidence of actual harm, clearly defined. This, it would appear, is not that.