In the abstract, applause is stupid: You hit yourself, but only when in the company of others hitting themselves, to show approval.
The end of applause occurred to me as I watched recent events: Apple’s latest product announcement sans clapping geeks and sycophants (revealing its true aesthetic as just another infomercial); the US Open with tepid, sitcom-like clap-tracks where cheers would have been; the Democrats’ intimate and audience-free YouTube convention — which I wrote about here; and Sarah Cooper’s opener for Jimmy Kimmel’s show. I’m in awe of Cooper anyway, but watching her monologue, I marveled at the courage of a comedian telling jokes without the immediate feedback of laughter, applause, and cheers: without an audience, or at least one that could be heard. YouTubers find this normal; old farts, strange.
Applause is binary: it is or it isn’t. To put this in McLuhanesque terms, hands are a medium with but one message at a time. Hands can hit each other. Hands can pound a table. (The first time I ended a presentation in a German board room, they started banging on the table and I thought, ‘Oh, hell, I’ve just pissed off a bunch of angry Germans,’ only to realize this was deutsch for applause.) Hands can also silently show a thumb or a finger or a fist. The hand was the medium allowed to an audience.
Jay Rosen famously talks about “the people formerly known as the audience,” his heuristic to get us to think about the change in the relationship of journalist or media with the public, who are no longer passive recipients and consumers of the commodity we call content but who now have a voice.
Voice brings substance, nuance, complexity. That richer message can be expressed on Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, Reddit, YouTube, forums, comments. It’s not easy to listen to voice. Media do not know how to listen to us. It’s a lot easier to reduce people to the noise of a crowd — applause, cheers, chants — or to numbers in a poll — red v. blue, black v. white, 99% v. 1%, pro v. con. Mass media abhor any voice but their own.
The internet abhors being silenced. It will burst around any barrier to enable its users to be heard another way. Donald Trump may have tried to ban TikTok and silence Sarah Cooper — as the Chinese government tries to ban American platforms and silence its citizens — but both will fail. People will find their voices elsewhere.
Even so, media will still insist on trying to agglomerate the voices on the net into binary buckets, reductionist headlines, and shallow hot takes. I despise headlines that declare, “Twitter hates…” or “Twitter loves…” or “Twitter goes nuts over…” as if there were one social voice, Twitter, and our only role in it is to contribute to a single, monolithic bottom line of collective opinion. In writing those takes, media people ignore the essence of what social media enable: individual voices. This is how media failed to provide a place for #BlackLivesMatter; social media had to.
But social media companies are not blameless in this attempt to reduce the voices of their users to applause or boos. I also abhor “trending” features on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere, for they seriously misrepresent the experience there. Many years ago, when I interviewed Mark Zuckerberg for a book, he said that no two people on earth see the same Facebook. That is true, too, of Twitter — and the internet, for that matter — unlike old media. So to say — as The New York Times’ Kevin Roose tries to, using Facebook’s own data — that this story or that is the most seen on Facebook is to elevate something few people see into something more important than it is, as Casey Newton explains. It is like saying all of America — or half of America — is under the sway of Fox News when, in fact, only about 3 million people (1 percent of the country) watch in prime time. In my social feed, I see very few of the topics that are trending and I see next to none of the poisonous right-wing stories media fret about because I and my friends are neither hip nor nazi.
The late Columbia professor James Carey famously wrote that the press exists not to transmit information but instead to provide ritual — that is, a confirming view of ourselves, like a mass (the Catholic kind, not the media, marketing, or manufacturing kind). The picture that the press paints of us is distorted. The view that the press presents of our life in social media is false. The net finally allows us to be heard as more than the sounds of hands clapping and yet we are still reduced to poll numbers or trending topics or ersatz applause. And so, I do not regret the passing of applause in the pandemic. I await the sound of the voices we can now hear instead.
There is much work yet to do to help us hear each others’ voices. As I’ve said before, until now, the net has been built just to speak, not to listen. I celebrate that speech, the voices too long not heard in mass media. But we need many more tools to help us discover voices and messages worth listening to, to better represent the nuanced public conversation, to convene us into true conversation. It will come, in time. Until then, learn to enjoy the absence of applause, the silence.
I’m going to straddle a sword by on the one hand criticizing the platforms for not taking their public responsibility seriously enough, and on the other hand pleading for some perspective before we descend into a moral panic with unintended consequences for the net and the future.
[Disclosure: I raised $14 million for the News Integrity Initiative at CUNY from Facebook, Craig Newmark, the Ford Foundation, AppNexus, and others. We are independent of Facebook and I personally receive no money from any platform.]
The Observer’s reporting on Cambridge Analytica’s exploitation of Facebook data on behalf of Donald Trump has raised what the Germans call a shitstorm. There are nuances to this story I’ll get to below. But to begin, suffice it to say that Facebook is in a mess. As much as the other platforms would like to hide behind their schadenfreude, they can’t. Google has plenty of problems with YouTube (I write this the night before Google is set to announce new mitzvahs to the news industry). And Twitter is wisely begging for help in counteracting the ill effects it now concedes it has had on the health of the public conversation.
The platforms need to realize that they are not trusted. (And before media wrap themselves up in their own blanket of schadenfreude, I will remind them that they are not trusted either.) The internet industry’s cockiness cannot stand. They must listen to and respect concerns about them. They must learn humility and admit how hard that will be for them. They need to perform harsh and honest self-examinations of their cultures and moral foundations. Underlying all this, I believe they must adopt an ethic of radical transparency.
For a few years, I’ve been arguing that Facebook and its fellows should hire journalists not just to build relationships with media companies but more importantly to embrace a sense of public responsibility in decisions about their products, ranking, experiments, and impact. Now they would do well to also hire ethicists, psychologists, philosophers, auditors, prosecutors, and the Pope himself to help them understand not how to present themselves to the world — that’s PR — but instead to fully comprehend the responsibility they hold for the internet, society, and the future.
I still believe that most people in these companies themselves believe that they are creating and harnessing technology for the good. What they have not groked is the greater responsibility that has fallen on them based on how their technologies are used. In the early days of the internet, the citizens of the net — myself included — and the platforms that served them valued openness über alles. And it was good. What we all failed to recognize was — on the good side — how much people would come to depend on these services for information and social interaction and — on the bad side — how much they would be manipulated at scale. “When we built Twitter,” Ev Williamssaid at South by Southwest, “we weren’t thinking about these things. We laid down fundamental architectures that had assumptions that didn’t account for bad behavior. And now we’re catching on to that.”
This means that the platforms must be more aware of that bad behavior and take surer steps to counteract it. They must make the judgments they feared making when they defended openness as a creed. I will contend again that this does not make them media companies; we do not want them to clean and polish our internet as if the platforms were magazines and the world were China. We also must recognize the difficulty that scale brings to the task. But they now have little choice but to define and defend quality on their platforms and in the wider circles of impact they have on society in at least these areas:
Civility of the public conversation. Technology companies need to set and enforce standards for basic, civilized behavior. I still want to err on the side of openness but I see no reason to condone harassment and threats, bigotry and hate speech, and lies as incitement. (By these considerations, Infowars, for example, should be toast.)
An informed public conversation. Whether they wanted it or not, Facebook and Twitter particularly — and Google, YouTube, Snap and others as well — became the key mechanisms by which the public informs itself. Here, too, I’ll err on the side of openness but the platforms need to set standards for quality and credibility and build paths that lead users to both. They cannot walk away from the news because it is messy and inconvenient for we depend upon them now.
A healthy public sphere. One could argue that Facebook, Twitter, et al are the victims of manipulation by Russia, Cambridge Analytica, trolls, the alt-right, and conspiracy theorists. Except that they are not the bad guys’ real targets. We are. The platforms have an obligation to detect, measure, reveal, and counteract this manipulation. For a definition of manipulation, I give you C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite: “Authority is power that is explicit and more or less ‘voluntarily’ obeyed; manipulation is the ‘secret’ exercise of power, unknown to those who are influenced.”
Those are broad categories regarding the platforms’ external responsibilities. Internally they need to examine the ethical and moral bases for their decisions about what they do with user data, about what kinds of behaviors they reward and exploit, about the impact of their (and mass media’s) volume-based business model in fostering clickbait, and so on.
If the internet companies do not get their ethical and public acts together and quickly — making it clear that they are capable of governing their behavior for the greater good — I fear that the growing moral panic overtaking discussion of technology will lead to harmful legislation and legal precedent, hampering the internet’s potential for us all. In the rush to regulation, I worry that we will end up with more bad law (like Germany’s NetzDG hate-speech law and Europe’s right-to-be-forgotten court ruling — each of which, paradoxically, fights the platforms’ power by giving them more power to censor speech). My greater fear is that the regulatory mechanisms installed for good governments will be used by bad ones — and these days, what country does not worry about bad government? — leading to a lowest common denominator of freedom on the net.
So now let me pose a few challenges to the platforms’ critics.
On the current Cambridge Analytica story, I’ll agree that Facebook is foolish to split hairs about the use of the word “breach” even if Facebook is right that it wasn’t one. But it behooves us all to get the story right. Please read the complete threads (by opening each tweet) from Jay Pinho and Patrick Ruffini:
Note well that Facebook created mechanisms to benefit all campaigns, including Barack Obama’s. At the time, this was generally thought to be a good: using a social platform to enable civic participation. What went wrong in the meantime was (1) a researcher broke Facebook’s rules and shared data intended for research with his own company and then with Cambridge Analytica and (2) Donald Trump.
So do you think that Facebook should be forbidden from helping political campaigns? If we want television and the unlimited money behind it to lose influence in our elections, shouldn’t we desire more mechanisms to directly, efficiently, and relevantly reach voters by candidates and movements? If you agree, then what should be the limits of that? Should Facebook choose good and bad candidates as we expect them to choose good and bad news? I could argue in favor of banning or not aiding, say, a racist, admitted sexual abuser who incites hatred with conspiracy theories and lies. But what if such a person becomes the candidate of one of two major parties and ultimately the victor? Was helping candidates good before Trump and bad afterwards?
Before arguing that Facebook should never share data with anyone, know that there are many researchers who are dying to get their hands on this data to better understand how information and disinformation spread and how society is changing. I was among many such researchers some weeks ago at a valuable event on disinformation at the University of Pennsylvania (where, by the way, most of the academics in attendance scoffed at the idea that Cambridge Analytica actually had a secret sauce and any great power to influence elections … but now’s not the time for that argument). So what are the standards you expect from Facebook et al when it comes to sharing data? To whom? For what purposes? With what protections and restrictions?
I worry that if we reach a strict data crackdown — no data ever shared or used without explicit permission for the exact purpose — we will cut off the key to the only sustainable future for journalism and media that I see: one built on a foundation of delivering relevant and valuable services to people as individuals and members of communities, no longer as an anonymous mass. So please be careful about the laws, precedents, and unintended consequences you set.
When criticizing the platforms — and yes, they deserve criticism — I would ask you to examine whether their sins are unique. The advertising model we now blame for all the bad behavior we see on the net originated with and is still in use by mass media. We in news invented clickbait; we just called it headlines. We in media also set in motion the polarization that plagues society today with our chronic desire to pit simplistic stereotypes of red v. blue in news stories and cable-news arguments. Mass media is to blame for the idea of the mass and its results.
When demanding more of the platforms — as we should — I also would urge us to ask more of ourselves, to recognize our responsibility as citizens in encouraging a civil and informed conversation. The platforms should define bad behavior and enable us to report it. Then we need to report it. Then they need to act on what we report. And given the scale of the task, we need to be realistic in our expectations: On any reasonably open platform, someone will game the system and shit will rise — we know that. The question is how quickly and effectively the platforms respond.
I’ll repeat what I said in a recent post: No one — not platforms, not ad agencies and networks, not brands, not media companies, not government, not users — can stand back and say that disinformation, hate, and incivility are someone else’s problem to solve. We all bear responsibility. We all must help by bringing pressure and demanding quality; by collaborating to define what quality is; by fixing systems that enable manipulation and exploitation; and by contributing whatever resources we have (ad dollars to links to reporting bad actors).
Finally, let’s please base our actions and our pressure on platforms and government on research, facts, and data. Is Facebook polarizing or depolarizing society? We do not know enough about how Facebook and Twitter affected our election and we would be wise to know more before we think we can prescribe treatments that could be worse then the disease. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty we know that Facebook, Google, Twitter, media, and society need to fix now. But treating technology companies as the agents of ill intent that maliciously ruin our elections and split us apart and addict us to our devices is simplistic and ultimately won’t get us to the real problems we all must address.
Today I talked about this with my friend and mentor Jay Rosen — who four years ago wrote this wise piece about the kind of legitimacy platforms rely upon. Jay said we really don’t have the terms and concepts we need for this discussion. I agree.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about the idea of the mass and its reputed manipulation at the hands of powerful and bad actors at other key moments in history: the French and American revolutions; the Industrial Revolution; the advent of mass media. At each wendepunkt, scholars and commentators worried about the impact of the change and struggled to find the language to describe and understand it. Now, in the midst of the digital revolution, we worry and struggle again. Facebook, Google, Twitter, and many of the people who created the internet we use today have no way to fully understand what their machines really do. Neither do we. I, for example, preached the openness that became the architecture and religion of the platforms without understanding the inevitability of that openness breeding trolls. We cannot use our analogs of the past to explain this future. That can be frightening. But I will continue to argue — optimist to a fault — that we can figure this out together.
The press will destroy Trump and Trump will destroy the press.
Consider that trust in media began falling in the ’70s, coincident with what we believe was our zenith: Watergate. We brought down a President. A Republican President.
Now the press is the nation’s last, best hope to bring down a compromised, corrupt, bigoted, narcissistic, likely insane, incompetent, and possibly dangerous President. A Republican President. Donald Trump.
If the press does what Congress is so far unwilling to do — investigate him — then these two Republican presidencies will bookend the beginning of the end and the end of the end of American mass media. Any last, small hope that anyone on the right would ever again trust, listen to, and be informed by the press will disappear. It doesn’t matter if we are correct or righteous. We won’t be heard. Mass media dies, as does the notion of the mass.
Therein lies the final Trump paradox: In failing, he would succeed in killing the press. And his final projection: The enemy of the people convinces the people that we are the enemy.
The press that survives, the liberal press, will end up with more prizes and subscriptions, oh joy, but with little hope of guiding or informing the nation’s conversation. Say The New York Times reaches its audacious dreamof 10 million paying subscribers. So what? That’s 3% of the U.S. population (and some number of those subscribers will be from elsewhere). And they said that blogs were echo chambers. We in liberal media will be speaking to ourselves — or, being liberal, more likely arguing with ourselves.
No number of empathetic articles that try to understand and reflect the worldview of the angry core of America will do a damned bit of good getting them to read, trust, and learn from The New York Times. My own dear parents will not read The New York Times. They are left to be <cough> informed by Fox News, Breitbart, Drudge, RT, and worse.
Last week, Jim Rutenberg and David Leonhardt of The Times wrote tough columns about turmoil in Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal over journalists’ fears that they find themselves working for an agent of Trump. They missed the longer story: What we are living through right now was the brainchild of Rupert Murdoch. It started in 1976 (note the timeline of trust above) when he bought the New York Post to be, in his words, his bully pulpit — and he added new meaning to that phrase. Yes, Rush Limbaugh and his like came along in the next decade to turn American radio into a vehicle for spreading fear, hate, and conspiracy. But it was in the following decade, in 1996, when Murdoch started Fox News, adding new, ironic meaning to another phrase: “fair and balanced.” He and his henchman, Roger Ailes, used every technique, conceit, and cliché of American television news to co-opt the form and forward his worldview, agenda, and war.
Murdoch could have resurrected the ideological diversity that was lost in the American press when broadcast TV culled newspapers in competitive markets and the survivors took on the impossible veil of objectivity. Instead, he made the rest of the press into the enemy: not us “and” them but us “or” them; not “let us give you another perspective” but “their perspective is bad.”
What’s a liberal journo to do? We are stuck in endless paradoxical loops. If we do our job and catch the President in a lie, we are labeled liars. When we counteract fake news with real news, everything becomes fake news. If I get angry about being attacked by angry white men I end up becoming an angry white man. Liberals tell us to be nice to conservatives to win them over but then they only mock us for being weak. Snowflakes. Cucks. Liberal tears.
I commend to your reading this essay by Dale Beran explaining the ultimate political irony of our day: The alt-right is made up of losers and when we call them losers they win. So we can’t win. “Trump is Pepe. Trump is loserdom embraced,” Beran explains. “Trump supporters voted for the con-man, the labyrinth with no center, because the labyrinth with no center is how they feel, how they feel the world works around them. A labyrinth with no center is a perfect description of their mother’s basement with a terminal to an endless array of escapist fantasy worlds.”
How do you argue with that worldview? How do you inform it? How do you win somebody over when all they want is enemies? (Watch this at your own peril.) You probably can’t. There are some chunks of America that likely need to be written off because they have fenced themselves off from reasonable, fact-based, intellectually honest, civil debate and now wallow in hate. Is that condescending of me to say? No, it’s pragmatic. Realjournalismus.
So then am I giving up on journalism and democracy? No, damnit, not yet. I am giving up on mass media. The internet wounded it; Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump finally killed it.
So now what? Now we reinvent journalism. Now we learn how to serve communities, listening to them to reflect their worldviews and gain their trust so we can inform them. Now we give up on the belief that we are entitled to act as gatekeeper and to set the agenda as well as the prices of information and advertising. Now we must learn to work well with others. Now we must bring diversity not just to our surviving newsrooms — which we must — but to the larger news ecosystem, building new, sustainable news services and businesses to listen to, understand, empathize with, and meet the needs of many communities.
Our goal is not to herd all the lost sheep back into our fence. I will disagree with thosewho say that we must grinfuck to Trump voters to woo them to our side of the ballot. No, we must stay angry and incredulous that they — the fanatical core of them — brought us Trump, and we prove our worth by fixing that. I say there is no hope of convincing frogs and eggs in our Twitter feeds; let’s not waste our time. Instead, our goal is to bring out the people who regretted their vote; there must be some. Far more important, our goal is to bring out the people who did not vote, who were not sufficiently informed of the risk of their inaction and thus not motivated to act. We can do that. Journalism can. That is why journalism exists, for civic engagement. (This is why starting Social Journalism at CUNY was a revolutionary act.)
Start, for example, with the many communities who are lumped together as Latino Americans. Meet them not as a demographic bucket imagined by Anglo Americans and marketers but as distinct groups of people who have distinct needs and interests. (This is why I am proud that CUNY started a bilingual journalism program.) Do the same with so many other underserved and these days abused communities: immigrants, Muslims, LGBT communities, people who will lose health insurance … communities organized not just around identity but also around need.
To be clear, this does not mean that the last mass-media companies can abandon these communities to media ghettos. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN, every newspaper company, and every broadcast company must work much harder to bring diversity into their newsrooms and executive ranks to do their jobs better. (One last plug for CUNY: This is why we work so hard to recruit a diverse student body.) We can improve mass media. But I don’t think we can fix it as it is — that is, return it to its lost scale. And I don’t think that mass media can fix the mess we are in.
So I would advise media companies old and new to invent and invest in new services to serve new communities. If I wanted to save a struggling mass-media company — think: Time Inc. — I would start scores of new services, building new and valued relationships with new communities.
And, yes, I would start a new service for conservative America. I would hire the best conservative journalists I could find not just to write commentary but to report from a different worldview (if anyone can define conservatism these days). I would underwrite scholarships at journalism schools (I promised to stop plugging mine) to recruit students from towns wracked by unemployment, from evangelical colleges, from the military. I would take advantage of a tremendous business opportunity to fight back against Murdoch’s and Trump’s destruction of the American press in the full belief that there are enough people in this nation on the right who want facts, who want to be informed, who will listen to their own uncomfortable truths. I would welcome that diversity, too.
Finally, I would stop listening to the entitled whinging of journalists about the state of their business. Yes, Murdoch fired a first bullet and Trump hammered a last nail but we bear the most responsibility for abandoning large swaths of America and for refusing to change. I disagree with Adrienne LaFrance that Mark Zuckerberg is out to “destroy journalism.” His manifestoabout the future of communities and an informed society shows we have much to learn from him. “Online communities are a bright spot,” he writes, ever the optimist. “Research suggests the best solutions for improving discourse may come from getting to know each other as whole people instead of just opinions — something Facebook may be uniquely suited to do.”
OK, but I will also push him, too. Facebook, Twitter, and all the platforms should invest their considerable intelligence, imagination, and resources in helping reinvent journalism for this age. New tools bring new opportunities and new responsibilities. I would like to see Facebook help news companies understand how to serve communities and how to reimagine how we inform citizens’ conversations where they occur. I wish that Facebook would find more ways to introduce us to new people who can tell their stories in safe spaces where we can come to learn about each other. I would like Facebook and media to collaborate convening communities in conflict to informed and productive discourse. I would like to see Twitter finally address its and perhaps society’s key problem: Can we be open and also civil? I hope Google will be more transparent about those who would manipulate it and thus us. I hope they all help us invent new business models that no longer reward just clickbait and fame, cats and Kardashians, sensationalism and polarization (Zuckerberg’s words). The platforms should spend less effort trying to help journalism as it is — except insofar as it buys us time for innovation — but instead support journalism as it can be.
Let Donald Trump kill the mass media that made him President. Let his ego and his hate suck all his attention and hostility from its last dying embers. Let his election be the last gasp, the nadir of this dying institution. Then let the rest of us — God willing a comfortable majority in this already-great nation — find a path to resume a civil and informed conversation about our shared future.
I’ve just posted the first chapter of Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for Newson Medium. The gist of it: The mass is dead. Or we should kill it, which is only fair because we in media started it. The mass was a relic of Gutenberg-era technology. The idea of the mass determines and corrupts our business model and our relationships with the public and our forms of news. The net allows us to see people as individuals and communities. We need to start. Here’s a snippet of that brief chapter:
I still hear people my age lament the passing of the Cronkite era’s grand shared experience of media, as if we all were meant to sit at the same time watching the same images of the same news. That was a short-lived era indeed, from the mid-’50s — when the arrival of television killed the diversity of voices from competitive newspapers in most American cities, leaving the lone survivors to serve everyone the same — to the mid-’90s and the arrival of the internet, which mortally wounded those monopolistic newspapers and threatened TV’s media hegemony. But the net’s real victim was not one medium or another. What it killed was the idea of the mass.
Should we continue to serve people as a mass now that we can serve and connect them as individuals? I will argue throughout this essay that relationships — knowing people as individuals and communities so we can better serve them with more relevance, building greater value as a result — will be a necessity for media business models, a key to survival and success. Yes, of course, we will still make content. But content is not the end product. It is only one tool we will use to inform and serve our communities and their members.
I’ll be putting the entire book up on Medium. But, of course, you can still make our publishing imprint and my bosses happy by buying the book or the Kindle or you can buy it directly from our friends at OR books.