Our host Ethan Zuckerman introduces iDPI’s new podcast by talking about the need for creating online spaces in the public interest, serving civic good instead of a corporate profit motive. Join us as we interview activists, scholars, journalists, and entrepreneurs reimagining the internet as we know it today.
Thanks for listening to Reimagining the Internet from the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure at UMass Amherst. We’re hosting an ongoing discussion with researchers, activists, academics, techies, and journalists about what’s wrong with the internet and how we might fix it. I’m your host, Ethan Zuckerman.
Generally speaking, Reimagining the Internet is going to be an interview show. I’ll be talking to an amazing array of people who are working on really creative projects that imagine the internet working radically different ways than it does today, hence the title of the show. But I want to make sure that I’m being honest with all of you. I’m not a neutral narrator. A lot of the work that I’m doing right now at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst is focused on a very particular view of how the internet could and should work in the future. So for the first episode of this podcast, I’m going to do the awkward work of interviewing myself and tell you a little bit about the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure, why we’re starting a new center to do this and how those views might inform the conversations we’re going to be having here with people who have quite different views, in many cases, with both what’s wrong with the internet and what we might do to fix it.
So who am I? My name is Ethan Zuckerman. I’m a professor at UMass Amherst. I teach in public policy, in communication and in information and computer science. But the answer is I’m a refugee from the very early days of the internet. In the mid-1990s, I helped start a company called Tripod.com, which was really one of the very first user-generated content companies on the web. It let people put up home pages for free. At the peak of its popularity, it had something like 18 million users per month, which was a whole lot back in the late 1990s when most people weren’t using the internet.
The truth is user-generated content was both very new and very old ever. Since the 1970s, the main thing people who have been using the internet for is to share their own writing, whether it’s emails, whether it’s mailing lists, whether it was Usenet newsgroups, but making this accessible to a whole new generation of people in the 1990s really sparked the movement that we’re seeing today with social media, where everybody is a content creator, and therefore everybody has the possibility of trying to influence the much larger social dialogue we have about what’s going on in the world and how we view the world that we share.
So from that perspective of watching the internet and helping build it for the last 25 years, there’s enormous amounts to be proud of. The internet has made it possible for people all over the world to raise their voices and share their ideas in ways that simply wouldn’t have been possible before. I’ve had the great fortune to be involved with a project called Global Voices, which works to amplify voices of people in the developing world and share them all over the world. That’s a project that’s now been going on for more than a dozen years with thousands and thousands of posts from people in over a hundred different countries. But on the flip side, there’s lots of reasons to be worried about the internet right now, its effect on us individually and the effects on us as a community, and particularly as a political community.
Nearly everyone listening to this will have heard about mis and disinformation, the possibility that the internet and social media are being used to manipulate us and to manipulate elections. The idea that the internet may be pushing us apart, polarizing us, making us less tolerant and more hateful. You may have also heard ideas that the internet is designed for addiction, designed to keep you clicking, that it may be bad for your self image, your self esteem or your mental health. I think all of those concerns are worth taking very seriously. Although, I’d point out that as a scholar in this space, many of those contentions have less support in research than they do in anecdote. But what I’m really interested in is seeing whether we can look at some of the assumptions behind the internet that we work with today and think about whether there’s other ways of building a path out of our current problems and towards a better future.
So let’s think, first of all, about the logic of the internet. When you use the tool like Facebook, you expect certain things from it. The first one you expect is that it’s going to be free to use. Because it’s free to use, you expect it to be supported in a particular way, targeted advertising. Advertisers are going to hope to steal a fraction of your attention. They’re going to pull you away from what you’re actually doing, which is trying to keep up with your friends or maybe stalk your ex or any number of other things people do on Facebook. Those advertisers are going to have a better chance of reaching you, perhaps, because they have data from the platform about what you do, what you like, and maybe intimate details about who you are. The author, Shoshana Zuboff, refers to this model as surveillance capitalism. We collect information about you and your preferences. We use it to target ads to you to sell, which in exchange make services free.
Now, this model has been really great for building and growing companies like Google and Facebook and Twitter and YouTube. It’s been pretty great in the sense that it’s given a lot of people a chance to connect to old friends, to publish things that they might not otherwise have been able to publish. But it has some real possible downsides. One observation that’s been made is that the platforms have a really strong incentive to keep you watching, and therefore the content that they serve you may not just be an unbiased view of what your friends are saying about the world. There’s a good chance that Facebook might feed you information that is sensational or highly emotional or one way or another intended to capture your emotions and keep you watching and viewing.
The theory behind this is that if you’re seeing more emotional, high emotional valence content, there’s a good chance that it might try to sway you politically. Or maybe it might be the sort of content that tries to misinform you about the risks of something like COVID-19. There’s a lot of research going on right now trying to figure out how true this is, how much are we actually being manipulated by our feeds. But because the logic of surveillance capitalism works in a particular way, there’s ample reason to be concerned. But here’s the interesting trick, surveillance capitalism isn’t the only possible model for the internet. We know that to be true because there’s some really exciting sites out there that work on a different logic.
Consider Wikipedia. Like Facebook, Wikipedia is made by average users. People are allowed to go on and write what they like. Except on Wikipedia, they can’t write exactly what they like. They actually have to write within a very specific model. They’re writing encyclopedia entries and they can be overwritten and corrected by other users until an article reaches what Wikipedia calls neutral point of view. While it sounds crazy, like having a bunch of monkeys struggling with a typewriter until they write an encyclopedia, it actually has worked remarkably well. Wikipedia is one of the top 10 sites on the internet in virtually every country where it’s used and it doesn’t accept advertising. It’s also not supported by subscription. Instead, it’s supported by donation, mostly small donations from its users. It’s driven not so much by profit, but by a mission, the mission of making knowledge free and accessible to everyone around the world.
Now, Wikipedia is unusual. It’s really one of the very few sites that’s been able to work this way, but it offers this intriguing idea that there could be different logics that inform the internet. So I want to suggest a different logic that I’ve spent a while thinking about, which is the logic of public broadcasting. Most major democracies have a public broadcaster. This is different from having government media where you’re hearing propaganda from the government. In countries like Germany and in Britain, the public broadcaster is usually the most respected source of broadcast news. It is supported by taxpayer dollars, but it’s governed by an independent board of governors. Because it’s under such careful scrutiny, it tends to be extremely careful about not taking it over a political stance in one direction or another.
It too has a mission. Its goal is to provide reliable information that people need as citizens in a democracy and to showcase voices that might not otherwise be heard, particularly from minority populations or parts of the country that might not otherwise be heard from. So what happens if we take a logic like this, a medium that works based on taxpayer support, that has explicit civic goals behind it and apply it to the space of social media? Well, you might get something a little bit like what we’re trying to build with Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure. We’re talking about public spaces online, spaces where people get together and talk about the future, whether it’s politics, whether about their local communities. These are civic spaces, sort of broader than political.
You might not be talking about who’s going to win the 2020 US election, but you might be talking about how to revitalize the downtown of your hometown. Right now, most of these conversations take place on platforms that are owned by Facebook, Twitter, Google that work under this logic of surveillance capitalism. They are digital public spaces on top of private infrastructures. We’re investigating this idea that maybe we can build these digital public spaces on top of public infrastructures. These would be new spaces. They’d be supported by taxpayer dollars, at least at first. Instead of having the logic of surveillance capitalism and maximizing profit, these are spaces that could work on a civic logic. So you might imagine there could be a social network designed specifically for the people in your town to talk about local issues and it might not be open to anyone outside of your town. These networks don’t have to be huge. In fact, maybe they benefit from being small.
You might also imagine a network that you could voluntarily join and have civil arguments with people who have a different political point of view from you. These spaces probably can’t be free-for-alls. You’d probably design them to be very heavily moderated. But you might actually have them moderated by the community that uses them. This is a model that we see on websites like Reddit, where people are involved with actually governing the spaces that they work within. Why don’t these spaces exist right now? Well, one answer is that they’re not very profitable. You don’t necessarily make a ton of money hosting a forum where people come together and debate whether we should have a dog park. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not necessary. In fact, there’s lots of things that we ask our societies to pay for as public goods, because we need them not necessarily because they turn an enormous profit.
The other reason that these spaces don’t exist is that existing social media networks work pretty hard to make sure that they have a monopoly of eyeballs. Facebook is pretty notorious when other social networks are getting traction for buying them up and incorporating them sometimes as they did with Instagram, or just making sure that they don’t grow much further. By stepping outside of the venture capital world and the world in which your investors will always sell a network to a big company like Google or Facebook, and instead accepting this idea that we might invest as a society in building these sorts of spaces, we take ourselves out of that equation.
But we’ve still got other big problems. Lots and lots of people have tried to reinvent social media. The problem with doing so is that you can start a great social network and there’s some exciting new ones out there, but they have a very, very hard time getting up to a large enough size where they have network effects. So if you end up joining Diaspora or Mastodon, you may find that you don’t spend as much time on it as you would like to because your friends aren’t on it as well. So the work that we’re doing at Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure has a lot to do with interoperability. We want to make sure that people can use these new sorts of social networks that we’re creating, but that they’re still able to use the networks that they already have friends and a presence on like Twitter and Facebook.
In fact, we’re going after an idea called adversarial interoperability. We want to be interoperable with these networks, whether they like it or not and that has all sorts of interesting technical and legal implications to it that I’m sure we’ll be discussing as we get further within this podcast. Social media isn’t the only goal behind the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure. We’re interested in building all sorts of digital tools that move away from a pure advertising surveillance and profit logic and into a logic that’s more focused on civics and on healthy online communities. So you’ll hear me talk more about this over the course of these interviews. Some of my ideas are sure to creep in.
If you feel like learning more about this, we have a bunch of papers up at publicinfrastructure.org that flesh out the digital public infrastructure idea. But I want to assure you that if you’re listening to this and thinking, "This guy’s crazy, this will never work," that doesn’t mean you should stop listening to this podcast because the truth is we’re going to invite a lot of different people with many different visions for what the internet can and should be to come in and have conversations. Some of the people we’re hoping to bring in include some people who are really early pioneers on the internet, who’ve built some of the things that have made the web that we love and sometimes love to hate as well as some new entrepreneurs, some incredible scholars, some hackers who are really deep down in the trenches of building these new systems.
Our goal is really to give you an overview of a world that if you don’t know about it might look really static, but actually is going through an amazing amount of activity and creativity right now. So I hope you’ll come back and join us on this podcast, Reimagining the Internet. We’re going to be releasing interviews on a semi-regular basis, one every two weeks or so, as we lead up to the launch of this new center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Please feel free to find out more about us at publicinfrastructure.org. I hope you’ll tune in and keep listening to the podcast as we go forward.
Reimagining the Internet is hosted by me, Ethan Zuckerman, and produced by Mike Sugarman, who also composed our theme song. Visit publicinfrastructure.org for more information about the launch of our research center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in spring 2021. Please subscribe wherever you’re listening to this podcast.