The Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure

@ UMass Amherst

Reimagining the Internet

Holiday Special with Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci and Mike Sugarman

December 23, 2020

For this very special episode of Reimagining the Internet, Ethan is joined by Knight First Amendment Institute research fellow Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci and producer Mike Sugarman to celebrate 12 days of reimagining the internet. We talk about our favorite stuff on the internet this year, and what we're looking forward to in 2021. We share our holidy cheer talking about Zoom class fails, livestreaming concerts, and a speculative West African recipe war.

A list of things mentioned on this podcast:

Transcript

Ethan Zuckerman:

Welcome everybody. My name is Ethan Zuckerman. You're listening to Reimagining the Internet, and this is our holiday special, 2020. Reimagining the Internet is generally a pretty serious show. We bring on smart people to talk about the future of the internet. We do half-hour long, in-depth interviews about what's wrong with the internet and how we might fix it, but we're getting really close to the end of a very, very challenging year, and we decided it was time for something a little bit different. So, let me introduce you to two of my dear friends. First of all, rocking the mic from Cambridge, Massachusetts, Mike Sugarman, who is the producer of this here fine show and close collaborator on all sorts of different projects, including Re-Imagining the Internet. Hi Mike.

Mike Sugarman:

Ethan, thanks for having me on. It's good to be on the mic.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Then, reaching out to Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan, we have Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci. Chand and I have been working together at the Knight First Amendment Center all semester long. We've been writing a series of blog posts mapping social media. We're starting to think about this as essentially a field guide to the different types of social media that's out there. Because Chand has had so much to do with my thinking this semester, we wanted to bring him in as well. Chand, welcome.

Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci:

Thanks for having me, Ethan.

Ethan Zuckerman:

We want to start with the basic logic of this show, which is that we all know that 2020 was the dumpster fire. Actually, Chand, jump in for half a second. Why do we refer to this year as a dumpster fire? When, when did we start talking about things as dumpster fires? Be our fact man here.

Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci:

Yeah. Dumpster fire is a term that came out of the sports commentary world. There's not an exact person that we can attribute it to, but around 2009, and 2010, it started showing up in a lot of different radio shows, news articles, and specifically, there's one article about the Washington football team that, that described them as a "dumpster fire." That that article went viral and it made the term really popular in sports, and as you know, today, it's spread throughout the culture.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Well, it is sort of wonderful, the dumpster fire was first applied to the Washington racial epithets. Now the Washington football team, a team that continues to be a dumpster fire morally as well as from a sporting point of view. 2020, a dumpster fire of a year. Our goal here is to talk instead about the small number of things that actually made us happy about the internet this year. Believe it or not, we do the show, not because we think the internet is awful and it should be turned off, but because we actually think the internet is wonderful and all three of us have been looking for our favorite things that happened on the internet this year. I'm going to lead off. I think we're going to remember 2020 as the year of Zoom. I think, like many people who are listening to us my last moment face to face with large groups of people, was around March 11th.

At that point it was the last class that I taught at MIT. Half of the class showed up in my classroom, socially distanced. We were learning to do that even in March. The other half was on Zoom. O+ne of the things we talked about at that point, in that class, which was called, of course, Fixing Social Media was what creative things people were learning to do with Zoom. My students, told me that they were doing things that ranged all the way from attending Zoom-based Bar Mitzvahs, Zoom- based, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Someone pointed out that there they're actually easier in some ways to be at meetings like that when you're on Zoom.

My single favorite was someone who had set up Spotify and then have Zoom-based dance parties, where everybody would be listening to the same feed. They would be rocking out together. I think what I like so much about it is that Zoom became the room of requirement. Like in the Harry Potter books, it was the room that you could equip for any purpose you needed it for. In some ways it actually reminded me of some of those early days of social media, where we didn't really know what these tools were for and therefore we could use them whatever way we wanted to use them.

Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci:

Yeah, definitely. I don't think it was just Zoom, but I think video generally served that purpose. I know, just with my family and friends, we got into making TikToks, especially in the spring when we were all locked down and really bored. My younger sister would force us all to learn the latest viral TikTok dance and we'd record it. Then, she'd show my grandparents over Zoom, how to do it and they'd try and do it. It was just generally a great way to spend the time and, and also feel a little old.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Chand, what dances did she get you to do, and where can I find these?

Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci:

I don't know if I know the exact names for them, but I'm definitely not telling you where you can watch them.

Mike Sugarman:

Arguably the biggest viral star of the year was TikTok's Nathan Apodaca of Idaho. You might remember him as the man who was long boarding down the side of the highway, drinking Ocean Spray cranberry juice, listening to Fleetwood Mac. It caught fire on TikToK, parodied by a ton of people, including Mick Fleetwood, himself, Trevor from Fleetwood Mac. It led to Ocean Spray sending Apodaca, not just a lot of cranberry juice, but also a new pickup truck. I believe he was able to use that money to move out of his trailer and buy a house in Idaho. Just a touching story from an incredibly chill individual.

Ethan Zuckerman:

It's got to have the best mood of anything this year. I mean, just that feeling of Fleetwood Mac, the long board, the long slow curve, the smile on his face. The man washes potatoes for a living in Idaho Falls. It's just a beautiful moment that reminds you how beautiful little bits of life can be. I only wish that I were that chill when I was in front of a classroom.

Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci:

Yeah. That ties into another form of TikTok that really was funny this year. That was the Zoom class fail. There are all these different videos of the issues that would come up when people had to go to class on Zoom. Just various weird noises emanating from people's rooms.

It just goes to show, moving all of our lives onto Zoom and and digital tools created a lot of funny fails, and it was funny to watch all that.

Ethan Zuckerman:

It's not always the students who fail. Of course, there's been a couple of really frustrating Zooms where you see students going nuts because the teacher has muted everybody. Then, has, her camera's gone off or she's gone on mute or something like that. My favorite was a letter sent by the principal of a school district to parents, reminding them that while their kid is on Zoom School, they should probably be wearing clothing, if they're going to pass through the background of the Zoom Room, that while it's fine to smoke a joint at home, perhaps not smoking one, the size of a Cuban cigar while your child is trying to study. It really has been a moment where we've all had some insight into people's lives. I actually, I think, like a lot of parents, I was very worried about the rise of screen time in 2020, but I've got to tell you, my son is a devoted Minecraft player.

He has a group of, he actually has two groups of half a dozen friends. Some are friends that he goes to school with virtually, these days. Some are actually friends that he met through a friend of mine, a group of young women, all of whom he plays Minecraft with. He'll go into a Minecraft realm. He'll get on audio chat with the various different friends. They coordinate these incredibly, intricate building projects. They design raids on each other's castles. I have to say, despite the fact that involves so much staring at screens, it actually looks a lot more healthy in terms of sociability than a lot of what I was doing at his age, which seemed to involve, beating each other with sticks and the woods. But I was thrilled to see that it's not just my 11-year old kid. We saw Alexandria Ocasio Cortez take to Twitch and start playing Among Us on a live stream.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Among Us is basically, a version of the game, Werewolf, where you have to try to figure out who on a spaceship is an imposter, and you get to have meetings to try to vote them off. My son Drew, put me on this and I figured, I'm pretty good at Werewolf. I'll be fine. I got kicked out of the airlock within 15 seconds. Evidently, I was acting sus, but what's been incredible is watching AOC, jump in and play these games. It's very, very clear that, she is what she says she is, which is to say she is a young person, deeply versed in internet culture. She is completely comfortable gaming on Twitch. It turns out it may be the new political platform. It may be a place where we get real insight into people's lives, particularly at a moment where we're living our lives on the screen and particularly on the stream.

Mike Sugarman:

Yeah. I've heard J LO is really excited about something that all over the internet, as we adjust it to these new screen lives. It was the rise of music live streaming. One of the most prominent examples of this was DJ D-Nice. He ran the Club Quarantine live streams on his Instagram live. Started off with a few hundred viewers, but within just a few weeks, he had over 100,000 each live stream, bringing on high-profile, main-stream guests like Rihanna, Michelle Obama, hip hop mogul, Mark Zuckerberg.

Ethan Zuckerman:

But only because it was on Insta Live, right? Had he done it on Twitch, who you never would have seen Zuckerberg.

Mike Sugarman:

That's right. But, some of the most exciting live streaming happening was on Twitch actually. As parties shut down in- person around March, all of a sudden lots of dance parties moved to Amazon's Twitch streaming platform, everything from small underground parties that usually happen in the basement of a bath house in Pittsburgh, to really huge raves and the phenomenon is spread like wildfire. Chicago's Experimental Sound Studios, curated a live stream series called the Quarantine Concerts, which ended up being hosted by jazz and avant-garde, non-profits and clubs, and just to every American city that you can name running every single night, basically from April through June, raising over $100,000 in donations for performers who lost gigs and tours. On top of that, it was just a lot of fun, especially in the early days of the pandemic, where we didn't know what was going on, getting on a live stream, watching some music, chatting with people you never met before. It was great.

Ethan Zuckerman:

It's definitely not the concert experience, but it can be really fun. One of the musicians I've seen, two or three dozen times in person is Robyn Hitchcock, who is a wonderfully quirky singer songwriter, sort of out of the Syd Barrett hallucinogenic-style of stream of consciousness songwriting. He and his partner, Emma Swift have been performing weekly on StageIt. It's a platform that I hadn't seen before this year, but it's actually a lovely idea. You buy tokens for of 10 cents a piece. You have a suggested donation to see the show. It's usually suggested at five bucks, then people tip after each song and there's a live chat going on at the same time. For someone like Hitchcock, who tell stories between sets takes crazy requests it's kind of perfect. I mean, the way that you actually want to see this guy is feeling like he's sitting with you in your living room, and then you are literally sitting in your living room. You're air-playing it to your TV, and then you're giving him virtual tokens. It's this wonderful, fine line between actually being lovely and utterly dystopian.

Mike Sugarman:

One of the most exciting thing that's been happening on top of these live streams, where lots of donations were coming in, was this mass flocking to the platform Bandcamp, where listeners can pay artists directly for their music. Right around the time the pandemic started, Bandcamp started waiving its own fees the first Friday of every month. So, 100% of the money that's someone paid for the album minus the PayPal or credit card fees would go directly to the artist. Around the time that the protest movements, spurred by the murder of church, George Floyd broke out, a group of people got together and made a big Google sheet, listing every single black musician they could find on Bandcamp, so that come the first Friday of the month, you could to directly financially support black people by buying their music. This turned into a website. You can visit it, blackbandcamp.info.

It's a wonderful repository of just about every black person on Bandcamp across the world. Bandcamp has gone on to share this website themselves. It's a really wonderful example, one, of the power of supporting other people's music with money, which means it can help them continue to make music they love, and two, actually finding a way to financially support and lift up our black community members, which, hey, I'll tell you, in music, basically means supporting the people who innovate every major type of music that we love. That's how it's been for the entire 20th century. That's how it is now. It's exceedingly rare that the black people who made this happen, actually get the credit and the payment that they deserve. I think this has been a really wonderful thing.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Mike, I'm really glad you brought that up. We've seen a lot of movements online that are reacting to George Floyd, in part, by trying to get people to support black-owned businesses. We're seeing a lot of indices come up of black-owned bookstores, other black-owned small businesses, particularly as we're in the holiday season. Looking for those sites is a great way to go. It's also a nice moment to shout out Bandcamp, which is trying very hard to be orders of magnitude less evil than some of the other music platforms out there. One of the guests I hope that we'll get on, in the spring is my neighbor, Joe Holt, who actually wrote a good deal of the technical architecture for Bandcamp, who can talk a little bit about how that project came about. It was just a great year to look for music online.

One of the things that I found myself coming back to, again and again, when I was feeling really down about 2020, was the Nandy Bushell story. I hope you guys saw this. Nandy Bushell is a ten-year old drummer from Ipswich, England. She describes herself as, as an Anglo-Zulu drummer and she just attacks the kit. She is a phenomenally talented player period. Not just for.10 or 11 years old, she's a really good player. She has this wonderful habit of screaming when she takes on a drum roll and she took on Nirvana's In Bloom and plays this. What's wonderful about this is someone passed it on to Dave Grohl, who'd actually drummed on that track with Nirvana. He's not a media guy, but it got passed to him by Butch Vig, the famous producer. Then, Bushell came around and did the Foo Fighters song, Everlong which in fact, Grohl hadn't drummed on, but challenged him to a drum battle.

Ethan Zuckerman:

To his enormous credit, Dave Grohl came back and had a drum- off with her playing the same song, and they've been challenging each other back and forth. It's this wonderful sight of this super-famous drummer, a lead singer, this incredibly energetic Afro-British drummer. It's just, it's pure love. It's just been a wonderful and beautiful thing to enjoy.

Mike Sugarman:

Yeah. 2020, much like every year, is the year of teens on the internet. Teens, specifically teen K-Pop fans were also some of the most vocal and effective political actors of the summer of 2020. In June, they collectively tanked Trump's first rally since the pandemic started, in Tulsa, by reserving all of the seats in the arena and resulting an embarrassingly empty, but probably much safer Trump rally on June 21. Those same K-Pop fans, who gather on Twitter and TikTok and Instagram or on bands like BTS, started infesting, both QAnon-adjacent and white supremacist-adjacent hashtags, most notably the hashtag White Lives Matter.

And, basically just spamming them with so-called fan cams where the video is, they edit, focusing on their favorite K-Pop performers, usually with a glittery effect and close-ups on their faces. Were teens responsible for the suppression of a lot of misinformation and hate speech online this summer? Maybe, but at the very least, it's pretty fun watching Donald Trump get his just desserts at the hands of a bunch of disgruntled K-Pop fans.

Ethan Zuckerman:

The K-pop stand, versus the Trump stand thing was wonderful. Part of what I loved about it, is that much of the humor that came out of it, it's just sort of inexplicably funny. You find yourself laughing at it instead of going, "I have no idea why I am laughing at this, but I cannot stop laughing," Chand, what's something you couldn't stop laughing at in 2020?

Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci:

Yeah. There's this whole genre of YouTube videos where they'll take a movie and just speed It up in a consistent way, based on a word that said in the movie or every step. The particular video that really cracked me and my friends up was the entire B movie. But, every time B as said, they speed up the video by 15%,

Ethan Zuckerman:

Well, it feels like time is always accelerating, so maybe it's a deep metaphor for our existence in 2020. Mike, what's inexplicably funny and also a deep metaphor.

Mike Sugarman:

I loved the meme, Everything is a Cake. You may have seen a few months ago, Twitter and Instagram are full of these videos of a knife slicing into a crock or a knife slicing into a planter or a knife slicing into a big juicy egg plant. Inside each of those, it was always a kick. The cakes were baked by a Turkish Baker who runs the Red Rose Cake Account. Her name is Tuba Ge├žkil. She makes a lot of really cool creations and she made a lot of very disturbingly, accurate simulations of everyday objects. All of them were a cake. It led a lot of people on the internet, that's here to ask, is everything a cake? To be determined.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Certainly, something we will be keeping our eyes on in 2021. Would the internet be better if everything were in fact, a cake? I think the internet would be better in 2021, if we could get the person who is running the Steak-umm Twitter account to write more or less everything. I don't know if you all have been following this, but the person, his name is Nathan Allebach, who is managing the Steak-umm brand account. Steak-umms, if you do not know, are inexpensive, frozen, processed sandwich steaks, I will say with no endorsement implied that they're surprisingly delicious. But, the Steak-umm Twitter feed has been this remarkably literate commentary on social media, on the nature of reality, on how to fact check, on how to prevent misinformation.

So, you have Steak-umm, on April 06, 2020 tweeting up, "Friendly reminder. In times of uncertainty and misinformation, anecdotes are not data. Good data is carefully measured and collected information, based on a range of subject-dependent factors, including, but not limited to controlled variables, meta-analysis and randomization," which is the sort of thing that if you wrote in a paper for me, you'd probably get a good grade. When someone asked why Steak-umm was suddenly tweeting in the voice of a communications' scholar, Steak-umm responded a few days later with, "We are just a frozen meat brand, tweeting into the void, hoping to provoke thought, inspire unity and relay useful information. We are not an expert in anything or some beef God. We are a company with a bottom line, being run by people stay safe and be good to each other out there." I have to say, I think that's basically my experience of 2020. We are all just frozen meat brands, tweeting into the void.

Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci:

Well, Steak-umm Twitter gave us some good things and some serious things. I think, maybe, pivoting to something more serious, that was good on the internet this year, the COVID Tracking Project, which started with a small team at the Atlantic, Robinson Meyer and Alexis Madrigal, who were trying to track COVID cases. It's now the leading authority on COVID data. It grew to that, just through a classic internet story, through social media, through crowdsourcing. Now they have their own website. A bunch of volunteers help gather the data every day. A bunch of different news organizations use COVID Tracking Project, as the government is referring to it. It was just this really great example of how people can use the internet and social media to come together and achieve really cool things.

There's even somebody out in your neck of the woods, Ethan, Jasmine West, a librarian from Vermont, who's been really, really a great part of that project. Yeah, this was just something that reminded me what these tools can be used for when we have a specific goal in mind and something that we're really trying to achieve.

Ethan Zuckerman:

It's America at both its best and its worst, right? It's this wonderful example of people getting together and creating a source of research data that doesn't exist elsewhere. The flip side of course, is it's completely crazy cakes that this information is not coming out from our Federal Government and that a bunch of volunteers have to get together and put it together. Mike, any parting good news on internet business models, and the serious stuff that you and I are often paying attention to?

Mike Sugarman:

Yeah. I think it's a small thing and I think it's a fair from the S solution, but Snapchat started setting aside $1 million a day that it pays to the users who create its most highly trafficked content. If your video shows up in Snapchat's spotlight section that day, you get a cut of their $1 million. I think, it wouldn't be terrible to live in a world where instead of the big platforms making money off of selling our data, if they paid people for what they actually did to create value for those platforms? Does Snapchat still probably make money selling people's data? I'd be surprised if they didn't, but it's a step in the right direction. I hope that this is one of the things that helps readjust our expectations of how value is created for these giant companies and what we can get out of it.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Yeah. Mike, we're going to talk about platform cooperatives with Trevor Scholz coming up in a show and Snapchat's not the first to do this. YouTube, of course, has been paying creators for quite some time. But in general, it is a rethinking of that relationship between content creators and the tools that they're using. Chand, when we talk about YouTube Logic, which is a piece that we're going to have coming up soon. I know that you're going to want to talk a little bit about the ways in which the economies of YouTube make it a really unique platform. One of the things that I, honestly, have been most pleased with in 2020 is the pivot away from the illusion of neutrality. Platforms always like to tell us that they are neutral arbiters.

They are not publishers. They are not deciding what goes on or what doesn't go on. We finally, really saw in 2020, mostly because of the utter explosion of misinformation, platforms starting to stand up and take some responsibility. It certainly came into focus with Trump's ongoing lies during, before, and certainly after the election, where he's claiming without evidence, to have won. But it started quite a bit earlier. The Plandemic video, this really, crazy-cakes video in which a thoroughly discredited scientist is claiming that wearing a mask will make the virus worse. The platforms decided that this was so dangerous and that because the CDC had explicitly put up different guidelines, that they would simply block it.

It seemed like once you had Google and Facebook getting comfortable with blocking that video, it led them down this path where they got increasingly comfortable blocking other sorts of misinformation. I don't think we're going to see that put back in the bottle. I think the platforms are going to continue moving in that direction, in part, because the public is really demanding it. That's one prediction for 2021. Chand, any predictions for what you think we will see or what we'll be talking about when we do this roundup, same time next year in what we hope is a much better year?

Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci:

I think Zoom is going to be an epithet next year. Once we move past this pandemic, I don't think anybody's going to voluntarily want to hop on a Zoom to talk to friends, family, coworkers. we're going to be all zoomed out and if you want to see me, I'll see you in person. But I think, video calls are definitely going to take a back seat for a little while to good old-fashioned, in-person interaction.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I can't wait for that to happen. I'm going to go out on a limb. I'm going to say that if 2020 was the year that we all started paying attention to Chinese social media, through TikTok, 2021 is the rise of West African social media. I'm waiting for the Senegalese, the Ghanaians, the Nigerians in particular, to take their musical dominance and bring it up into social media dominance. I'm hoping that the Jollof wars, the great cultural battle between Nigerians and Ghanaians over a very popular rice dish, which frankly is much, much better in Ghana than it is in Nigeria, I am hoping that we will all be taking sides in this war between now and 2021 and that we all have strong, although probably ill-informed opinions about who makes the best Jollof.

Mike Sugarman:

Yeah, my prediction for 2021, it's the hopeful one. It's maybe a little optimistic. I think at some point in 2021, we will see a picture of a party on Instagram and not be terrified for every single person showing it.

Ethan Zuckerman:

We might even find ourselves wanting to be part of that party, which is something that I got to tell you right now, at the end of 2020, none of us wants at all. Mike Sugarman, Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci, it's been such a pleasure working with both of you all year. Mike, there's not a chance we would have gotten this podcast off the ground without you. Chand, in general, I would be much, much less smart about social networks and all of these issues, had we not had the chance to work together. I am grateful for both of you gentlemen, and the work that we got to do in 2020, and I'm wishing both of you and all of our listeners, a better 2021. Happy Holidays from us at Re-Imagining the Internet.

Thanks to every one at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which hosts the Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure. Thanks to the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, for all of their help and support on this project. Thank you all for listening. Please tune in, in 2021 where we'll have some new, great interviews and insights on how we can all reimagine the internet.