2010s online activism, the Reddit blackout, antitrust, academic data access, Newt Gingrich, enshitifcation. We brought scholar/activist Dave Karpf on to talk about his work leading fellow academics to fight for data access standards, and we ended up with a Reimagining greatest hits.
Dave Karpf is associate professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University and author of The Move On Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy and Analytic Activism, Digital Listening, and the New Political Strategy.
On top of all of that, Dave is a prolific blogger. You can find him on Substack.
Welcome back to Reimagining the Internet, everybody. I am your host, Ethan Zuckerman at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I’m here with my friend Dave Karpf. He is associate professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.
Dave is a scholar of activist organizations like Move On and Daily Kos. And he’s really a scholar of how activists have used the internet. He wrote a book in 2012 called The Move On Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy. In 2016, he wrote a book called Analytic Activism, Digital Listening, and the New Political Strategy.
And we are going to talk a little bit about a new activist organization we are both involved with, the Coalition for Independent Tech Research. And we’re going to talk about this weird activist moment on the internet, particularly on Reddit. Dave, welcome. Good to have you here.
Thanks for having me. Really glad to be here.
So let’s start by talking about this project, which is a project that’s really introduced us to each other. I’ve been aware of your work for years, but I haven’t had the chance to work with you directly until our mutual friend, Nate Matias, pulled us both into the Coalition for Independent Technology Research. What is CITR? What are you doing with it? Why is it important?
So CITR, I think the backdrop here, we started to talk about coming together and building this thing two summers ago after Facebook went after Laura Edelson at the NYU’s Facebook Ad Observatory. because that was kind of a last straw moment. The backdrop here is researchers, both academic researchers and journalists have for years tried to study the platforms, sometimes in partnership with them and sometimes asking permission and sometimes just on our own.
There was a big project called Social Science One where the platforms were going to partner with scholars. That didn’t end up working out. The short version of why it didn’t end up working out is I think everyone was very well-meaning until lawyers came into the room and said, “That’s not in your interest, don’t do that.” And once you bring a bunch of lawyers in and with big public companies like that, of course, there will be lawyers. Everything kind of goes haywire. So the permissioned research ended up not working.
Laura at NYU had built—like obeying their terms of service—had built their own thing in order to monitor whether Facebook was doing what it said it was doing. And when that was no longer in the company’s interest, because it could result in bad press, they just went and shut her down. And at that point, I think there was a sense amongst academics—there’s a big sign on letter—there’s a sense amongst academics and researchers that we are simply not in a position to be able to study the platforms if it is only, if the research can only happen when they don’t notice or when they like what we’re saying. So we have to come together and organize.
So this begins as a mutual defense organization. It begins as a chance for people to stand up and say, look what Facebook is doing to Laura Edelson and her research team at NYU is unacceptable. We’ve seen some really dramatic changes since then, particularly around Twitter’s API, now at the moment around Reddit’s API. What’s going on at the sort of current moment in independent technology research?
Yeah, so a thing that has really changed in the past few years is when we were getting started, I think the moment we were broadly in was we had a few giant tech platforms that define the mass consumer internet experience. They have been these same giants for years and years, they are not changing. So we have fixed objects that we need to study. They are large publicly traded corporations. They don’t usually like us studying them so they make it difficult.
We need to rebalance the scales a bit. And I think that’s happened since then, because 2022 was the year that interest rates finally went up and tech stocks started to actually go down for the first time in almost 20 years. Is we’re starting to see a bunch of those platforms follow out and falter. This in Twitter is the special case because Twitter didn’t just have the tech stocks go down. It had Elon Musk buy it and then start ruining everything because he figured I know how these work, let’s unplug everything.
But also, you know, Meta stock declining precipitously, leading them to lay off tons of staff, including people who researchers were collaborating with. And Reddit, while it’s not one of the big ones of the bunch, Reddit is in this similar moment of saying, well, we want to go public, which means that we need to show we can make a lot of money. Let’s not be a community, let’s be a business. And then the Reddit community has something to say about that.
So I think this moment of financial instability where the numbers aren’t naturally going up for all the tech companies when they were used to that for so long has kind of changed a bit of the scenario in terms of their stability.
We were used to trying to find ways to study and create a counterweight to these large institutions. Now the institutions are also looking a little more fragile. It’s interesting to sort of think about how one change can have a really deep change to a field.
So you’re positing that this change in interest rates is changing corporate behavior across the social media platforms. And I think that’s very believable. I think at the same time, the change in accessibility of data appears to be changing our world as researchers.
Up until fairly recently, there was a platform called CrowdTangle that was pretty good about giving us certain types of information from Facebook, not all types. Facebook deprioritized that, got rid of Brandon Silverman, who was the leader of that team, and has really let that product decay quite a bit.
Part of Twitter’s ways of making money was to take their API, which had been incredibly open to research, and now trying to monetize it to the point where accessing it, even at a much lower level than we are used to accessing it, now costs about $44,000 a month. And now Reddit. I think they’re a month. A month.
And just for those of you who are not following the world of social science, we’re generally pretty happy to be getting grants in the low six figures. So handing over that to pay for a year of Twitter data is probably not our idea of a good time.
Reddit recently ended, renegotiated, changed, shifted its deal with a data provider called Pushshift, which had been scraping Reddit and making the entire contents of the platform accessible. If we think about how research has worked on this, there was an enormous amount of Twitter research based on the fact that there was a good API. Now it feels in many ways like there is no good way to get data off of these platforms. Is that an accurate read on the situation, Dave? And what is it going to do to our field as technology researchers?
So, yes, I think that’s accurate. I think it’s sending us back to the early aughts. When I was a grad student, starting to find ways to study technology, and I’m primarily a qualitative descriptive scholar. So I have pretty much never done a quantitative project that I couldn’t hold in Excel and pull out the Excel spread to the Excel. But part of what we were trying to do when we were studying the blogosphere is there was this new emerging thing. No one knew how to study it. let’s make some stuff up and kind of cobble it together.
And then every few years, the Internet we were studying would change enough that we had to rethink all of that. I am of a vintage that I remember Technorati quite well. That was a really nice hack for measuring the blogosphere for a while, and then it wasn’t because the blogosphere changed. And again, we’ve had this decade of stability, which has allowed us to build up more robust data collection and more robust methods for how to empirically study this stuff when the platforms allow us and don’t shut us down.
And I think you’re characterizing it right that the reason we always study, people always study Twitter is because Twitter was where you could get the data, not because we thought it was the most important but it was the most accessible. That was a problem that I think I wrote about back in 2016. It’s everybody knew it was there, but if that’s where you can get the data, that’s what you study. Now all of that data is becoming much less reliable and chaotic.
And so I think we’re probably as a research field, going to be moving back to the early aughts where it’s kind of cobble something together, hopefully it works for a couple of years long enough for you to get a paper out that teaches us something interesting, but then you have to rethink everything because everything’s going to be a mess.
I think that notion of a long period of stability is really interesting because we really have had a chunk of time where people have been able to develop things like strong quantitative methods for understanding things like the influence of black Twitter. I think about someone like Dean Freelon who’s really done pioneering methodological work there and gotten to the point where certain questions can be asked and answered. The funny thing I think is that even with 10 years of a great deal of quantitative information, there’s a great deal that we haven’t been able to answer.
Part of what Laura was trying to do with the Ad database is a problem that many of us have. I do a lot of quant research. I do it based on scraping publicly available data. There’s an enormous difference between what is available to my web scrapers as public and what you as an individual user might encounter. And that gets us into a space that people started calling data donation. Can I give my data? Facebook’s, Meta’s response to this is “no, no under no circumstances are you allowed to donate what you see on the screen.” We’ve got powerful folks like Mozilla coming in and trying to say “no, no, no, we’re going to make that available.”
Where do we go on this? You are one of the core board members around Coalition for Independent Technology Research, as am I. We are at the nascent stages of an activist movement trying to assert our right to study these platforms. How does that argument go? Why are we right and why are the platforms wrong?
I think most importantly, the platforms are more powerful now than they were in the early aughts. Like that’s the problem with the idea that research is going to go back to where we were in 2003, is there’s a lot more money in the internet now than there was in 2003. And there’s a lot more power built into it and our demands accountability.
Now we haven’t talked about the generative AI yet. Generative AI is the additional curve ball here because all of these big companies have decided generative AI is a race that they need to win. And that’s just going to further increase the amount of noise in what data sets we can collect, and the amount of really, well, like really critical data that you would need to make sense of it that they aren’t making available. Like if they decide to build models that they can’t understand and also limit research access, like that’s not 2002, that’s like probably mid 1990s as research where we’re back to trying to convince people that this is worth studying.
So I think that’s the difference is we are in a moment where we’re heading back to more darkness than light in terms of what we can see, but also far more power than there was before. What that means for the coalition and what I’ll say, I’m proud of the coalition for this that I should say, well, I’m a board member, like other people have been doing all the work. Like I’m proud of how well other people like Nate and Rebecca have been handling this.
And that’s Rebecca Trumbull, who is a colleague of yours at George Washington.
Right, yeah. So I think that the coalition has done, I think quite well so far, is be responsive to the moment. Like when Twitter decides that they are going to shut down research or access and say, you know, you’re going to need to give us like half a million dollars per year if you want to study us at all. Which is just like, that’s not even a money making scheme because nobody has a research grant with 500K sitting around for Twitter data or any data. So like when they go and announce that, that is effectively them saying, nobody can study us anymore. That wasn’t what we weren’t built to take on Twitter, but the moment calls for responding to Twitter. And I think the coalition responded to that quite well.
What we’re seeing, and we’re going to talk about Reddit some more in a bit, but like what we’re seeing with Reddit, when they decided that they want to change the API, that really matters for the researchers that are going to study Reddit. So being a community that responds to these moments is I think the best way that we can proceed.
And this is something I wrote about a bit back when I wrote the move on effect until 11 years ago now that these new digital activist organizations, the thing that they do better than the organizations, the interest groups that came before them is being nimble and responsive. They have small flexible staffs that allow them to respond to the crises of the moment in ways that a single issue group with a lot of lobbyists often can’t. So I think we want to seize that affordance of digital activism and say, if we are a community of researchers pushing for our interests so that we can hold power to account and power is in many ways now the platforms. That means we also need to respond as these platforms that are entering tougher times than we expected, as they make mistakes and make trouble, we need to be the ones who are responding to it. I think we’ve done a good job of that so far. I’m still early, but I’ve been really proud with the moments that we’ve risen to so far.
So that notion of nimble and responsive to the moment really does make me think about Reddit. So what’s going on at Reddit, and we’re recording this at a specific moment in time, we’re recording it on June 21st, 2023. At the moment on Reddit, Steve Huffman, the CEO, has announced that there will be significant changes to the Reddit API. Reddit’s API used to be used to create this massive dataset push shift that I’ve used a lot in my work. It was also directly accessible to researchers and to third-party tool builders. The changes were made without a lot of notice and with not especially good communication, people have been worried about two things. They’ve been worried about whether they can still study Reddit through Pushshift or through the API. They’re also very worried about whether they can use third-party clients.
Now this feels like a bit of an esoteric issue. Many social media platforms like Facebook do not permit third-party clients. You want to write your own client to access Facebook, Facebook will shut you down or at least, you know, try very hard to throw lawyers at you. Twitter and Reddit historically have supported third-party clients. And this has been particularly important for Reddit because Reddit’s own native mobile phone client is terrible. It’s slow, it doesn’t work very well. And it’s particularly terrible if you are a Reddit community moderator. It doesn’t have a lot of support for the things you need to do as a moderator. People use clients like Apollo, Reddit Is Fun, I use one called Bacon Reader, those all appear to be being priced out of existence.
So in the same way that Twitter has sort of had this research veto, Reddit is now sort of putting on this sort of third party client veto. Many Reddits have responded by essentially going on strike. Some of them went dark, They set themselves to private, they were no longer visible. Many of them have come back, some of them have come back in fascinating ways. r/pics, which is one of the most popular Reddits out there, now only allows picks of John Oliver. So there’s both an incredible collection of John Oliver photos and Photoshop’s where for instance, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks at the diner has had all the figures replaced John Oliver. So funny, but maybe not as useful as it used to be.
There are other subreddits that are going in very creative directions. They are declaring themselves not safe for work, even if their content is very much safe for work, because Reddit does not advertise on not safe for work subs, because most advertisers don’t want to be associated with pornography. It looks like what we’re seeing is an all-out community rebellion at Reddit. And Huffman has come back and referred to these moderators as landed gentry, the people who were lucky enough to get there first and claim the land. And now it was using the language of democratic revolution to try to sort of overthrow these folks. It looks pretty crazy as a digital activism scholar. help us understand kind of at a high level what’s going on with Reddit and is the circumstance with Reddit going to be different than the circumstance with Twitter?
Well, so yeah, there’s a lot there. One thing I want to note is Huffman is sounding there like Elon Musk when he walked in and said, “The blue checks are the elites. We’re going to make blue checks something that you can pay for and get rid of all them.” Ha ha elites and that’s noteworthy because The verification like the verification rollout hasn’t killed Twitter yet But it is the thing when we’re starting at five years from now It is the thing we point out is the thing that killed Twitter Like he messed that up so badly and he could have he could have rolled out a subscription product And had it work just fine. I think it was a comms mistake So Huffman is making, clearly making a bunch of common mistakes and making things worse for himself.
Setting that aside though, I think that the broader dynamic here is the question over what we should understand Reddit to be. Is Reddit a community or is Reddit a business? Is it supposed to be more like Facebook, where everybody uses Facebook, it’s free, but we also accept that they’re going to mine all your data and Mark Zuckerberg is going to buy eight houses.
The seven houses surrounding his for anonymity. Or is it supposed to be more like Wikipedia?
And if you’re somebody who hangs out on the subreddits, it’s like Wikipedia. The value of Reddit comes from the community. And the idea of kicking off the third party clients that are helpful to your community is something that you’re going to get mad at. Whereas if you’re Steve Huffman and you think this is supposed to be Facebook and we want to go public, how dare there be third party apps that they’re making money and I’m not making money, let’s kick them off. So I think that that is the broad thing that they’re fighting over is, should this be a community, should this be a business?
The other big picture thing, this doesn’t come from the activism scholarship, but from my current research project, which I read all of Wired Magazine chronologically to kind of study what I call the history of the digital future. And one of the biggest themes that emerges from that is what I call big money ruins everything. It’s not that we can’t have capitalism on the internet. We wouldn’t have the internet we have today, including the big parts without at least some capitalism. But when the money gets big is when the interests get skewed. Right? Like the YouTube circa 2007 is in a lot of ways better than YouTube circa 2019. Because as the money gets big, you get influencer culture and all the terrible things that end up being associated with it. Twitter for a year, I mean, before the Elon bought it.
The thing that I felt made Twitter one of the better parts of the internet, and that’s not to say it’s a problem that are plenty of problems that are too many Nazis. But Twitter in many ways, I think was one of the better parts of the internet, specifically because it was bad at making money. The ones that are best at profit maximization, once the money gets really big is when things get weird and skewed. If you look at the story of Uber, you look at the story of Airbnb, all these are like the story of companies trying to have phenomenal growth early and then we’ll just make money later because that’s in the interests of the VCs. That’s how they’ve set themselves up. All of that gives us a crappier internet.
To bring it back to Reddit though. Like, I imagine that the Reddit community would be fine with the idea of, hey, Reddit needs to make a few changes so we can make some more money and keep the lights on. Maybe that means that Reddit is going to try to buy a couple of these third-party apps and make them the official app because we want to make sure you have a good experience. We also want to not shut down. The Reddit community would be find with that. It’s the idea of let’s turn Reddit into Facebook. And if you resist us, then you somehow are the elites. That’s what’s setting off that word there. It’s a fight over whether or not Reddit is supposed to be big money or not.
It’s interesting, this pattern that you’re seeing over a long period of time. Cory Doctorow seems to be writing about this from a slightly different perspective. I think in many ways he’s using Amazon sort of as his key example. Uh, but his theory on this is something that he’s calling and enshitification, which is basically your goal is to become a monopoly. And then once people have no choice but to work with you, you can essentially make the product crappier and crappier to try to squeeze as many dollars out of people as possible. You’re probably going to go out of business someday, uh, because eventually, you know, the dynamics of voice and exit are going to kick in and you know, people are going to go all Albert Hirschman on your ass. But you know, on the way there, your very successful platform is going to sort of end up disappearing.
Given your perspective, having been reading every single Wired since January 1993, and starting to think of sort of technological change in the longue durée, is this decade of stability, decade of stagnation, is that ending? Are we about to see another one of these moments where things move so fast we can’t get our heads around them? or is big money so powerful in this space that this sort of stability and profitability has taken over insulin things down?
So I don’t think the stability lasts forever. I think we are moving into a moment where it’s going to feel fast again. One thing I want to flag though about this decade of stability and stagnation, we shouldn’t leave antitrust out of the picture. I think you could tell a pretty strong story of the history of the internet, not just the web, but the whole history of the internet as a story of antitrust regulation and its downstream consequences.
Right, so IBM having it, like international business machines, like having a market segment because of places that Bell has agreed not to go. all the way through Microsoft in the 1990s. I mean, hell, the dot-com boom gets started because Jim Clark wants to buy it, he wants to buy the biggest yacht ever. He realizes that as soon as the monopolist Microsoft walks into the room and decides we’re going to build a worse version of this and package it with Windows, that’s going to be the end of their business model. To his credit, he was right about that. That ends up leading to an antitrust suit.
But that’s the shaping force of the 1990s. Then beginning with the dismissal of the Microsoft Antitrust case, the beginning of the Bush administration, we stop enforcing it. We get a few years of chaos where Google is rising and these other big companies are rising. But for the past decade, part of everything has been so born and disappointing. Is anytime there’s a competitor, one of the big companies just buys them.
And we’ve seen there’s this great piece that I use in class by Gideon Lewis-Krause called No Exit. It’s from 2014. And I pair that with this piece by Po Bronson from the 1990s, both of which are long-form reporting about the culture of startups in Silicon Valley. And they are so different. But one of the things that Gideon Lewis-Krause hits on is the way by 2014 the model for startups is to be around long enough to get acquired. Big companies have kind of started to use them as cheap R&D. Rather than having your own R&D lab, I’m going to pay everybody and pay their healthcare, just seed a bunch of startups and then buy the ones that seem successful.
Like that only happens. And Facebook is the great example of this. I mean, this is how Instagram comes within the fold. That’s how what’s that comes within the fold. So part of the stability is basically an inactive antitrust department. Is that sort of what to take from this?
Yeah. And the reason why I want to raise that is when we think about the next 10 years, because I do think the generative AI, like the large companies are treating generative AI as big enough deal that whether or not we think it’s a hype on a roll, They clearly are acting as though it is not, and that is going to affect what they do. But one of the big unanswered questions right now is what will our antitrust regime be for the next decade? And Lina Khan has intentions that I deeply agree with. She also needs more time than she currently has available. So like not to turn this all about to politics, but like if Trump gets elected in 2024 and disbands all of her work, we will have a different internet then if Biden wins it again and we continue to have antitrust enforcement from people like Lina Khan, that will matter for the US and for the rest of the world since these are US-based international companies in ways that, like as somebody who studies technology but comes out of local science, I always want to sort of mentally keep that in mind, that we both need to follow the money and also pay attention to the regulations and the future trajectory will be shaped by regulatory choices and those will be shaped by who wins elections. So it’s like that’s just a complicated variable that I can’t sort out. Ethan Zuckerman:So let’s think into that for just a moment because if you take my contention that TikTok is one of the few genuinely interesting things to have happened you know during this this decade of stagnation that is a big powerful Chinese company that may be very hard for any of these other players to come in and acquire. So maybe one dynamic is that the internet becomes a little less US centric. We’ve certainly got regulatory attempts, literal attempts to outlaw or purchase TikTok, which thankfully have not quite manifested yet, is one possibility that if Lena’s not able to make some of the changes that she wants to make, that we end up at a point where essentially innovation has to come from the outside. Are there moments like that that we’ve seen in the past? Can you see sort of other moments like that where US domination comes into, gets challenged in some meaningful way? Dave Karpf:So it hasn’t really been challenged in the 30 years of my dataset, largely because in that dataset, we have mostly had libertarian approaches to how you regulate the internet. Like we haven’t really tried regulation in the United States. And so it’s possible that when we start trying to regulate in the United States, competitors based in other countries gain a foothold, but that’s certainly possible. Again, these are huge global multinational companies and there’s so much money involved that I think China stands separate from the rest of the world in terms of having a couple of massive internet—like I don’t think India is going to have a set of companies of its own or Australia is going to have a set of companies of its own. Like China as a global player here is I think probably unique. Again, regulation’s really going to come in because the question is, we’ve already seen it as TikTok has gotten bigger and more interesting.
As you said, like one of the responses from government has been, hey, why don’t we make them sell that, like sell the sell the version we use in the US to a US-based multinational. So the pressures for that may increase from a sort of like global real politik perspective. That’s also going to figure into the AI race. So that immediately gets into chip wars, which I find fascinating, but is beyond my purview, like I read about it, I don’t directly study it. So that that could happen.
But what I think is more likely is as we develop more of a taste for regulation, I think that might—this is me being hopeful, which as you know, having interacted me rarely happens—but I am hopeful that we are starting to develop a taste for guardrails on the ways that capital can exploit everything in order to make quick big money.
Like back in the 1990s, when Wired talked about Europe, it was always this “Oh, that’s where innovation goes to die, because of all the regulators there.” And I think we now kind look at Europe and say, no, there aren’t a bunch of huge profitable companies coming out of there. But Europe has a certainly lovely internet like there’s nothing wrong with their internet experience.
Like, it’s going fine. And in fact, people seem pretty darn happy. Maybe we could try out some version, some something kind of like the GDPR, it hasn’t ruined their internet. And as we develop a taste for that, and hopefully rebuild regulatory capacity, which was never in good shape, and was further decimated by Trump, that’s going to take some time. If we build up regulatory capacity, I think we may end up in a world where the companies building the internet are still largely the same companies or direct competitors to the ones that we have now. They’re still probably based in the same geographic locations that they were now and multistakeholder national scale, but they probably make less money overall.
One thing that generative AI probably means is the bonanza of surveillance advertising, like surveillance advertising being the engine of the internet economy, that and software as a service. Like that first thing might go away and might mostly be software as a service. It might actually be in order to make money on the internet, you need to build a product that people want.
Dave, what’s so interesting about this for me is in sort of a conversation that I in many ways thought would be kind of a contemporary activism conversation. It really has turned into a sort of big history question. And I think this has a lot to do with probably your perspective now, looking at this field that you are both up to our noses in and looking at it from 1993 to the present. you’re starting to talk in these very big social forces, interest rates, economic models, regulatory structures.
One thing I want to ask you about is, it’s maybe based on history with the Wired Project to help us sort of think about what might be coming for 2024 and the election. We have seen really since 2016, the rise of weaponized myths and disinformation online. We’ve seen now in the United States, a Republican party that in many ways has taken certain conspiracy theories, particularly about election and integrity, and brought them central to the platforms of their party. And we now have a lot of people sort of looking at this ability to generate either giant walls of text or sometimes very convincing images and videos. Anything that you’re getting from your sort of long read of technological history that’s giving you any insights into what we might be looking for and worrying about over the next, you know, really sort of 15, 16 months, 18 months, I guess, of the election cycle.
So this is actually going to draw less from my read of technological history in a political history. I’ve done a bit of writing in other projects about the decline of norms amongst our political elites. And I think the current state of American democracy, and it’s non-grade shape, I date the starting point, and you can date it back to the 1970s and the southern strategy. I think an important turning point is Newt Gingrich in 1995. And a key thing there that is happening just before that is the fall of the Soviet Union.
So there’s a long period of time in which you have domestic struggle between Democrats and Republicans, but also a sense of, again, guardrails or boundaries of, yes, we’re competing against each other in this election, but the bigger competition is with this other great power where it is democracy versus communism. It is really capitalism, it’s communism, and we’re going to pretend that democracy and capitalism is the same thing. And that’s defining for a full generation.
And there are key moments in political history. And there’s a decent argument, if I remember correctly, that the JFK versus Nixon election could have been contested in the courts because there were some questions about some of those states that JFK won. And Nixon was basically like, well, yeah, we can’t do that because that would be chaos that the other side.
Right, we don’t do that sort of thing.
Right, we don’t do that sort of thing because we’re worried about a bigger threat. And it is just after that bigger threat is no longer on the table, that you start seeing Gingrich and the Republican Party testing all of these elite norms of how you behave amongst one another. And finding, like norms only operate so long as when you violate them, something bad happens. They start violating them and finding actually nothing bad happens and there is profit here.
The other thing about systemic violation of these norms is that it seems to threaten the power of the public sphere. In many ways, the promise of the blogosphere in some ways was that it was going to democratize and spread out power. We were all going to be able to be an investigative journalist. We would be able to sort of see the bad things going on in the world. We would bring them out to the public and people would be empowered in a way they never were before. Never lived up to that because of course the blogosphere was very much an elite creature. It was mostly white dudes in pajamas trying to figure out how to assert their own power.
Now they’re Joe Rogan and they have extremely powerful radio shows. But beyond that, in a public sphere where shame no longer works as a deterrent, that notion of naming and shaming, which still has had some power around cultural issues, you’ve seen the power of Black Twitter sometimes around naming and shaming so to be able to come in, but it doesn’t seem to work anymore in the in the sphere of electoral politics.
Yes, I think that’s right. I also want to note that that reminds me of a wonderful piece that you wrote on QAnon as an example of the type of civic media that you had spent decades studying. I assigned that in class. It’s one of my favorite pieces on QAnon.
Oh, thank you.
And that I met that style that we saw on the blog sphere, and like everyone being an investigative journalist, like there’s a moment where there’s some real power in that because it’s new and the institutions don’t know how to respond. But then that same set of behaviors can get folded into everyone’s their own investigative journalists and what they’re going to investigate is, you know, the child sex predator rings that are happening in the basement of a pizza place that doesn’t have a basement. That like that can still go in there. The thing that is supposed to hold that up is Like democracy in all forms of government are both means of arriving at better public decisions, but they are primarily a means of obtaining the consent of the governed. And by that, what I mean is the governed are not supposed to riot and take the elite’s shit. Like any government is a way to maintain the status hierarchy.
And as our elites have begun to operate with impunity, I think the likelihood of mass violence and chaos increases. And to be clear, I don’t think that’s a good thing because that’s definitely not going to go well for people like me. I, when I raised this with my students in strategic protocol communication, sort of we need well-behaved elites because think what happens otherwise. occasionally they have a radical who’s like, “Yeah, but up the revolution, that’d be great.” And I was like, you understand in a revolution, the other side has all the guns and I have funny quips. Like, it goes terrible for people like me and you, student at GW. That usually lands with them. That, you know, there are upsides to social stability. But as a method of maintaining social stability, as our elites behave with more and more impunity, because they’ve decided nothing can ever touch them, I think that that increases the likelihood of democracy falling the part.
The lesson that I take from the 2010s, which is really a lesson in 2016 and everything after that, is that democracy itself is more fragile than we realize. When I was writing the move on effect and my second book, Analytic Activism, which Analytic Activism came out in December 2016, which means that I shipped it off to the publisher in March 2016, which means there’s a lot about the world that it was published into that I did not take into account. I had an an entire chapter in that book on digital petitions. It’s a very interesting chapter that stops being relevant in the Trump era.
I feel your pain. I released Mistrust in January 2021. The book is literally about the metaphor of institutionalists and insurrectionists. I did not think that literal insurrectionism was going to be something that we had to worry about when I started using That metaphor.
I enjoyed that book, but I didn’t remember that. I didn’t realize that publication date.
Yeah, that timing was not so terrific. But just sort of pulling this through the various threads that we’ve had here, we’ve had this sort of decade of stability or stagnation. We’ve seen enormous elite misbehavior. And I think you could say that either with Donald Trump flouting various sorts of laws, or Elon Musk sort of coming in saying, “No, Twitter is my personal fiefdom. I don’t care how many of you use it and rely on it. It’s mine, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.”
Is this the moment that we start seeing broad-based rebellion, both in these sort of internet spaces and more broadly than that? I expect this is the moment we see a lot of small rebellions and then whether any of them gain ground and scale, like the work of turning any social movement into something that becomes log and terminal large scale is, has a set of fundamentally different problems than the work of starting one and responding to something in a moment.
And so I think we are, like we are, I think generally headed for chaos and instability, that can be generative, that can be productive. And I think there will be, there will certainly be a ton of small hopeful stories to be told amidst the chaos. Whether those can gel into larger ways of confronting and restructuring power, whether they kind of fizzle out just because the work is hard, is something that it’s hard for me to say. Like it depends on the day how optimistic I’m going to be on that sort of thing. is it will certainly be hard work and it’s not insured that it’ll work.
Dave Karpf, this has been a ton of fun. You make me want to go get my pile of old Wired magazines to start thinking about the very long span of how technology is evolving. I cannot wait to see that become a book where you are telling us what you’ve learned from reading all the way back to January 1993. I’m Ethan Zuckerman. He’s Dave Karpf. This is Reimagining the Internet. Thank you so much for spending some time with us. And thanks for being with us Dave.
Thanks a lot, it’s been fun.