Update: After writing this piece, I got a correction via Twitter DM from Automattic founder and CEO Matt Mullenweg: "Automattic doesn't host Alex Jones and I don't think ever has." I probably didn't read the NYT piece carefully enough, and came to the incorrect conclusion about the sites in question. However the gist of this piece remains valid. There is a higher level question to answer, where if anywhere is there a line that protects speech on the net, or does every service vendor have a say in what their platform is used for, or are some required to be neutral?
We're having an ill-defined debate over when silos have to yield to public pressure and deny access to members who are deemed undesirable by a vocal group of objectors. There's no process. People have pointed out that as private companies they are free to do as they please. I'm not entirely sure that's true, especially when combined they control virtually all the speech on the net. While that might not be a violation of the First Amendment, it could easily be a violation of antitrust laws. Having run a couple of companies I know how often companies come up against those laws, even small companies, far from having a controlling stake in a large market.
Alex Jones is the first major test of this new system of speech governance. He has been banned by Facebook, YouTube, and put on a timeout by Twitter. Now the question has been raised whether Automattic, the operators of Wordpress.com should be pressured to force the Jones site off their platform. A major article in Monday's NY Times raises that question, and my friend Davis Shaver opines. But there's a problem in this analysis because Wordpress.com isn't like the others, it isn't a silo, so banning him from that service will not necessarily have any affect on the presence of his site. He will be able to export his site, set up his own server, point the DNS entry at that server, and proceed on the open web and it will appear to outside viewers as if nothing happened. This will be the end of the discussion, unless the anti-speech advocates try to exert pressure on the open web. There they will find there is no CEO, no corporate headquarters, no shareholders afraid of losing value, none of the usual pressure points. If the web maintains its integrity, Alex Jones will be able to spread his vile hateful and possibly libelous ideas without further accosting. I for one am rooting for the open web, and in this way rooting for Mr. Jones.
People should take two steps back from this debate and think. Where exactly is the line? What if a vocal minority of Internet users decided the ACLU shouldn't have a place to opine its hateful and disloyal fake news? What if it was decided that any site that didn't show proper reverence for Dear Leader Chairman Trump should be denied access to the public square? There must be a line in here somewhere. I ask the thinkers to consider, where exactly is that line? Alex Jones is on the wrong side, but who is on the right side, whose speech do we want to protect? Or is there a line at all? Perhaps dissent a quaint old idea of the past?
I don't see what good 100 editorials tomorrow will do. The problem journalism has is that it is at war with a formidable adversary, the head of the US government. It's time to consult with people who have studied war. I suspect they will say that 100 editorials wouldn't have had much impact on Japan or Germany at the beginning of World War II. We never would have thought to respond to the 9/11 attacks with 100 stinging editorials. When attacked in an outright and clear act of war, aim at the power of the enemy, analyze and develop our own power, and fight back, to win.
In this case, the enemy is very powerful. His greatest power is that he didn't demobilize his supporters when he took office as every other presidential incumbent has. It's smart. I pleaded with Obama to do exactly that when he took office in 2009. The web was ready to take Obama's message of intellectual and just government all around the world. Instead he stuck to norms. And ran head-on into a Republican blockade. Nothing could get him out of the Rose Garden and back on the campaign trail.
Let this be a lesson from now on: Presidents must stay on the campaign trail at all times. The power of the presidency is to rally the people, and when done best it's a unifying campaign, not a divisive one, like the one Trump persists.
And that, imho is exactly what journalism must do.
Journalism has to break the biggest norm it has. Break the wall that separates it from their supposed audience, which is rapidly dissipating. They've lost the ones that follow Trump. The rest of us are losing patience. Hopefully on Friday morning, in the non-existent afterglow of the pointless editorial demonstration, they will start looking outside their cocoon for answers.
A followup to my post last Friday. I had just heard about something happening with the blogs we hosted in 2003 and beyond at blogs.harvard.edu. I'm still not clear on what happened. I would like to know, and to see if there's anything we can do to keep the archived content available at the same address it has been at all along.
I got a response to one of my tweets from Jonathan Zittrain, a former colleague at Berkman, who is still there. He pointed me to the FAQ they posted. Not much information there about what was about to happen, or has happened since. At the very least we should know what remains, what is gone, and what is the plan for the future. And perhaps we, outside of Harvard, can help in some way. We have some experience with these issues.
I think a great university like Harvard that places a high value on learning, history, tradition, and played a big role in fostering the development of social media, both as the home of Mark Zuckerberg in the early Facebook days, and at the very same time to the nascent blogging and podcasting community, should take an active interest not only in preserving the record, but in helping to set standards for how the web can continue long-term, even in the age of silos and corporate ownership. We, collectively, have a responsibility imho to do this well.
PS: Imho this is a project that should interest librarians at Harvard and elsewhere. There are a lot of great libraries there.
As I wrote in this tweet, Johannes Ernst is smart and brave. He says decentralized networks never make it, and there are reasons for this. I agree, in a way, but ultimately think his theory is wrong. Because decentralized networks have blossomed and survived, and imho will still be operating when the silos are gone.
Consider the case of RSS vs Twitter. When Twitter came along it grew fast, it overtook RSS. It didn't do away with RSS, because it's still here co-existing with Twitter. It still has advantages over Twitter. Richer data. Extensibility. Podcasting. Titles. Styling. Multiple links per item. No character limit. If RSS has so much going for it, why did Twitter surpass it? Not for any of the reasons Johannes cites. Imho it was because subscribing was done with a single click. That could have been done with RSS too, in fact we had it working in our own RSS network at UserLand, we called it the coffee mug. One click to subscribe. it could have become a universal one-click subscribe, if our competitors were willing to go along with UserLand's leadership, but they weren't. One click to subscribe was an important survival trait in the Darwinian ecosystem of online social nets. Twitter had it, RSS didn't.
Johannes mentions two other features: trending topics and search. I guess he's right about trending topics, but the feature has no value for me, it's there on the Twitter screen, but I never look at it. For search, it's been proven that search works well on distributed networks. Google is a good example. There's no reason an equivalent search function couldn't be created for blogs or feeds, in fact last week I wrote a post about features that would make search much better for distributed systems. All are technologically possible and none are implemented on Twitter.
There will come a time when Twitter shuts down. But it's hard to imagine that day coming for the network of RSS feeds. It's been wishful thinking for TechCrunch and the VCs and BigCos they serve, a kind of wet dream that open systems will bend to the will of tech titans, that vast wealth is what makes the nets work, but it hasn't happened, even though they've been reporting its demise for a decade now. Really it has been that long! You can even shut down the beating heart of the RSS network, and it routes around the damage, quickly. (A corollary to Gilmore's Law, perhaps.)
I'm not sure why Mastodon didn't use RSS, I think they should have. Then the power of the two open distirbuted nets would combine, there would be more interfaces, greater know-how among developers, and more choice for users. I have to dig into it. I think Johannes' theory depends on using Mastodon as the counter-example to Twitter, because while Mastodon is strong and growing, it hasn't withstood the challenges that RSS has. I suspect it will. And I also suspect it will still be running when Twitter is gone.
I really appreciate his post, no sarcasm. It's great when we step outside the silos and use our own disparate tools to discourse about things that matter.
Three ideas for making the open web, and blogging, more valuable and interesting, by building a search engine for the next decade, not for two decades ago. Sorry Google, your search engine is showing serious signs of age and boredom. We can do so much better. Here are the ideas.
BTW, Google knows I'm the "owner" of this blog, they threaten me as such. 💥
I've written here many times about the distinction between the terms blogger and journalist. In a Twitter thread, Lora Kolodny makes a distinction between journalist and reporter. I hadn't realized there might be a difference. Here's what she says.
My own two cents. I'd love to reserve the term blogger for people who write about their own experiences, not for pay, the "unedited voice of a person." I think of bloggers as sources in the journalism world.
Spoilers ahead, you have been warned! 💥
I had been hearing good things about the HBO series Succession so I chose it for my next binge. I made it all the way to the next to last episode about an hour before the finale aired last night, but waited till the morning to watch it. I wasn't prepared for how disturbing it would be. I wasn't expecting it to be so.
I think perhaps it was so disturbing because the Roy family reminds me of my own family. All the disconnects, vanity, foolish sense of self-importance. And the prohibition on every talking about it realistically. These were all big features of my upbringing.
They really play with you. At times it's so funny, it seems like a comedy, but then, in the next episode, it knocks you down. That's what the finale was like. Complete knock down, with the tour de force in the very last scene.
The best line delivered by the patriarch's latest wife to one of the adult children: "He built you a playground and you think it's the world."
There's a lot of self-awareness in the last episode, but mostly they avoid living their own lives, all of them, including the all-powerful father.
On reflection, the Roy family is not like my family, where the women fought, and the men, while they often roared, were mostly sidelined, not the main act. I guess when you participate in something so intensely for so many hours your subconscious starts accepting it as real.
I have a hard time recommending Succession. It's very well done. But hard to watch at times, it's so awkward and the people are such fools. And it's very disturbing, that gives it value, at least for me. As art, it's outstanding.