Category Archives: ethan_zuckerman

report on democratization and the networked public sphere

I was at the “Democratization and the Networked Public Sphere” panel on Friday night in a room full of flagrantly well-read attendees. But it was the panelists who shone. They fully grasped the challenges facing the network as it emerges as the newest theater in the political and social struggle for a democratic society. It was the best panel I’ve seen in a long time, with a full spectrum of views represented: Ethan Zuckerman self-deprecatingly described himself as “one of those evil capitalists,” whose stance clearly reflected the values of market liberalism. On the opposite side, Trebor Scholz raised a red flag in warning against the spectre of capitalism that hovers over the ‘user-generated content’ movement. In between (literally—she sat between them), Danah Boyd spoke eloquently about the characteristics of a networked social space, and the problems traditional social interaction models face when superimposed on the network.
Danah spoke first, contrasting the characteristics of online and offline public spaces, and continuing on to describe the need for public space at a time when we seem obsessed with privacy. The problem with limiting ourselves to discussions of privacy, she said, is that we forget that public space only exists when we are using it. She then went on to talk about her travels and encounters with the isolation of exurban life—empty sidewalks, the physical distances separating teens from their social peers, the privatization of social space (malls). Her point was that with all this privacy and private space, the public space is being neglected. What is important though is to recognize how networked spaces are becoming a space for public life. Even more important: these new public spaces are under threat as much as the real life publics that have been stripped away by suburban isolation.
Ethan Zuckerman began with a presentation of the now infamous 1984 Mac ad, remixed to star Hillary Clinton. He then pointed out that a strikingly similar remix had been made in 2004 by the media artist Astrubal, featuring Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Zuckerman was excited because it pointed to the power of the remix, and the network as an alternative vector for dissent in a regime with a highly controlled press. While the ad is a deadly serious matter in Tunisia, in America it is just smear. The Hillary ad seems to be a turning point in media representations on the network in the US. Zuckerman asserted that 21st century political campaigns will be different than 20th century campaigns precisely because of the power of citizen generated media combined with the distributive power of the network.
Trebor Scholz warned that unbridled enthusiasm for user-generated content may mask an undercurrent of capitalist exploitation, even though most rhetoric about user-generated content proposes exactly the opposite. In most descriptions, user-generated content is an act of personal expression, and has value as such: Scholz referenced Yochai Benkler’s notion that people gain agency as they express themselves as speakers, and that this characteristic may transfer to the real world, encouraging a politically active citizenry. But Trebor’s main point was that the majority of time spent on self-expression finds its way onto a small number of sites—YouTube and MySpace in particular. He had some staggering numbers for MySpace: 12% of all time spent online in America is dedicated to MySpace alone. The dirty secret is that someone owns MySpace, and it isn’t the content producers. It’s Rupert Murdoch. Google, of course, owns YouTube. And therein lies the crux of Trebor’s argument: someone else is getting rich off a user’s personal expression, and the creators cannot claim ownership of their own work. They produce content that nets only social capital, while the owners take in millions of dollars.
It’s a tricky point to make, since Boyd noted that most producers are using these services expressly to gain social capital—monetary concerns don’t enter the equation. I have a vague sense of discomfort in taking a stance that is ultimately patronizing to producers, saying “You shouldn’t do this for fear of enriching someone else.” But I can’t get away from the idea that Trebor is right —users are locked in to a site by their social ties, and the companies hold a great deal of power over them. Further, that power is not just social but also legal: the companies own the content.
On the other hand, users have a great deal of power over the companies, a fact made plain by the recent protest against the ‘News Feed’ feature added to Facebook. The feature caused a huge uproar in the Facebook community and a call for boycotting Facebook spread—ironically—using the News Feed feature. Facebook removed the feature. responded by allowing users to control what went in the feeds. [updated 4.17.07. thanks to andrew s.]
This discussion spun off into another one: what does it mean that 700,000 users found it in their willpower to protest a feature on Facebook, when only a portion of those would be as active in any other public sphere? Boyd claims that this is a signal that networked public spaces are a viable arena for public participation. Zuckerman would agree—the network can activate a community response in the real world. Dissidents working against repressive governments have used the network to amplify their voices and illuminate the plight of people and nations ignored by the mainstream media. This is reason for optimism. In America we’ve recently seen national and regional politics embracing networked spaces (see Obama in MySpace). Let’s hope they do so in good faith, and also embrace the spirit of openness and collaboration that is an essential part of the network.
I have hope, but I am also circumspect. The networked public space can serve the needs of a democracy, but it can also devolve into venality. There is a difference between using the network to further human freedom and the lesson that I take away from the Facebook uprising. What happened on Facebook is not a triumph of a civil polity; it’s more like the plaintive cry in a theater when the projector breaks. Public outcry over a trivial action doesn’t improve our democracy—it just shows how far into triviality we have fallen.
Ethan Zuckerman’s follow up to the event
Trebor’s presentation and follow up to the event