why didn’t the internet save democracy?

I don’t always like this format, but Dylan Matthews’ short interviews with Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, David Weinberger, and Alec Ross add up to a useful overview of the question that Matthews poses to all four: “The internet was supposed to save democracy. … What went wrong”?

The only interviewee who really objects to the framing is Ross, who asserts that his predictions were always value-neutral. He didn’t predict that the good guys would win, only that the weak would chasten the strong. So when Putin’s Russia took Obama’s America down a peg, that fulfilled his prophesy (Russian being weaker).

Some highlights, for me:

Clay Shirky:

I underestimated two things, and both of them make pessimism more warranted. The first is the near-total victory of the “social graph” as the ideal organizational form for social media, to the point that we now use “social media” to mean “media that links you to your friends’ friends,” rather than the broader 2000s use of “media that supports group interaction.”

The second thing I underestimated was the explosive improvement in the effectiveness of behavioral economics and its real-world consequences of making advertising work as advertised.

Taken together, these forces have marginalized the earlier model of the public sphere characterized by voluntary association (which is to say a public sphere that followed [Jürgen] Habermas’s conception), rather than as a more loosely knit fabric for viral ideas to flow through.

Shirky adds that he wrote (in 2008) much more about Meetup than Facebook, when both were still startups. Facebook rules the world and Meetup is marginal. Meetup would better embody a Habermasian theory of the public sphere. (See my post Habermas and critical theory: a primer but also saving Habermas from the deliberative democrats.)

Jarvis:

I was rather a dogmatist about the value of openness. I still value openness. But as Twitter, Blogger, and Medium co-founder Ev Williams said at [South by Southwest] recently, he and we did not account for the extent of the bad behavior that would follow. These companies accounted and compensated for dark-hat SEO, spam, and other economically motivated behavior. They did not see the extent of the actions of political bad actors and trolls who would destroy for the sake of destruction.

Weinberger:

It’s a tragedy that while the web connects pages via an open protocol, the connections among people are managed by closed, for-profit corporations. A lot of our political problems come from that: The interests of those corporations and of its users and citizens are not always aligned.

Weinberger wants to emphasize the positive, as well, and to remind us that “applications can be adjusted so that they serve us better.”

See also the online world looks dark (2107) and democracy in the digital age.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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