Category Archives: Internet and public issues

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.)


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.


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.

the online world looks dark

(Chicago) I’m at the #ObamaSummit, much of which can be followed online.

In the opening plenary, several speakers (including President Obama) noted the drawbacks of social media: psychological isolation, manipulation by powerful companies and governments, fake news, balkanization, and deep incivility.

I remember when discussions of civic tech were generally optimistic: people saw the Internet and social media as creative and democratic forces.

I went to the specialized breakout session with “civic media” entrepreneurs and asked them whether they shared the dark picture painted by the plenary speakers. Each gave an interesting and nuanced answer, but in short, they said Yes. The reason they build and use digital tools is basically to combat the larger trends in social media, which for the most part, they see as harmful. Even Adrian Reyna of @ United We Dream, a leader of one of the best social movements that has used online tools, emphasized that relying on civic tech can disempower people and alienate communities.

This is no reason to give up on improving the civic impact of digital media. The work remains as important as ever. It’s just that the atmosphere now feels very sober; the heady days of cyber-optimism have passed, at least for people concerned about politics and civic culture.

[See also democracy in the digital age and four questions about social media and politics]

democracy in the digital age

New chapter: “Democracy in the Digital Age,” The Civic Media Reader, edited by Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), pp. 29-47

Abstract: Digital media change rapidly, but democracy presents perennial challenges. It is not in people’s individual interests to participate, yet we need them to participate ethically and wisely. It’s easier for more advantaged people to participate. And the ethical values that guide personal relationships tend to vanish in large-scale interactions. The digital era brings special versions of those challenges: choice has been massively disaggregated, sovereignty is ambiguous, states can collect intrusive information about people, and states no longer need much support from their own citizens. I argue that these underlying conditions make democracy difficult in the digital age.

teaching online civic engagement

For several years, Joe Kahne and his colleagues have been conducting intensive research on young people’s use of digital media for politics and what that means for education. Their research has taken the form of large-scale youth surveys, interviews, and experiments. The following is a broad and detailed new article that pulls together much of their research and provides concrete examples of classroom practice:

Joseph Kahne, Erica Hodgin & Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, “Redesigning Civic Education for the Digital Age: Participatory Politics and the Pursuit of Democratic Engagement,” Theory & Research in Social Education, Volume 44, Issue 1, 2016, pp. 1-35 (open access)

The authors address two concerns that I have raised in previous work. First, “Many efforts to produce and circulate content will confront what Levine has termed ‘the audience problem’ (2008, p. 129). Simply put, many blogs or other digital content may get relatively few views and little or no response.” I would add that this is almost a logical inevitability because there aren’t enough eyeballs to allow millions of content-producers all to reach large audiences. As I can testify from years of experience, the median blog or video reaches just a few. The authors reply:

Of course, many off-line political activities also fail to engage many members of the public. We would classify a blog that addresses a political issue but has few readers an act of participatory politics just as we would classify a protest that people ignore as a political activity. That said, clearly, the power of public voice is diminished if one fails to reach a public. This reality highlights the need for educators to help set realistic expectations and to support and scaffold activities so that youth can more effectively produce and circulate political content.

Second, “a number of scholars (Levine, in press; Sifry, 2014) have detailed ways that individuals’ and non-institutionalized groups’ efforts to achieve greater voice by leveraging the power of the digital media often fail to prompt institutional change. Expressing caution, Milner (2010) wrote, ‘[youth who] turn their backs on [institutional] politics in favor of individual expression will continue to find their priorities at the top of society’s wish list–and at the bottom of the ‘to do’ list”(p. 5).” Here I would add that loose online movements are frequently defeated by disciplined organizations, such as corporations, armies, and security agencies. But the authors reply:

one might note that a wide range of significant change efforts ranging from #BlackLivesMatter, to the DREAMer movement, to the protests against SOPA, to the push for marriage equality have employed digital media in ways that changed public attitudes and that these changes have enabled new legislation. Still, the concern remains. Watkins (2014) noted, for example, that when it comes to digital media, youth are often “power users” (frequent users), but they are not necessarily “powerful users” (influential users). In order for youth to realize the full potential of participatory politics, they will frequently need to both understand and connect their efforts to institutional politics. Helping youth identify ways to build bridges from voice to influence is vitally important.

These are just two of many issues discussed in this extensive and deeply researched survey article.

Does Twitter “smoosh” the public and private?

In The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer explains why Twitter seems not to be as fun or as socially satisfying as some other networks. He thinks it uncomfortably and unsuccessfully “smooshes” together aspects of oral communication (spontaneity, rapidity, and interactivity) with aspects of written communication (permanence, sharability, and the capacity to reach strangers). Meyer thinks that “the more visual social networks have stayed fun and vibrant even as the text-based ones have not. Vine, Pinterest, and Instagram don’t traffic in words, which can be reduced to identity-based magnum opi [that should actually be magna opera], but in images, which are a little harder to smoosh. Visual conversations have stayed chatty, in other words.”

Meyer’s theorists are Walter Ong and Bonnie Stewart, but there are also hints of Habermas in the article: Ong is quoted on the “human lifeworld,” and Meyer notes ways that the public and the private “get smooshed.”

A core Habermasian insight is that there are different norms appropriate to private and public speech.

In public, you must make arguments that can persuade strangers. You must therefore provide adequate reasons and explanations for everything you say. Since you can’t assume that strangers understand your assumptions and experiences, you must make them evident. You are accountable for your remarks and should be responsive to reasonable critiques. You should (generally) take the same positions when talking to different people. When Mitt Romney complained to donors about the 49% of Americans who were “takers,” but he didn’t want the 49% to hear him, he became one of many public figures who have been caught violating the norms of public speech.

In private, the norms are authenticity, spontaneity, and responsiveness to the concrete other people with whom you have relationships. You should (generally) say what you really feel in the moment, although you are also obligated to care about what the individual who hears you thinks and feels. That may require tact. You need not fully explain your thoughts, and your explanations certainly need not convey entire, self-sufficient arguments to strangers. You are not responsible for treating everyone alike. In fact, you are obligated to favor some people, the ones you love and who love you. You have a right to privacy, so if you are videotaped saying something that you wouldn’t want strangers to hear, that is a violation of your rights.

It is dangerous to confuse these domains, to “smoosh” the public with the private. Often, marketing and political propaganda consists of pretending to have an authentic private conversation while actually influencing strangers. Voters mistakenly choose candidates based on their impressions of politicians’ private lives, which are irrelevant at best and fictional at worst. Meanwhile, powerful people privatize the public sphere by making policy decisions on the basis of personal relationships and inventing spurious justifications or avoiding rationales entirely. Prying journalists and governments violate privacy. And sometimes ordinary people retreat from the public sphere and either take no positions at all or develop irresponsible positions on public matters because they can’t or won’t interact with strangers as if they were real decision-makers.

I am not sure, however, whether Twitter exemplifies the smooshing of public and private that worries Habermas. Twitter is a fairly flexible platform. You can use the 140 characters to address the public, although that will often require embedded links. Or you can use the 140 characters to keep your close friends informed about your social plans. You can develop a persona as a public person or as a private one. The two can be confused, and awkwardness can arise. For instance, as Meyer notes, disclaimers that “RTs do not constitute endorsements” are odd ways of distancing a Tweeter from the content. But it could be that Twitter is a useful vehicle for both public and private conversations, and the feeling of tension simply reflects the parlous condition of our public life, more broadly.

See also: Habermas illustrated by Twitterprotecting authentic human interactionfriendship and politicsOstrom plus Habermas is nearly all we need.