‘The internet is full of good intentions’: an interview with Ethan Zuckerman, part two

Social media landscape. Illustration by Natael Ginting, Canva Pro

This is the second part of a two-part interview with Ethan Zuckerman. Find the first part here.

In 2014, Ethan Zuckerman sparked an intense online discussion with his blog post titled “A Public Apology on Screwing Up by Not Questioning Assumptions.” In the post, he reflected on his role in inventing the widely disliked pop-up ads used to generate revenue. The post received mixed responses ranging from jokes from US late-night talk show hosts to death threats. However, it sparked meaningful conversations about the negative impact of internet advertising and the need for alternative models.

Ethan Zuckerman (EZ): So, sort of three things happened.  The first that happened almost immediately was that people thought it was very funny. There were actually a couple of late night hosts in the US that actually made fun of it in their routines, I think it was Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, so that was very strange to see people talking about me in comedy routines. The second thing was very predictable; because it’s the internet we’re talking about, which was I get a lot of death threats. The third came much more gradually. People start writing about the questions that I have raised “was advertising the original sin of the internet?” You now see people like Shoshana Zuboff who wrote this brilliant book on surveillance capitalism, essentially saying ‘yeah, and this all is part of an economy that is deeply unhealthy for us and we’ve got to find an alternative models.’ I think being able to talk about this and talk about the history how we got here was very helpful. So for me it was funny, scary, and unpleasant but ultimately I think it did help to steer the conversation to the healthy direction.

Critical to the current state of internet privacy efforts, Ethan Zuckerman emphasizes that initiatives like the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which regulates how private companies can use, process, and store personal data, have fallen short in changing the prevailing business model. He stresses the need for a positive alternative, advocating for the creation of public media to improve social media.

Juke Carolina (JC): Right now, do you feel there are enough changes in the public sphere around privacy, privacy policy, and digital rights?

EZ: The truth is we’ve seen some good attempts to try to increase internet privacy, particularly within the European context but so far they have not been nearly successful enough. I think GDPR was a really great intention, I think it was moving absolutely to the right direction but I don’t think it was nearly successful enough in moving people away from this existing business model where I have come out of this is that I end up feeling like it’s not enough to just say “you can’t do it,” you actually have to provide a positive model for how you can and should do it. And what I think what most European regulations has said is “we don’t like the American model and we want you to do it differently,” but we haven’t seen nearly enough innovation in terms of what a different model could be.

And this is really been what my work has been in the last three or four years, particularly in coming to UMass, I am increasingly convinced that we need public media, in the same way have public media helping ensure we have high quality news coverage. I think we need public media to help us have much better social media.

While intentions are important, Ethan Zuckerman believes that well-intentioned but misguided approaches, such as those rooted in cryptocurrency, are not the solution to the future of social media. Instead, Ethan advocates for learning from groups focused on decentralization and community-driven efforts, particularly those grounded in real-world communities.

JC: One of the keywords you mentioned earlier, the good intention. There are a lot of good intentions going around the internet. For instance, Elon Musk seeks to defend “free speech” at all costs on Twitter. How should the public approach these good intentions?

EZ: Good intentions are a start, right? It’s good that we have a lot of people thinking what the future of the internet could look like. And I think Elon Musk is a good example of this, I think he genuinely thought that he could make Twitter a better place, and there were decisions that have been made that he disagreed with and that he if participated in the management of it, everything could be better. I think he was terribly, terribly wrong, but I think almost everyone who’s involved with thinking the future of social media, I think almost everyone is coming from a place of good intentions. I just think that a lot of people are wrong.

I see a lot of people who wants to use models from the cryptocurrency world, to “save social media” and I would hope we get to the point where we realized that the cryptocurrency creates at least as many problems as it solves but certainly those folks have good intentions, I just think they’re approaching this problem in the wrong way. I actually think there’s much more to learn from really two groups: The first, From people who are doing decentralization and the Fediverse; the second is from the group of people who has been forced to leave the existing platforms and had to create their own social media spaces. I think those are some of the most interesting and best people to learn from out there. I think what really comes down to is that good intentions aren’t enough. You have to look at the examples of people who are trying to create interesting, new ways of building social media. Preferably from those who are grounded in real, existing communities in the world.

JC: We observe today more and more that the financial sectors are growing wary of social media, saying that social media is now dead. What's your take on that?

EZ: Social media was seen for a while as a very promising way to make money. It’s a way to create content without paying for content creation. In a sense, that feels like a great bargain. What people have figured out is that it’s not a great bargain. As soon you invite people to create their own content, they can misbehave, and they can do stupid stuff. Basically, there is a cheaper way to make money out there.

If that’s the question, “Is an investment in social media dead?” the answer is yeah, maybe. But here’s the thing, we need a space to have conversations and a lot of the work I’ve been doing right now is around the relationships between the public spheres and democracy. You can not have a democracy if there’s no way for citizens to talk with one another about what they think about politics and society. If you don’t have a public sphere, there’s no way for people to decide and vote. You need to have that ability for people to learn about candidates and decide. It’s inherent.

So if you believe that the public is necessary for democracy and you believe that the public spheres these days are digital, I feel pretty strongly about that. You have to ask the question, “are you willing to have a public sphere that is as good as we paid for, or is it something that we need to make investments in?”

JC: Is there still a world where citizen journalism matters? In the global sense.

EZ: I think citizen journalism has, in some ways, taken over mainstream journalism. One of the things that have been so interesting is watching Global Voices for almost 20 years now; a huge number of our bloggers have become journalists, writers, radio producers, and makers of stories, and I think what happened is there is now a new pathway into journalism.

I think traditionally, the pathway for journalism is to work for a newspaper, learn the trades that way, and make your way in. What’s happening now is that people learning to write by writing on social media and blogs and are very quickly invited to do columns to share their perspectives. And for the most part, this is very positive. It meant that we have many more people whose voices are represented in the media. I think it has diversified who’s writing; it’s given us a much broader audience. I think one downside of all of it is that … while we were all bloggers, we saw ourselves as something very different from mainstream media we had a real sense of solidarity, we’re in this together, it’s us against the journalists, and we are creating a revolution. We had our revolution very successfully; we are now part of mainstream media now. We are feeding story ideas, many of us become authors and columnists, and even if we’re not there yet, that pathway is now open. Where I think we need to keep thinking and keep working is we wanna make sure that this pathway remains open and particularly that it remains open for people who may not have another way of making their voices heard.

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