I wanted to take a moment to talk about Brian Chen’s article, “The Internet Trolls Have Won. Sorry, There’s Not Much You Can Do.” in the New York Times. It’s an interesting piece for a lot of reasons, and I like a lot of what Brian and Dr. Papacharissi have to say. That said, I have trouble with an approach that accepts the status quo as inevitable; especially, when that acceptance helps to normalizes a reliance on corporate governance as the only possible way to fix the internet and networked communications.
Chen isn’t wrong. His article just appears assumes there is only one option, to continue using and relying on the problematic platforms developed by those corporations and hope they “fix” it for us. They won’t. The Internet trolls have “won” because the corporations that drive modern social media platforms make a ton of money off those trolls (see my Valve discussion) for more on that). Until they stop making money (this is something that Facebook may actually be grappling with) the trolls will win. Of course, they only win on those platforms.
If you rely on those platforms, you’re sunk. So you have a choice, you can wait for these social media companies to do something or, and apparently this is a radical thought, maybe you should choose to stop relying1 on those platforms. Reddit and Twitter aren’t necessary. Facebook certainly isn’t necessary. None of the current social media platforms are required for you to communicate and share with an audience. In fact, I would argue they probably are not very valuable unless you really want to be advertising. After all, that is what they were designed to do. Social media platforms are not for communication, they are for advertising. We as social media users should treat them as such, and nothing more.
This is, in part, why I get so frustrated with the current “the internet is revolutionary” refrain that so dominates digital rhetoric especially when uttered in the same sentence as social media. The internet can be revolutionary, social media is regressive. Social media is (and Chen notes this in the article) just interactive mass media. It’s talk radio and call-in TV. I think Chen frames this really well by quoting Dr. Zizi Papacharissi2:
Given the way things are going, our faith in the internet may erode until we distrust it as much as we do TV news.
I agree, except that we are not talking about the internet we’re talking about private, corporate, social media sites and companies. They aren’t trustworthy. They never were. We shouldn’t trust them any more than we used to trust the crazy guy talking on Art Bell. When we reduce the internet to these platforms, we create an expectation that there are no other options. There are, and there always have been. Honestly, those options are doing fine3.
Dr. Papacharissi’s suggestions at the end of the article are absolutely on point, but I would add one more - become your own curator. Don’t rely on social media to supply information and engagement. Seek out content and (whenever possible) engage with it on independent sites, develop your own filters, and decide what you will and will not view. For example, I use a custom filter on Ublock Origin to block Youtube comments. Why? Because the comments don’t matter, I’m there for the creator4. You wouldn’t believe how much nicer my Youtube experience has been since I removed those comments.
Ultimately, the trolls aren’t winning. They’re trolls. Every troll victory is pyrrhic at best. Platforms that encourage and support them ultimately die taking the trolls with them (looking at you Twitter). The internet is going to be just fine5. It’s an internet. A lot of platforms that use the internet are pretty terrible right now. That’s okay. A Papacharissi says in the article, we haven’t really learned how to use these technologies well. Social media is just an attempt to glue an older, more centralized model of mass media into this communicative space.
That will change.
Note I didn’t say do not use social media. Use social media all you want. Make it work for you, but don’t rely on it and don’t pretend that the platforms care one bit about you, your privacy, or your well-being. As we have seen people start doing, be able and willing to shut it off. ↩
Just a note to say that Dr. Zizi Papacharissi is an incredible scholar whose work is a must read for anyone interested in this topic. I think she shows up twice in my comps reading list and while I haven’t referenced her in my dissertation, yet, it is only a matter of time. ↩
In part because those options are semi-permeable or completely locked down. Filters are NOT a bad thing (but that is another post/article). ↩
Netflix realized this, that’s why the pointless rating and review section of the site was finally completely removed on July 30th. ↩
The only real risk to the internet is the removal of net neutrality, but even that has options for creating change and pushing us to develop new networks not connected or own by the current network provider Oligopoly (I really hope). ↩