‘Open and Free’ Compared to What?
Responding to the recurring debate about online comments sections, and particularly anonymous commentators, Purdue doctoral candidate and Dish guest blogger Freddie deBoer argues that “this is a good opportunity to finally let some of our old myths about the internet die. It’s still common to hear people talk about the internet as this open space where only talent matters and where everyone has a chance to impact the discussion. And it’s time we put those myths to bed.”
While sympathetic to the arguments against anonymous commenting and even comment sections themselves, deBoer doubts that we’ll actually solve online trolling, harassment, bigotry, and other problems at which these measures are aimed because “Humanity exists online, and this is the way humanity is.” Moreover, though, the economic and social realities of cyberspace belie the notion of a commons where the best ideas rise.
One of the things I’ve always liked about Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein is that they’ve both always been upfront about the fact that their success depends in part on having been in the right place at the right time, and that building a career now is a lot harder than it used to be. Hierarchies harden, alliances form, and given the brutal economic realities of the online writing profession, the game of musical chairs gets more and more brutally competitive. The end result is, inevitably, that people feel more and more pressure to find a niche and to be liked. It’s a word of mouth business. And while the world of commenters may seem far from that of the pros, I think that many of us envisioned a future where commenters could, at their best, provide a kind of counterweight when professional and social pressures influence what the pros think and say.
[As]s I tried to say in the first piece I wrote this week: I don’t know that there’s such a thing as political and intellectual independence when there’s so little economic and labor security. The unemployment rate is down, but I don’t know many people who really feel secure. The terrible condition of the American worker spreads out into everything and hurts people in all industries- even those who would prefer to say, for political reasons, that everything is alright.
I don’t know if there was ever a time when the internet in general, and the world of blogging and online journalism specifically, were these open cultures where anyone truly had a chance to get ahead. And there’s a simple rejoinder to all of this: commenters never were some sort of principled check on bloggers and writers. They brought the rape gifs and the misogyny and the racism and none of the checks and balances. I get that, too. I just think that it’s time for us all to reckon with the fact that the mythology is well and truly dead. The internet is a social system, which means it’s defined by inequalities in power, and those inequalities determine what gets heard and by whom. I will never stop criticizing those writers who decide that they are a very big deal, or stop pointing out the social and professional hierarchies that they care about deeply while pretending they don’t. And as much as criticisms of comment sections are accurate, they are also self-serving, a way for the various Big Deals online to lord it over the proles. But I do hope that I always keep in mind the fact that structural, economic factors are ultimately to blame for our hierarchical, unequal media, not individuals. And that my own pretensions and self-aggrandizement are no kind of alternative.
While he’s certainly right about the inequities in the public discourse—and the linked piece on the demise of academic freedom for young academics is worthy of a conversation all its own—things aren’t quite so stark. It’s doubtless true that it would be much harder to get noticed as a budding blogger today than it was when Yglesias, Klein, Dan Drezner, Kevin Drum, Steven Taylor, and lots of others of us were getting started a decade plus ago. That’s true on Twitter as well. The media have matured and it’s simply harder to get noticed.
If one’s desire is to “Take the Boeing”—Glenn Reynolds’ coinage for getting hired to blog at a mainstream media site—there is enormous pressure to create a lot of content of the variety that generates clicks. Moreover, there’s a not-so-subtle pressure to either be bland—staying away from topics and opinions that might offend the sensibilities of the hiring elites—or at least predictable. It’s better to be easily identifiable as a Democratic or Republican partisan than a free thinker.
And, sure, there’s a power dynamic even at places like OTB. Top-line posters can set the agenda while commentators are mostly limited to talking about those topics selected by the posters. We can delete comments that offend our sensibilities and ban commenters who annoy us sufficiently while commentators can only comment or not.
So, no, the Internet is not completely “open” or “free.” It never was and never will be. But “open and free” is essentially an ideal type, not a promise. Compared to the offline world that predated it, the online world is quite open and free.
While again acknowledging that I had something of a first mover advantage kicking this blog off in 2003—I’ve been able to have substantially more impact on the conversation than I ever would have in a pre-Internet world. Hundreds of people read most of my posts. The blog has served as a launching pad for a fairly prolific editorial writing career at various prestige outlets. The fact that said outlets have expanded their available slots via their online presence has helped considerably in that regard.
Further, despite the limitations inherent in the system, aside from those who engage in blatant violations of our commenting policies “everyone” actually does have “a chance to impact the discussion.” We’re still small enough that, unless I’m just swamped with other tasks, I can read the comments on every post that I write. (Authors get each comment emailed to them. Thus, I read comments on my own posts but often not those on those of my colleagues.) From that interaction, I often either modify my views or am prodded to write subsequent posts further explaining them. It’s a real conversation, albeit not a completely equal one.
The world we live in is inherently unequal. Those with money and power have a much easier time finding a platform and getting their voices heard. The Internet and social media have had some substantial leveling effect on that; they haven’t upended reality altogether.