Is a radically different internet possible, one less dominated by a handful of tech giants hooked on transactional surveillance advertising? That was the question for technologists, legal scholars, and an audience of more than 1,400 who gathered during the course of a week-long virtual conversation in mid-May to “reimagine the internet.”
The online symposium, co-sponsored by Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute and University of Massachusetts Amherst’s School of Public Policy, was the culmination of a year-long research project by Ethan Zuckerman, a visiting scholar at the Knight Institute, and Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci, the Institute’s research fellow. The two spent the time exploring and writing about a range of social media “logics” beyond those used by platforms like Google, Amazon, and Facebook.
For Zuckerman, the research findings were encouraging. “It's not too late to fix things,” he told participants during the opening day’s conversation. “But the key is that we have to stop fixing what exists right now and start imagining that something else is possible. It's not about fixing Facebook. It's not about fixing YouTube. It's not about fixing Google. It's about imagining and building alternatives to what exists now.”
Moving forward, he added, also means recognizing that social media’s role in the spread of vaccine disinformation or the Capitol riots may not reflect just the problems inherent with the internet, but instead a deeply divided nation.
Sociologist and media scholar Francesca Tripodi underscored that notion in her presentation. “Misinformation is not a bug in the code,” she said. “We need to think about it as a sociological issue. And the only way we can potentially circumvent these misinformation traps is by knowing and understanding the kinds of questions people seek answers to, as well as the way in which they validate truth and knowledge.”
Central to the internet challenge, Zuckerman added, is that the vast majority of our day-to-day interactions on the internet are through search engines, social media platforms, and transactional platforms that tend to work on a fixed set of assumptions, or models. One such pervasive model is surveillance advertising, where tools collect as much demographic and behavioral information as possible on users in order to target ads to them.
“This isn't necessarily the way that this has to be,” argued Zuckerman. “When we look at those sites that have these huge audiences we end up missing lots of other models that are out there. Even now the internet doesn't actually have to work a single way. We just tend to assume that it [does].”
“If we're going to talk about alternative models for the internet, we really need to talk about what it takes to run them and to sustain them and, yes, to scale them.”
One alternative model that has proven successful, is Wikimedia, which hosts Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia. Katherine Maher, until recently its CEO, detailed Wikimedia’s open-source, community-governance, donor-supported approach for symposium participants. She added: “If we're going to talk about alternative models for the internet, we really need to talk about what it takes to run them and to sustain them and, yes, to scale them, if we want them to be successful in a way that reaches our mission of supporting a different type of internet infrastructure for all.”
But outsized scale isn’t necessarily a goal for all alternative visions of participatory media on the internet, Zuckerman cautioned. “Small is really a key word here,” he said. “One of the biggest problems with internet communities is that they're too big to be communities. Very few of us would identify as members of communities of hundreds of millions of people.”
The search for models of small, well-controlled social networks that are more participatory and inclusive led the “Reimagine” symposium to explore the details of several successful approaches, including the WURD talk radio project serving Philadelphia’s Black community, and Front Porch Forum, an online community serving Vermont towns. Other models discussed at the gathering included an online haven for LGBTQ youth in the Middle East and digital tools for sex workers.
Any internet future where many such small social networks can gain traction—described by some as a prescription for weakening the power of politically influential sites like Facebook and Twitter—might be able to build on the long technical tradition of “adversarial interoperability” described by speaker and author Cory Doctorow. Under such a regime, individual users exploring perhaps dozens of different social networks could expect compatibility between competitive services, much as is currently found on email. In other words, new tools would be made compatible with existing tools, whether or not those companies approved or not.
“I want to believe in a plethora of social networks, accessed by tools that let people interact with multiple networks, including existing and small ones. That is a great future.”
But some speakers foresaw significant complications with such competitive compatibility. “I want to believe in a plethora of social networks, accessed by tools that let people interact with multiple networks, including existing and small ones. That is a great future,” commented Daphne Keller, who directs the Program on Platform Regulation at Stanford's Cyber Policy Center and is a former associate general counsel for Google. But Keller then reminded participants how hard it actually is to build protocols that bridge these different networks, and predicted a range of business and legal challenges for such an approach as well.
In fact, while the alternative version of the internet explored at the symposium generated enthusiasm, two closing speakers offered a dose of reality. Jonathan Ong, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who looks at problems of social media and governance from the perspective of the Global South, questioned tradeoffs that users of the proposed smaller networks might make, gaining the security of a like-minded community but losing broader perspectives possible with a larger one. And evelyn douek of Harvard Law School cast a critical eye on the potential for decentralized moderation, a core concept of many of the alternative models discussed during the week.
But Zuckerman remained optimistic that an alternative vision of the internet built around the ideas broached during the week—small is beautiful, governance over moderation, and adversarial interoperability for compatibility—is not only possible, but badly needed.
“The internet and the relationships that we have with each other on it are just too important to leave up to the market,” he concluded. “It's not just about what becomes the most popular, what becomes the most successful. We actually need tools that are designed specifically to help us be better citizens and to be better neighbors.”
A. Adam Glenn is a journalist who has worked for newspaper, magazine, and online newsrooms in New York and Washington, D.C.