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EDITORIAL: MEDIUM WELL

Facebook middle finger
Image by gfkDSGN. CC0 Creative Commons. Modified with permission by Jason Pramas.

 

Democracy requires public control of social media giants

 

In this edition of DigBoston, our Editor-in-Chief Chris Faraone has already written at some length about how Medium—which is essentially a glorified blog farm with a puzzlingly opaque social media component—screwed our nonprofit, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ), a few days back by precipitously terminating the paid subscriptions of dozens of our monthly supporters on the platform.


After we questioned the company’s action, a low-level flunky claimed we had been given a whole entire week’s advance notice in an email that we subsequently explained we never received. After we very publicly cried bloody murder, and got our plight written up in Nieman Lab and Columbia Journalism Review, Medium leadership offered us, and a number of other small publishers, four months of the income we would have made had they not kicked us to the digital curb.


There are many problems with the way events transpired, but the worst one is the fact that mere mortals such as ourselves do not control our presences on corporate social media bigs in any way, shape, or form. The billionaires that own them—that became rich by creating “walled gardens” under their micromanagement and have stubbornly resisted the creation of public and nonprofit social media alternatives—are the only people that could reasonably be said to control them. Even though many of them have built their fortunes on technology originally created by publicly funded basic scientific research that they were allowed to essentially steal. Not dissimilar from leaders of the former Soviet Union that were allowed to privatize once-public industries and become billionaires themselves. Distorting the politics of various successor states toward oligarchy in the process.


And, under today’s robber baron capitalism, billionaires of any provenance are extremely difficult to bring to heel with any kind of public regulation or taxation. Let alone criminal charges.

 

Medium is hardly the worst, or anywhere near the largest, of the social media scofflaws in question. Its founder, Ev Williams, seems to be a thoughtful and genial enough fellow for someone in his position. But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. … Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.”


Truer words were never spoken. Especially when it comes to a person who has used his power and privilege to change the business model of Medium—a corporation that’s been valued in the hundreds of millions—on more than one occasion.


So, BINJ and the other affected publishers are the latest victims of the caprices of a billionaire. Who ironically wants to help improve media with the selfsame company that just made life more difficult for a group of struggling media outlets.

 

It is precisely for this reason that both the nonprofit side (BINJ) and for-profit side (DigBoston) of this operation that I half-jokingly call the “Greater BINJ-DigBoston Mediaplex” are working to help build alternatives to corporate social media. As we announced in an editorial a couple months ago.

 

We believe that digital media can only move forward by returning to the most promising visionary thinking of the earliest internet pioneers. Including the idea that only a decentralized communication network can be truly democratic.  And that the ethos of democracy must be baked so deeply into its architecture that it can never be displaced.

 

Our enterprise can only play a small part in this “strategic retreat.” But we are pursuing that initiative with vigor. Both by moves we are making to change how BINJ and DigBoston use the internet and by trying to organize our peers in the news industry to change our collective digital lot for the better.

 

The former effort involves transitioning away from Facebook—which we adjudge to be the worst of the social media giants—and toward first Twitter then other more democratic social media as it emerges. The latter effort—to which we’re dedicating a small conference this weekend—involves helping construct the democratic social media alternatives we hope to ultimately focus on.

 

But even if such voluntarist endeavors succeed in scaling up to control some reasonable percentage of the relevant markets, they will not stop huge social media corporations and the billionaires that control them from continuing to have far more political, economic, and social power than is healthy for a democratic society.

 

So what will stop them? Not breaking them up into smaller companies. As economist Gar Alperovitz points out in his book, What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution, old-fashioned trust busting always ends up with the smaller companies reforming into new giants. Thanks largely to “regulatory capture”: Big corporations colonizing regulatory agencies with insiders and then doing what they want—as we’ve seen most clearly of late with former telecom exec Ajit Pai getting the top seat at the FCC, then killing net neutrality.

 

Which way forward then? Alperowitz says that even the libertarian economists of the Chicago school—most famously Milton Friedman—identified the futility of breaking up huge companies. Leading Friedman’s mentor Henry C. Simons to quip, “Every industry should be effectively competitive or socialized.” Failing to do so, he and other Chicago economists thought, would lead to an ongoing series of societal crises. Which would certainly include the new kinds of crises that corporate social media has sparked. Notably “surveillance capitalism” where consumers’ every move is being monitored and thought anticipated in the service of maximizing profit in ways never before seen. With all the resulting negative outcomes—like social media addiction and political chaos—externalized to a failing democratic system largely controlled by an ever-shrinking number of multinationals and financial concerns.

 

And how best to socialize corporate social media? Alperowitz suggests turning the companies controlling the commanding heights of any sector of the economy into public utilities. So it must go with major social media companies. They must be converted into a heavily regulated and government-managed utility in such a way as to maximize democratic decentralized digital communication and provide it as cheaply as possible for the good of all. While, I would add, activists on the ground continue to develop a constellation of independent social media projects run by nonprofits, cooperatives, and social benefit corporations around the new government-funded network to allow for maximum information and technological diversity—and keep a future public social media utility honest.

 

Some kind of national security state panopticon is not what we’re aiming for here. Rather, the new utility could be run by elected regional boards with mandated seats for key community constituencies and space for lots of meaningful grassroots input.

 

Doing all that—plus related work to socialize telecoms and cable companies—will take a massive protest movement. Like most everything that involves uprooting entrenched institutions and replacing them with new, more popular institutions. And that movement will have to be international. It’s the only way to go. Because social media corporations are multinational, and most governments—corporate-dominated as they are—won’t do the job on their own. Not without a protracted struggle.

 

Going forward, DigBoston (and BINJ) will be looking to ally with good organizations willing to fight hard on these issues. And we’ll be sure to let readers know which groups we think are doing the best work as they emerge on the political stage.

 

So, stay tuned to these pages. We’ll be doing our damnedest to guide you through what is sure to be a wild ride.

 

Jason Pramas is the executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston, and the network director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

UPDATE: DIGBOSTON DISPATCH

Still from NOTES AFTER LONG SILENCE (1989) by Saul Levine
Still from NOTES AFTER LONG SILENCE (1989) by Saul Levine

 

News from behind the editorial curtain plus support for Saul Levine

 

Seeking next group of working-class journalists

In November, I put out the word that DigBoston was looking for working-class Boston natives to write for us.

 

Specifically, I called for locals with three of the four qualities we look for in good journalists: ability to communicate, compassion, and deep local knowledge. The fourth quality, formal journalism training, was something my colleagues and I were willing to provide at an introductory level to motivated applicants.

 

A very diverse group of 15 DigBoston readers hit us back, and we ultimately trained four of them in a free three-hour basic journalism workshop that Chris Faraone and I prepared for the occasion. Since then, two of the trainees have filed draft articles, and you can expect to see them published with us by summer.

 

So now we’re ready to accept new candidates for our next class of trainees.

 

And I’ll ask the same questions of interested audience members that I asked before: Are you a smart, compassionate, talkative person from one of Boston’s working-class neighborhoods? Can you put words in rows, and maybe take some pictures on your phone? Do you want to learn to be a journalist? Do you want to tell the world about the place you grew up? About its problems and its successes? About its corruption and its virtue? Its shame and its glory?

 

Yes? Then drop me a line at execeditor@digboston.com. Let’s talk.

 

Comment on reader feedback

A few weeks back, I asked DigBoston’s audience to send in comments about what they thought we were doing well and what they thought needed improvement. We then got a bunch of responses—most highly complimentary. Which were nice to read. But some folks also included some very useful criticism about some of our various beats and how we could make them better. We took those to heart and are working to make the requested improvements.

 

Follow DigBoston on Flipboard

In an editorial a couple of weeks ago, I announced that DigBoston is moving away from Facebook. Not so much because of the ongoing Cambridge Analytica scandal, as that the social media platform has become a drag to use and expects us to pay it to reach our own audience. Regularly. Naturally, the editorial was thin on specifics about how we would do without Facebook. I mentioned that Twitter was one logical place to focus our social media activity, but recognized that Twitter is not really so much different than Facebook that it will provide us with a long-term alternative.

 

However, there is one hot social network that can replace a big part of what news publications like DigBoston do on the internet… in a more equitable way for all concerned. While we participate in the movement to build the more democratic and decentralized social media we’d ultimately prefer to use.

 

Flipboard, which has been around for a few years, has more than 100 million users and growing, and provides a great way for people to share news articles with each other. And it’s perfect from our perspective because we don’t have to pay Flipboard to reach readers that follow us there. It pushes our latest articles to all our followers as part of its service.

 

After a couple of months’ wait, I’m pleased to announce that DigBoston has now been accepted as a Flipboard Publisher. And we invite all our readers to join Flipboard and follow us there. Here’s the link: flipboard.com/@DigBoston. You’ll find using Flipboard for your daily news dose to be a much more pleasant experience than using Facebook. And it’s just as social as Facebook with far more ways to share articles with your friends and family than the larger social network ever had.

 

Justice for Saul Levine

The Boston art scene was shocked last week when longtime MassArt film professor Saul Levine announced that he had resigned from his job after teaching there 39 years. Why? According to Levine, on the last day of his fall semester senior thesis class he was expecting students to present some of their work in progress. But they didn’t. Scrambling for something to discuss with them, he decided to review different editing constructions. He chose two of his short films to use as examples. One of which, NOTES AFTER LONG SILENCE, had a great number of fast cuts. He had shown the film every year in class since making it in 1989 and thought nothing of using it to make his points. The 15-minute film had some nudity and sex in it, but only a few seconds that go by so fast viewers typically barely notice it.

 

According to his friend, film critic Gerald Peary, in a Facebook post on Monday, at the end of the class one of the students asked Levine who was having sex in the film. He said, “It was me.” Then, unbeknownst to him, at least one student anonymously reported him to the MassArt administration for sexual harassment… or at least that’s what the school claims.

 

With no warning about what was coming, the administration called Levine into a Feb 8 meeting where he was “ambushed” and harangued for two hours by officials he felt sure had never watched the “offending” film. They apparently agreed with the anonymous student or students that his showing a movie in which he appeared nude and having sex (with a committed partner) did indeed constitute sexual harassment. Despite the fact that much of his body of artwork is very personal, and sometimes features him nude. And the fact that he had every right to show his own very public and very well-known artwork in his own class for completely valid pedagogical reasons. Artwork which is in no way prurient or pornographic.

 

Although he had a faculty union leader accompanying him in the meeting and was not fired immediately, Levine felt so pressured by the encounter that he decided to resign rather than wind up in a protracted and expensive legal battle with the administration to clear his name.

 

“I am a full professor in film and video,” Levine told me on Tuesday. “I am still teaching until 5/31. I chose to resign because I felt targeted. The 2/8 meeting let me know that they were gonna get me!”

 

Since making a video attacking MassArt last Thursday—excoriating the administration for effectively violating his artistic freedom, his academic freedom, and his rights of free speech and expression—his situation has received coverage in Artforum, Boston Globe, IndieWire, and other outlets.

 

Dozens of fellow artists and civil libertarians from around Boston and beyond are rushing to his defense. I strongly agree with them that MassArt’s treatment of him is unconscionable. I think the college should make a serious effort to bring him back. And its administration should put much more careful thought into how they handle similar incidents in the future.

 

NOTES AFTER LONG SILENCE can be viewed here: vimeo.com/73242778/. Levine’s video response to MassArt can be viewed at facebook.com/saullevine/videos/10215932754649479/. I encourage readers to watch both. And if they agree that justice was not done, to join me and other supporters of Saul Levine in contacting MassArt Interim Provost Lyssa Palu-ay (lpaluay@massart.edu, 617-879-7782) and Director/Title IX Coordinator Courtney Wilson (cwilson24@massart.edu, 617-879-7751) and demanding that MassArt apologize to him and offer to reinstate him to his former teaching post immediately—removing any blemish to his record that may have resulted from this unfortunate incident.

 

Levine concluded: “I’m out of MassArt but people should protest the attack on free speech—which includes showing my film and the manner in which I speak.” The last comment in reference to his lifelong speech and motor disabilities that he feels the college administration used against him.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. He is also arts editor and holds an MFA in visual art from the Art Institute of Boston.

EDITORIAL: STRATEGIC RETREAT

Image by freeGraphicToday. CC0.
Image by freeGraphicToday. CC0.

 

DigBoston to move away from Facebook, help build democratic social media alternatives

 

A decade back it seemed only natural for news publications like DigBoston to stake out turf on Facebook. After all, it provided an easy way for us to reach our audience on a regular basis—via a social media platform that was well on its way to becoming the ubiquitous global behemoth it is today.

 

But now it seems like a particularly good moment to discuss this publication’s evolving thinking on our use of corporate social media. In the wake of the huge and growing Cambridge Analytica scandal that cost Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg $6 billion of his net worth after that story broke last week, according to Fortune.

 

Because Facebook is not working for us anymore—as individuals and as the staff of a metro news weekly.

 

What was once a fun way to keep in touch with friends and co-workers has turned into a huge drag. Every moment of our time on the social network is completely controlled by Zuckerberg’s minions. Who work to make it ever more addictive. To keep users like us on Facebook for more and more of our time—thus spending less and less of our time on any possible competitor’s network.

 

Yet the company also carefully limits users’ access to our own connections. And it continues to make repeated changes to its “algorithm” (the code that governs, among other things, what content users see) and other structural changes that are seriously damaging individuals’—and to our point, news outlets’—ability to reach our own audiences.

 

It is now no more possible for individuals to communicate with even a fraction of their connections on the platform than it is for DigBoston to reach more than a handful of our 24,000 followers. Even if we pay a bunch of money for the privilege, which page managers like us are forced to do. On our two branded pages that Facebook refuses to let us merge… because one page has a blue check mark and one page has a gray check mark, you see. And blue check mark pages may not be merged with gray check mark pages. Facebook “help desk” has spoken. And once Facebook makes a pronouncement, however cryptically and episodically, it cannot be challenged. By conventional means, at least.

 

Not that we’re surprised that Facebook has its own agenda. Like many reasonably technologically savvy journalists, we understand how the company works. Digital marketer Mitch Joel explained it succinctly in a helpful Maclean’s piece on the Cambridge Analytica affair: “Facebook’s business model is not based on content, marketing or advertising. You—the consumer—are the product and the money that Facebook generates is based on how well they can monetize your data and target you to their brand partners.”

 

The problem is that we understand all too well that Facebook does what’s best for Facebook—first, last, and always. And my DigBoston colleagues and I have had enough.

 

Like the staff of tens of thousands of other news organizations around the planet, we know that we have been complicit in Facebook’s rise to power.

 

We have posted all our content to Facebook. Which has provided free high-quality information that helped attract our existing audience and many others besides to Facebook’s “walled garden” social network. The vast conglomerate then monetized that audience as described above. Used the vast array of personal data at their command to steal the entire news industry’s digital advertising base away—including ours. And has the temerity to charge us to reach the audience we helped bring to them.

 

Adding insult to injury, according to the Guardian, companies like Cambridge Analytica have found ways to acquire and weaponize that personal data at the behest of operatives like Steve Bannon. Who then use it to help throw elections like the 2016 presidential contest to the political faction of their choice. To name but one of a myriad number of ways that rich and powerful interests—including Facebook itself—are using this “surveillance capitalism,” as it has come to be called, to attempt to control the behavior of entire populations for their own gain.

 

Given that state of affairs, DigBoston has no choice but to start to move away from Facebook. As our editor-in-chief Chris Faraone so colorfully put it in a related context a couple of months back, “… fuck Facebook. With a big, blue middle finger.”

 

But move away to what? All the major social networks are owned by big companies doing basically the same thing Facebook is doing. Though none have its reach and market share. Some, like Instagram, are even owned by Facebook.

 

In the short term, we’re starting to focus more on Twitter—a social media giant that’s slightly less mercenary and slightly more responsive to public pressure. The Lyft to Facebook’s Uber, if you will.

 

In the longer term, we see no ideal alternative on the horizon.

 

So we’ve resolved to help create that alternative.

 

Think this through with us: DigBoston, like legions of other news outlets, has to find a social media solution that meets our need to control and monetize our own data in a platform that our audience is willing to use on a regular basis. Our audience needs a social network that won’t exploit them.

 

There have been numerous attempts to start standalone “less evil” social media platforms in opposition to Facebook et al—Diaspora, Ello, and Minds to name but three. None of them have succeeded. Why? Because no one knows exactly what causes people to abandon existing social networks for new ones. Sometimes people just bail. Friendster, Orkut, and MySpace were once hot, and now are not. So every prediction of Facebook’s demise at the hands of a new entrant over the last many years has proved to be premature. And every claim to have the magic solution that will cause millions of users to jump ship from Facebook and other major social media has proved to be a pipe dream.

 

It is true that Facebook’s audience growth is slowing. Usage in the key US and Canadian markets is dropping, according to the LA Times. And the current scandal has already caused the company to lose more than 6 percent of its value on Monday—over $35 billion—according to Fortune. Yet it could easily bounce back. It remains an immensely powerful multinational. And if it convinces its shareholders to stay the course, it can weather almost any conceivable political storm.

 

What will it take to essentially pull the rug out from under Facebook and companies like it? Returning to the promise of the early internet to democratize global communication, and giving more control over the means of that communication to individuals and the full array of human institutions alike.

 

There are interesting experiments going on in new grassroots social networks that DigBoston is keeping an eye on. Decentralized federated microblogging systems (think an agglomeration of Twitter-like networks that talk to each other) like Mastodon. Fully decentralized social media projects like IndieWeb—a network of “creators” who have developed tools that allow the owners of independent personal websites to interact with each other. Like a Facebook without the Facebook. Without a central control hub of any kind, really.

 

Projects like these are great ideas. But they rely on volunteers, and sometimes a handful of low-paid staff, to function. Meaning they can achieve an initial burst of success, only to suffer a long decline to irrelevance as their evangelists move on to other ventures. Plus you typically need to be someone in or around the tech scene and affiliated subcultures to know about their existence. And they tend to require a fair amount of technical expertise to use.

 

Which is to say that these carefully thought out super democratic social media experiments are not likely to provide the alternative DigBoston and like-minded folks the world over are seeking to build. Not anytime soon. Mastodon had just over a million users last month, according to Mastodon User Count—largely due its community deploying functioning phone apps like the nifty Amaroq for iOS. But that’s obviously a drop in the bucket compared to the 1.4 billion active daily users that Facebook reported in Q4 of 2017. Even allowing for the fact that a nonzero percentage of those accounts are fake, according to Yahoo Finance. And not including many more inactive accounts.

 

Still, we can but soldier on. For our part, we’re calling a meeting of journalists and techies later this year. Specifically, editors and publishers of Boston area news outlets and high-level coders associated with thoughtful social media projects like Mastodon and IndieWeb. We’re going to compare notes and see if we can start working together to provide better communications solutions for our news organizations and our audiences that will go at least some small fraction of the way to providing a democratic alternative to Facebook and other corporate networks.

 

We’ll definitely let you all know how that meeting goes. But those of you who think you need to be there, drop me a line at execeditor@digboston.com and tell me why.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. His sad and lonely Mastodon account is @jasonpramas@mastodon.social. Sign up for a free account at mastodon.social and say hi.