Are the Internet, the World Wide Web and new social media making us freer? If you believe the hype, all of these developments over the past 30 years have served to undermine old hierarchies, caused the fall of dictatorships and opened up space for people to create and get their work out to the public, free of the old media institutions that served as gatekeepers. Unconventional ideas are available as never before, if you know where to look for them. On a personal level, kindred souls can find each other, and you need never lose touch with old friends.
Politically, the main conflict seems to be over who “owns” the Web and the content on it. Is it a highway that’s open for everybody to use equally? Or will your ability to use it be dependent on your ability to pay?
Yet the “free” Internet isn’t all it’s been made out to be. More and more of the terrain is controlled by several large corporations: Google, Facebook and Amazon being among the largest. The hardware of the Web consumes increasingly huge amounts of energy and is typically manufactured where there is little regard for human rights or the environment. Despite the ease of access to an audience for writers, musicians and artists, it’s becoming increasingly hard to actually make a living in these occupations. Finally, while marginal voices can get onto the Web with some ease, getting them exposed to a large audience is often more difficult than ever. Something seems to be wrong.
Astra Taylor’s timely book, “The People’s Platform,” provides some of the answers, starting with the difference between the hype and what really underpins the Web: the creation of profit for a handful of companies. While a system like the World Wide Web may seem to offer equal treatment to everyone, in reality it actually magnifies existing forms of privilege and oppression in several ways. For example, the structure of search engines like Google, which prioritize (or claim to prioritize) results according to number of hits, actually magnifies the importance of the most popular sites, so that marginal and lesser-known voices tend to drop to the bottom of search results. Disparities in platforms and search engines themselves tend to grow — and, again, Google is the perfect example: Because everyone else uses Google, you’re likely to, also.
Even in social media, sexism and racism tend to be reproduced in ways that are hard to combat: Studies show, for example, that of bloggers who get more than 2,000 hits a day, 85 percent are men and only a miniscule percentage are people of color. Women bloggers who speak out against sexism on the Web are subject to harassment, including threats of being raped and murdered. The anonymity of the Web allows the worst to come out in some people, particularly angry men. And, as Taylor points out, as blind as established institutions can be towards racism and sexism, at least before the decentralized Web there was somebody you could hold accountable; Anonymous posts on websites and social networks make posters more resistant to responsibility.
As for enhancing creativity, there’s a major problem. When cultural products can be infinitely and easily copied, their value in the marketplace tends to fall to zero. Media corporations have, of course, resisted this tendency by pushing enhanced copyright laws and draconian laws against downloading. Artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians, however, have been caught between these companies and the expectation that they’ll work for no return except exposure. It may be cheap to make copies, but it costs money and labor to become skilled, to research news stories, to assemble materials and simply to create something.
If people can’t make a living doing this, then the only people who are able to create culture are those who have an independent income or can do it in their spare time. While this has been a problem through the 20th century and before the rise of mass media, there was a certain institutional framework of publishers, record companies, film companies, etc., which, though often leaving people out in the cold, at least took some risks on new voices and new artists.
What’s the solution? Taylor proposes a movement for sustainable culture production, similar to the movement for sustainable food production, with institutions that can spread the risk of failure around, as well as preserving digital content for the long term. She wants to shift the conversation from free culture to fair culture: “Established fair trade principles include transparency and accountability, payment of just prices, nondiscrimination and gender and racial equality, and respect for the environment.” Beyond that, she argues, the public needs to see our culture as a common property, a “public good” that needs to be controlled by the public, not by a handful of corporations whose bottom line is the amount of money they can make from targeted advertising.