Spaghetti, meet wall (on public intellectuals, activists in residence, and just another existential crisis of a phd student)
by Sebastian Benthall
I have a backlog of things I’ve been planning to write about. It’s been a fruitful semester for me, in a number of ways. At the risk of being incoherent, I thought I’d throw some of my spaghetti against the Internet wall. It’s always curious to see what sticks.
One of the most fascinating intellectual exchanges of the past couple months for me was what I’d guess you could call the Morozov/Johnson debate. Except it wasn’t a debate. It was a book, then a book review (probably designed to sell a different book), and a rebuttal. It was fantastic showmanship. I have never felt so much like I was watching a boxing match while reading stuff on the Internet.
But what really made it for me was the side act of Henry Farrell taking Morozov to task. Unlike the others, I’ve met Farrell. He was kind enough to talk to me about his Cognitive Democracy article (which I was excited about) and academia in general (“there are no academic jobs for brilliant generalists”) last summer when I was living in DC. He is very smart, and not showy. What was cool about his exchange with Morozov was that it showed how a debate that wasn’t designed to sell books could still leak out into the public. There’s still a role for the dedicated academic, as a watchdog on public intellectuals who one could argue have to get sloppier to entertain the public.
An intriguing fallout from (or warm up to?) the whole exchange was Morozov casually snarking Nick Grossman‘s title, “Activist in Residence” at a VC fund in a tweet (“Another sign of the coming Apocalypse? Venture capital firms now have “activists in residence”? “), which then triggered some business press congratulating Nick for being “out in the streets”. Small world, I used to work with Nick at OpenPlans, and can vouch for his being a swell guy with an experienced and nuanced view of technology and government. He has done a lot of pioneering, constructive work on open governance applications–just the sort of constructive work a hater like Morozov would hate if he looked into it some. Privately, he’s told me he’s well aware of the potential astroturfing connotations of his title.
I got mixed feelings about all this. I’m suspicious of venture capital for the kind of vague “capital isn’t trustworthy” reasons you pick up in academia. Activism is sexy, lobbyists are not, and so if you can get away with calling your lobbyist an activist in residence then clearly that’s a step up.
But I think there’s something a little more going on here, which has to do with the substance of the debate. As I understand it, the Peer Progressives believe that social and economic progress can happen through bottom-up connectivity supported by platforms that are potentially run for profit. If you’re a VC, you’d want to invest in one of them platforms, because they are The Future. Nevertheless, you believe stuff happens by connecting people “on the ground”, not targeting decision-makers who are high in a hierarchy.
In Connected, Christakis and Fowler (or some book like it, I’m been reading a lot of them lately and having a hard time keeping track) make the interesting argument that the politics of protesters in the streets and lobbyists aren’t much different. What’s different is the centrality of the actor in the social network of governance. If you know a lot of senators, you’re probably a lobbyist. If you have to hold a sign and shout to have your political opinions heard, then you might be an activist.
I wonder who Nick talks to. Is he schmoozing with the Big Players? Or is he networking the base and trying to spur coordinated action on the periphery? I really have no idea. But if it were the latter, maybe that would give credibility to his title.
Another difference between activists and lobbyists is their authenticity. I have no doubt that Nick believes what he writes and advocates for. I do wonder how much he restrains himself based on his employers’ interests. What would prove he was an activist, not a lobbyist, would be if he were given a longer leash and allowed to speak out on controversial issues in a public way.
I’m mulling over all of this because I’m discovering in grad school that as an academic, you have to pick an audience. Are you targeting your work at other academics? At the public? At the press? At the government? At industry? At the end of the day, you’re writing something and you want somebody else to read it. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to build something and get some people to use it, but that’s an ambitious thing to attempt when you’re mainly working alone.
So far some of my most rewarding experiences writing in academia have been blogging. It doesn’t impress anybody important but a traffic spike can make you feel like you’re on to something. I’ve been in a world of open work for a long time, and just throwing the spaghetti and trying to see what sticks has worked well for me in the past.
But if you try to steer yourself deeper into the network, the stakes get higher. Things get more competitive. Institutions are more calcified and bureaucratic and harder to navigate. You got to work to get anywhere. As it should be.
Dang, I forgot where I was going with this.
Maybe that’s the problem.
I think you nail all of the questions and issues at play.
for me, i’m less concerned with the “am I a lobbyist” question (answer: not really, though I do occasionally speak with government officials) and more concerned with the “am I astroturfing” question, which I think is more controversial and more important.
The way I see it is that a) despite the fact that I am employed by “big capital”, all of the work we are doing is about advancing progressive change in the face of entrenched interests and money, and b) I personally believe that web networks (particularly start-ups) are unique in that the interests of the users (i.e., the public) are much more aligned with the interests of the platforms than with other kinds of corporate interests. In other words, platforms only win if users win.
There are all kinds of issues that could and will test those assertions, and I’m totally ready for that.
But anyway, re: spaghetti — I think you are on the right track and I have no doubt that some of it will stick and it will all make sense in due time…
Hey, Nick! Thanks for commenting.
That’s a really interesting claim you’re making about the alignment of interest between starting web networks and users. I’d be curious to hear more about the rationale, and what you have in mind in terms of “issues that could and will test those assertions.”
One thing that comes to mind for me: early stage start-ups do indeed seem to be all about getting user traction through user satisfaction. But as a network scales up, users start to get locked into the network because of their investment in other users, the user interface, and ways of relating to others on the network. And that’s when the network starts to have value for the network owners, because they can start extracting value from locked-in users.
Facebook would be the quintessential example of this. It starts out innocuously, growing its user base starting with elite young people and expand slowly to include everybody it can. But as it grows, it morphs to be more and more focused on targeting advertising and extracting data from its users. Now it seems like just a fact of life that every few months Facebook is going to make some UI or policy change that is frustrating for users, threaten their privacy, and probably be motivated more by commercial interests than usability ones. And yet users still stick with it because that’s what they know and it’s what their friends are using. Jen King, a privacy specialist in my department, would say that Facebook has, through its network, deliberately induced a cultural change about what we feel comfortable sharing on the Internet, for the sake of its commercial interests.
A less conspiratorial example maybe is Google’s use of Reader. There’s a network they supported for a while as a back-burner project that got a lot of traction. But in the end they decided not to support the user network, but controversially tried to manipulate it to seed Buzz then Google+. Now of course they are killing the service, despite user outcry.
So, maybe platforms win if users win to start with, but once there are users, watch out. And I think platform designers know this.
I’m reading a really interesting book, Communication Power, by Manuel Castells. I’d be really interested to know what you think if it, if you ever read it. It concerns just these kinds of power dynamics that play out in the formation of networks.
Thanks. I’ll check the book out.
Yes you are completely right about how the dynamic changes as networks grow.
That tension has been one of the most interesting things for me to see play out as I’ve been behind the scenes in the VC world. I can say that for our part (at USV at least) we want to help create a world where networks can grow and flourish, AND where users retain freedom and control.
Absolutely correct that privacy is probably the biggest issue here.
I’m very curious about what kinds of policies USV enforces or encourages to create that kind of world. I think that’s an agenda everybody can get behind. It’s certainly something motivating my own research.
It’s funny, but I think one of the ‘purest’ forms of this kind of network might have been OpenPlans itself (now Coactivate). While flawed in many ways, it stands as an example of a network that will probably always honor the desires of its users as best it can.
Here is one example, Etsy becoming a B Corp last year. Our view is essentially that the networks respect their users the most will be the most sustainable in the long run.
Yes this idea was at the center of the old openplans.org. Another example is reddit, where the code is open sourced and the community is the site. not sure if they actually run the open source version, but the point is that there isn’t a proprietary lock on the community anywhere.
That’s really cool stuff, Nick. It sounds like USV has figured out how to have its mind, hand, and heart all in the same place.
Thanks for engaging with me on this. Look forward to more conversations about this sort of thing in the future, if you’re game.