The Internet is Neither Open Nor Free

by Freddie deBoer

There’s been lots of talk, going around, about the demise of the comments section. This has been spurred in long part by some truly noxious trolling and the seemingly intractable problem of online harassment. Given those realities, I’m amenable to major changes, although I doubt you can really solve this kind of problem. These aren’t platform problems or technology problems. They’re human problems. Humanity exists online, and this is the way humanity is. But if we can avoid even a little of the terrible abuse that people receive online, women especially, it might be time to consider letting comments go, at least in many places. And I say that as someone with an obvious affection for how good comments can occasionally be.

I do think, though, 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.

It’s not like people are totally unaware of all this. Certainly, the way in which major bloggers were largely absorbed into legacy media companies and think tanks is part of the story. 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. Well, I’m not sure it ever worked that way, but it was nice to dream.

The only people who can really watch the watchers is each other, and like all human beings, they have human concerns which make that job impossible. Is Politico’s clumsy hack job on Vox a clumsy hack job? Yes. Are people defending Vox out of purely principled motives? Um, I doubt it! I’m not impressed by it. But I guess I understand. I mean, you can’t ask people to act as impartial arbiters of their own institutions. In the original telling, naive though it may have been, commenters helped to play that role.

I dunno. Maybe I’ve grown soft in my old age. Or maybe I’m just sensitive to broken labor markets, given that I’m in one myself. (Lord knows, the professional-social dynamics of academia can be as unhealthy and pernicious as you can possibly imagine.) But as 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.

The whole thing is so… human.