The Internet and Engaged Citizenship, Circa 2019Back to table of contents
The two animating tensions in the previous section have prevented the slow aggregation of stable findings that is typical of paradigmatic, normal-science approaches. As a result, the same tenacious problems have been repeatedly revisited over the years. In this section, I will outline the state of research in five relevant areas: (1) political polarization/echo chambers, (2) the quiet decline of Web 2.0, (3) trolling and malicious behavior, (4) digital pathways to participation, and (5) digital democracy and the “field of dreams fallacy.”
The Internet and Political Polarization
There is a brief but often-quoted passage in Nicholas Negroponte’s 1995 book, Being Digital, in which he imagines a future where digital newspapers give readers only the tailored news that they most want to see.
What if a newspaper company were willing to put its entire staff at your beck and call for one edition? It would mix headline news with “less important” stories relating to acquaintances, people you will see tomorrow, and places you are about to go to or have just come from. It would report on companies you know. In fact, under these conditions, you might be willing to pay the Boston Globe a lot more for ten pages than for a hundred pages, if you could be confident that it was delivering you the right subset of information. You would consume every bit (so to speak). Call it The Daily Me.22
Negroponte’s book was published in January 1995, the same month that Newt Gingrich was elected Speaker of the House. These two events are unrelated to one another, but they represent a temporal happenstance that has kept the idea of The Daily Me at the center of public inquiry. On the grand scale, the correlation is undeniable. Whether through historical accident or through some direct causal mechanism, the age of mass connectivity has coincided with an age of rampant and growing political polarization. By all available measures, partisan identification has grown stronger, Congress passes fewer laws, moderation and bipartisanship have virtually vanished. This is not endemic to the Trump administration. It was also a pressing concern during the Obama years, the Bush years, and the Clinton years. As we have grown more digital, we have also grown more polarized. Scholars and public intellectuals have naturally gravitated toward questions of whether this is a causal relationship or just historical happenstance.
Negroponte’s imagined “Daily Me” appeared at the height of the infobahn Internet. It was an Internet dominated by static web pages and AOL chatrooms. It was also a pre-Google Internet, a medium in which searching for relevant and timely information online was an ever-present problem. The Daily Me can thus be read in context as an imagined solution to the troubles of the World Wide Web in its early years.
In the aftermath of the dotcom crash, Cass Sunstein, in his 2001 book Republic.com, revisited Negroponte’s “Daily Me” (Sunstein would frequently revisit the topic in later books, including Infotopia, Republic.com 2.0, and #Republic.) This was during the waning days of the imagined “information superhighway,” and Sunstein instead drew attention to the potential negative impacts of partisan news selection and online communities for civil society. Sunstein warned that partisan news selection could lead to “information cocoons” and “cyber-balkanization.” In his later books, published at the height of the Web 2.0 phenomenon, he highlighted how the blogosphere could exacerbate these problems, robbing civil society of the shared baseline of social facts that are a necessary precursor to effective deliberation. Sunstein saw partisan blogs as vectors for polarization, echo chambers that could intensify partisan opinions and fuel partisan hatred.
Eli Pariser’s 2011 book, The Filter Bubble, essentially updates Sunstein’s warning for the platform era.23 Where Sunstein worried about the dangers of intentional self-segregation into echo chambers, Pariser warns that we may be placed into these echo chambers through algorithmic inference. Now that we have inherited an Internet that is dominated by Google, Facebook, and a handful of other platforms, there is an increased risk that our search results and newsfeed rankings will be algorithmically shaped to reinforce our existing beliefs and revealed preferences—what we click on, what we share, what we like. News and political perspectives from the other side are, from an engineering standpoint, inefficient: They are stories that are less likely to be clicked, liked, and shared. Google and Facebook, in Pariser’s rendering, might unintentionally produce the cyber-balkanization that Sunstein warned about, simply through overlooking civic and political issues and treating public knowledge as an engineering problem with an engineering solution.
Markus Prior introduced a separate but related concern in his 2007 book, Post-Broadcast Democracy.24 Prior examined the implications for democratic participation of expanding the range of entertainment choices available to citizen-consumers. Focusing primarily on the spread of cable television, Prior offers compelling evidence of a growing political knowledge gap, not between left and right, but between the politically motivated and the non-politically motivated. In short, Prior suggests that in the broadcast television era, all citizens effectively had the same diet of political information. You received 30 minutes of public information during the nightly newscast, and you had access to the daily newspaper. Apolitical Americans would incidentally learn about public affairs by scanning headlines or watching the news. Political “news junkies” had scant opportunities to consume more political news as entertainment. Expanding the entertainment choice environment reduced incidental learning among the apolitical, and increased political knowledge among committed partisans. Prior warns that this trend will only be exacerbated by the Internet, potentially creating a vicious cycle in unequal civic participation.
But despite these well-articulated concerns, there has been a surprising absence of data in support of the Filter Bubble and echo chamber hypotheses. Where researchers have looked for evidence of either self-selected or algorithmically selected personalization of political news, they have found very little.25 Where researchers have looked for evidence of decreasing incidental exposure to online political news, they have often found the opposite.26 It seems, particularly on Facebook and Twitter, that political stories spread far and wide (the veracity of those stories is sometimes another matter). Rasmus Kleis Nielsen has gone so far as to label present-day proponents of these theses “media change deniers,” arguing that they are “directly contradicted by a growing consensus in the best available peer-reviewed scientific research.”27 According to all available evidence, the impact of Filter Bubbles on mass society is negligible at best.
There is, however, a disconnect between the levels of analysis at work in this area. The Filter Bubble/echo chamber thesis has primarily been tested at the mass behavioral level—observing how the average citizen encounters news and civic information. But the increases in political polarization have been especially pronounced at the elite, institutional, and organizational layers of society. We can see increased polarization in Congressional behavior. We can see it through the contentious politics of social movements. We can see it in partisan media (online, cable, and broadcast). The Internet does play a role in changing the incentive structures for these forces, even if hasn’t been through the predicted phenomenon of cyber-balkanization. Partisan news caters to niche audiences that can develop more easily today than in the broadcast era. Social movement networks can mobilize more quickly, amplifying dissent and increasing the distance between the politically attentive and the disengaged. Politicians have observed that performative obstruction is better for fundraising than quiet compromise.
The proprietary data gap is also a lurking concern. On the basis of publicly accessible data, the Filter Bubble/echo chamber/Daily Me concern has been overstated at the level of mass political behavior. Our information cocoons simply are not as tightly constructed as one might fear. More granular insights are possible for researchers employed by the platforms themselves, but such research is rarely if ever published. There are several questions of deep significance that only researchers with access to the data generated by those platforms can answer:
- What civic and political values are explicitly or implicitly inscribed into the algorithms that drive our Google search results, YouTube video recommendations, and Facebook newsfeed appearances?
- How have the companies’ approaches to political and civic content changed over the years?
- What data do they pay attention to, what outcomes do they measure, and what stakeholders influence their decisions?
Certainly, there is a theoretical version of the web that is filled with echo chambers and Filter Bubbles. The empirical research community has repeatedly failed to identify such patterns in existing public data, but we also lack access to proprietary data and to the algorithmic decisions that the platforms have made in response to that proprietary data.
As a result, this fear keeps reoccurring, echoing back through Internet time to the early days of the World Wide Web. Despite demonstrably increasing polarization at the more organized layers of politics and civil society, evidence that there is a causal link between the changing online information environment and elite polarization has not materialized, but theorists continue to posit a relationship, public intellectuals continue to remark upon the temporal correlation, and proprietary data remain largely inaccessible.
Alongside this focus on Filter Bubbles and cyber-balkanization at the mass level, there has been a parallel trend that focuses on the smaller subset of engaged citizens—the segment of society that not only pays close attention to political and civic affairs, but also actively participates. The following sections will narrow the field of focus to the institutional and organizational layers of American society.
- 22Negroponte, Being Digital, 156.
- 23Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think (New York: Penguin Press, 2011).
- 24Markus Prior, Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007).
- 25Frederik J. Zuiderveen Borgesius, Damian Trilling, and Judith Möller, et al., “Should We Worry about Filter Bubbles?” Internet Policy Review 5 (1) (2016).
- 26Leticia Bode, “Political News in the News Feed: Learning Politics from Social Media,” Mass Communication & Society 19 (1) (2016): 24–28; and Richard Fletcher and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, “Are People Incidentally Exposed to News on Social Media? A Comparative Analysis,” New Media & Society 20 (7) (2017): 2450–2468.
- 27Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, “Media change deniers: Why debates around news need a better evidence base—and how we can get one,” Nieman Lab, May 2018.
Digital Pathways for Participation
On January 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated President of the United States, several million people took to public spaces around the world to protest as part of the Women’s March. The Women’s March had digital origins. The initial call-to-action was posted on Facebook, organized through online and offline social networks, and then spilled over into the streets, dramatically altering the contours of political discourse. Likewise, Indivisible.org now boasts thousands of local groups that take action in opposition to the Trump administration’s agenda as part of the broader “Resistance” movement. Indivisible began as a Google Doc—a twenty-three-page handbook collaboratively authored by four former Congressional staffers who were reflecting on the successes of the Tea Party movement during the Obama administration. The guide went viral online after one of the cofounders shared it via Twitter.
Years ago, researchers devoted substantial energy to comparisons of online versus offline activism. There were dire warnings during the Web 2.0 era that online “clicktivism” was somehow lacking in the qualities that made offline activism effective. Malcolm Gladwell catapulted the issue into the public spotlight with a 2010 essay titled “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.”28 Nicholas Lemann likewise remarked in 2013 that the modern climate movement was failing where the earlier environmental movement had succeeded because the climate movement was too reliant on digital tactics.29
As the Internet has seeped into everyday life, the boundaries between “online” and “offline” have largely faded away. Just as the broadcast media system was part of the context within which the Civil Rights Movement operated, today’s digital media system—which Andrew Chadwick helpfully labels a “hybrid media system,” since it layers digital and analog media on top of one another30—provides the context for modern-day social movements and political associations. Online versus offline is now a false dichotomy, a remnant of a past stage of Internet research.
Replacing the emphasis on clicktivism and online-versus-offline has been an increase in attention to how the pathways for political and civic participation have changed. Movements of concerned citizens now often begin online. They can start with a hashtag, an online video or blog post, or a digital petition. This is a far cry from the civic wasteland that Robert Putnam described in Bowling Alone, but also quite different from the online communities that typified the early Web 2.0 era. Social connections thrive online. News and information spread quickly. Digital networks are embedded in geographic communities and play an infrastructural role in civic affairs as well. But it is also important to look at contemporary social movements beyond their moment of inception. Over the longer term, the successful social movements that originate online tend to spill over into physical geography, replicating the deep social network ties that were the hallmark of movements from decades past. Traditional social movement organizations meanwhile deploy digital tactics as a force multiplier for their efforts, updating their media strategies for a media system that is being reconfigured on the fly.
Research in this area has been limited by the proprietary data gap. Viral Twitter hashtags are more accessible than secret Facebook groups31 or closed Google Group email lists that function as semi-formal network backchannels for established movement activists.32 But researchers have nonetheless made some impressive strides that move us beyond the older fascination with online-versus-offline participation.
A key insight of recent years is that, though social movements can now begin spontaneously in digital spaces, over time these movements either adopt concrete organizational forms or they fade away. Movements may begin through online networks, but the organizational layer of American civic life remains necessary for longer term activities. Political associations play a central role in developing activists and teaching democratic skills to committed, engaged citizens.33 Social movements develop leadership structures to adapt continually their tactics and strategies.34
As these digital movements have adopted more conventional forms, we have also come to recognize that they face many of the same limitations that hampered traditional social movements.35 In particular, it has become apparent that some social movement goals are much easier to realize than others. Micah Sifry argues that the Internet is more useful for saying “stop” than “go.”36 It is easier to launch a national conversation and raise public awareness of a problem than it is to enact policy reforms. Organizing a nationwide march is a complex task, but is far simpler than navigating the maze of veto points that are designed to frustrate political change at the state and national level.
It is also now clear that these digitally infused organizations all excel at contentious politics. The Internet is useful for the National Rifle Association and for Moms Demand Action. It has been much less effective in bringing the two sides together for rational-critical deliberative sessions. In polarizing times, the use of digital media by political associations has been a vector for further polarization. It results in an agonistic, rather than a deliberative style of democracy.
The contentious nature of digitally infused politics is also a reminder that the participatory inequalities of pre-Internet democracy remain present in the twenty-first century. As Kay Schlozman, Sidney Verba, and Henry Brady argued in their 2012 book, The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy, the Internet is largely a “weapon of the strong,” exacerbating a tendency in American politics to amplify the voices of the wealthy, the white, and the better-educated.37 Eszter Hargittai has likewise repeatedly found evidence of a “digital skills divide” that exacerbates civic and political inequality along traditional socioeconomic axes, even once broadband access becomes universally available. Jen Schradie’s recent book, The Revolution That Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives, expands even further on this insight. Schradie argues that “the advent of digital activism has simply ended up reproducing, and in some cases intensifying, preexisting power imbalances.”38 Due to a combination of “inequality, institutions, and ideology,” digital and social media prove to be more effective in spreading information and defending status quo biases than for building sustained mass movements for social and political change among the dispossessed.
It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the Internet has simply reproduced and amplified the civic and political patterns associated with movements past. Changing communications technologies create new pathways to participation, and large-scale movements are still frustrated when trying to build the power necessary to enact major social reforms. But the current digital moment, with its focus on social media mediated through major platforms, also incentivizes novel forms of bad behavior that we have not faced before.
- 28Malcolm Gladwell, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” The New Yorker, October 4, 2010.
- 29Nicholas Lemann, “When the Earth Moved,” The New Yorker, April 5, 2013.
- 30Andrew Chadwick, The Hybrid Media System: Politics and Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
- 31Emily Van Duyn, “Hidden Democracy: Political Dissent in Rural America,” Journal of Communication 68 (5) (2018): 965–987.
- 32David Karpf, The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
- 33Hahrie Han, How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
- 34Zeynep Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2017); and Karpf, The MoveOn Effect.
- 35Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport, Digitally Enabled Social Change (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011).
- 36Micah L. Sifry, The Big Disconnect: Why The Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet) (New York: OR Books, 2014).
- 37Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba, and Henry Brady, The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2012).
- 38Jen Schradie, The Revolution That Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2019), 7.
The Earnest Internet Versus the Ambivalent Internet
The biggest problem that the Internet poses for engaged citizenship is the rising tide of trolling, performative vitriol, and the increasing use of automated accounts/political bots. Trolling and “flame wars” are hardly new—they have a storied history that dates back to the BBS systems and multi-user dungeons (MUDs) of the 1980s. But these practices were concentrated within narrow Internet subcultures during much of the 1990s and early 2000s. It is only recently that they have expanded to the civic Internet. The scale and sophistication of these activities has increased dramatically in recent years, posing thorny policy problems with no easy solutions.
Democratic theorists and communication scholars tend to operate from the foundational assumption that political participation is fundamentally good. A well-informed, participatory public is an ideal that we can all agree upon without controversy. And this is because we have long safely presumed that the people who contribute their time, energy, and opinions to civic life are doing so in earnest. Paraphrasing Justice Brandeis, the answer to bad citizen engagement has mostly been to promote more (or better-informed) civic engagement. Civil society is enriched by participation, because it creates the necessary preconditions for deliberation and informed governance.
With the rise of political trolling, this assumption of earnest behavior requires amending. What value to the public sphere is there in networked harassment, or in bad-faith arguments designed to “trigger” the other side? “More speech” does not improve the public sphere if the express intention of that speech is to drown out opposing viewpoints and undermine public trust. As Zeynep Tufekci has argued, the ability to channel online attention that drowns out the other side has effectively replaced censorship as the central threat to free speech.39 Google, Facebook, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter now determine which perspectives are heard, which stories and frames will become part of the public discourse. Trolls and political botnets actively seek to game these attention algorithms, for fun, for power, or for profit.
The downside of the lowered transaction costs of online participation has now become apparent. The costs of civic participation that contributed to the decline of social capital in the late twentieth century also essentially turned earnestness into a necessary condition for participation in the public sphere. Respect them or ridicule them, the people who showed up to town hall meetings and wrote letters to the editor all were committed enough to their beliefs to take the costly step of showing up. Today’s digital mobs and swarming botnets, by comparison, can be assembled almost effortlessly. And, thanks to the proprietary data gap, public researchers and policy-makers are ill-equipped to measure the scale or efficacy of this activity, much less to craft appropriate policy remedies.
Here we can see an inversion of the old debate over “clicktivism.” Clicktivism’s critics had warned that online participation was too easy to have any value. They did not doubt the earnest intentions of online petition-signers and information-spreaders; they doubted the efficacy of these civic behaviors. Trolls and botnets are demonstrably effective—they can hound opponents off social media, silencing disliked perspectives from the online discourse. They can set the media agenda by artificially inflating particular stories and frames, causing stories to “go viral,” which in turn attracts mainstream media attention. As a result, we are forced to reevaluate the bedrock assumption that more political and civic participation is inherently good.
Consider: in December 2016, a man from Salisbury, N.C., drove to Washington, D.C., entered a pizza restaurant with an assault rifle, and demanded that the establishment’s employees release the child sex slaves that were being held in the basement. The restaurant, Comet Ping-Pong, did not have a basement. But it had been the subject of an online conspiracy theory, invented from whole cloth on Internet forums that searched through the hacked emails of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta after they were released by Wikileaks in an attempt to influence the outcome of the 2016 election. The “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory was bizarre. For some of its proponents, it was entertainingly odd. But it also nearly turned deadly.
Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner document these trends in their book, The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online.40 They discuss the long apolitical history of online pranks and trolling, and also delve into the recent turn toward political and civic life. It is at this juncture that the problem emerges. Civic theorists and Internet politics scholars in the Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 eras could largely ignore the ambivalent Internet, because it was a vibrant-but-isolated subculture. The vast majority of online political behavior was indeed earnest in nature.
The inflection point appears to have occurred around the #Gamergate controversy in 2014. #Gamergate was an effort by rabidly misogynist video game players to harass female game developers and feminist media critics. The Gamergate community pioneered a set of aggressive tactics, threatening mainstream journalism outlets that published critical coverage of its campaign of online harassment. This included bad-faith efforts to generate complaints to major companies and get them to pull their advertisements from any news outlet that offered sympathetic portrayals of Gamergate targets. Gawker media executives estimated that Gamergate cost the company seven figures in lost advertising revenue.41 Seen through a different lens, it was an effective and unscrupulous social movement tactic. Conservative digital provocateur and Breitbart news editor Milo Yiannopoulos emerged as a major promoter of the Gamergate campaign. Steve Bannon—Breitbart’s then-executive chairman who later became Donald Trump’s chief strategist—took note of the campaign and became interested in channeling it into the conservative “alt-right” movement. Since 2016, these trolling efforts have come to overwhelm much of civic and political discourse.
The problem is that it is unclear who can effectively mitigate the impacts of trolling and political botnets. The incentives are terribly misaligned. The purveyors of outlandish lies and conspiracy theories profit from increased attention and devoted fan bases. Trolling communities rejoice in garnering outraged reactions. The social media platforms cannot easily separate earnestly held views from ambivalent views. Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act (the “safe harbor” provision) shields these platforms from liability for the opinions that are voiced on their sites. As a result, there is a built-in cyberlibertarian bias that favors protecting all speech (so long as it doesn’t violate copyright) and avoiding the burden of the social and civic impacts of how people use the platforms to cause intentional harm. Congress and the courts, meanwhile, worry about abridging free speech and passing new regulations with unintended consequences that chill speech and public participation.
This is a new problem. We are not well prepared for it, and it is likely to get worse. The old frameworks for judging civic participation valued neutrality. The Internet, we have long understood, can be used by the full spectrum of political movements—gun rights advocates and gun reform advocates, white nationalists and intersectional feminists. The troubling new phenomenon is not merely that people use the Internet to organize for causes that we dislike; the trouble is that people are now using the Internet to amplify radical perspectives that they barely even believe themselves.
- 39Zeynep Tufekci, “It’s the (Democracy-Poisoning) Golden Age of Free Speech,” WIRED magazine 26 (2) (February 2018).
- 40Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner, The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017).
- 41Peter Sterne, “Gawker discusses cost of ‘gamergate,’” Politico.com, December 2014.
The Quiet Demise of Web 2.0
Web 1.0 ended with a bang; Web 2.0 ended with a whimper.
Web 1.0 was the original dotcom boom—the rush to embrace (and profit from) our digital future that characterized the mid-to-late 1990s. It extended well beyond the “infobahn” metaphor. The growth of the World Wide Web, coupled with the fall of the Soviet Union, prompted a public imagining of a new era of economic and technological globalization. Both financial and communications networks appeared to be on the march toward unlimited growth and endless prosperity. Francis Fukuyama predicted the “End of History,” and technological futurists saw the Internet playing a central role in the coming age of stable, global democracy. The pages of WIRED magazine were filled with confident predictions about the new economics of abundance.42
The destruction of Web 1.0 took place in full public view. The stock market bubble that began with Netscape’s Initial Public Offering in 1995 was completely deflated in 2000. A year later, the September 11 attacks shocked the public consciousness, replacing dreams of global peace and prosperity with fears of a new clash of civilizations. The country has been at war ever since.
Web 2.0 arose in the aftermath of Web 1.0, as a new narrative architecture for explaining the promise and potential of digital media. Coined by software publisher Tim O’Reilly, “Web 2.0” suggested that we had moved from an era of networked computers to one of networked publics. Or, as Kevin Kelly put it, “We Are the Web.”43 Prominent examples of Web 2.0 were the Open Source software movement, Craigslist, YouTube, Wikipedia, the blogosphere, and early social networks like Friendster and Myspace. Communities were forming everywhere online. They were collaborating, producing complex social goods, and disrupting traditional social institutions.
The Web 2.0 framework appeared particularly promising for civic life. The blogosphere promised to replace the unpopular, distrusted broadcast media with a wave of citizen journalists. The ultimately unsuccessful Howard Dean presidential campaign demonstrated in 2003 that upstart politicians could raise millions of dollars through online, small-dollar fundraising. Craigslist and Meetup.com showed that the Internet was bringing offline communities together. Legal academic Beth Simone Noveck developed the “peer-to-patent” program, applying Web 2.0 principles to thorny bureaucratic challenges, with promising results.44 O’Reilly published a widely acclaimed article titled “Government as a Platform,” speculating on how Web 2.0 could revolutionize civic life.45
The pinnacle of Web 2.0 in civic life approximately coincided with the start of the Obama administration. Barack Obama’s digitally infused electoral campaign seemed to represent the promise of digital citizenship, succeeding where Dean had faltered.46 The Obama administration launched an “Open Government” initiative, hiring Noveck as deputy chief technology officer and promising a new era of government transparency and responsiveness.
But somewhere in the frustrating years that followed, the Web 2.0 ethos vanished. Changes in the economics of online advertising hit the political blogosphere hard. Most professional bloggers either joined mainstream publications, launched their own media organizations, or stopped blogging altogether. Electoral campaigns became increasingly digital, but also adopted more centralized forms of management and control.47 The much-heralded new era of open-source, participatory campaigning was replaced by a focus on microtargeting and optimization.
The administrative response to the failed rollout of the Affordable Care Act website in 2013 was a major turning point. While the health care plan eventually emerged as a stunning success story, its launch signaled a drift away from the Web 2.0 narrative. The Obama administration reacted to this technology failure with a “tech surge.” Obama hired a small team of technologists and tasked them with rebuilding the website on a short deadline. Rather than tapping the power of wikis and civic generosity, this team focused on rapid tech deployment and build-measure-learn cycles. It worked well, and led to the formation of two new government entities: the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) and 18F.48
The post-Web 2.0 shift has not been a rebuke of the civic potential of technology. Rather, it has been a change of emphasis regarding its civic potential. Where Web 2.0 theorists like Beth Simone Noveck focused on the potential of opening up government and improving civic life through mass voluntary coproduction, post-Web 2.0 thinkers have focused more on applying the lessons of Silicon Valley startup culture to government performance. Particularly noteworthy is Jennifer Pahlka, founder and Executive Director of Code for America. Pahlka is a leading proponent of the USDS/18F model. In her writing and public talks, she emphasizes the good work that coders can accomplish by working directly for government agencies. The ethos of code-writing—identifying bottlenecks, failing fast, focusing on improving the user experience—can improve trust in government through the simple solution of making government services work better.
What’s more, the tech surge within government has effectively sidestepped the proprietary data gap by focusing technical know-how on the government’s own data. USDS and 18F draw people from the major platform companies, calling on technologists to use their skills in service to the public interest. But they do not draw data from the major platform companies, nor do they need to do so to achieve their stated objectives.
For engaged citizenship, there is indeed much benefit to be found in testing and optimization. But we should pause to reflect on how and why the Web 2.0 metaphor perished. Instead of prioritizing openness, transparency, and mass civic collaboration, we now increasingly focus on optimization, efficiency, and service delivery. These are more modest goals than were associated with the mid-2000s civic imaginary. They point to how, as we have incorporated digital tools into all of public and private life, we have also run up against the boundaries of technology’s potential for social transformation.
- 42David Karpf, “25 Years of WIRED Predictions: Why the Future Never Arrives,” WIRED magazine 26 (10) (October 2018).
- 43Kevin Kelly, “We Are the Web,” WIRED magazine 13 (8) (August 2005).
- 44Beth Simone Noveck, Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2009).
- 45Tim O’Reilly, “Government as a Platform,” Innovations 6 (1) (2010).
- 46Daniel Kreiss, Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
- 47Ibid.; and Stromer-Galley, Presidential Campaigning in the Internet Age.
- 48Steven Levy, “The Final Days of Obama’s Tech Surge,” Backchannel.com (January 2017).
Digital Democracy and the Field of Dreams Fallacy
In the build-up to the 2012 U.S. presidential election, an organization called Americans Elect promised to use the Internet to unleash the untapped potential of the “radical center” in American politics. Many public intellectuals were quite enthusiastic about the promise of Americans Elect. In the midst of an early media blitz, Thomas Friedman wrote a glowing op-ed for The New York Times predicting that it was going to “remove the barriers to real competition, flatten the incumbent [political parties] and let the people in.”49 Suffice it to say, nothing of the sort occurred. Americans Elect debuted with a bang and finished with a whimper, quietly folding during the spring of 2012 after spending over $9 million on its online platform without finding a single credible candidate who could attract online support. Americans Elect is emblematic of a repeat pattern that has occurred across all phases of Internet history—what we might call the “Field of Dreams Fallacy” in digital politics and civic technology: the assumption that “if you build it, [they] will come.”
A great many projects over the years, from e-petition websites to civic social networks, have begun from the premise that, if you build a good enough platform, you can radically increase political participation. These projects all start with great fanfare, usually with substantial financial support from civic-minded Silicon Valley elites. They all end the same way, quietly folding, only to be replaced soon after by a similar project making the same promises. Micah Sifry and Matt Stempeck have begun documenting these failed civic technology projects in a “Civic Technology Graveyard,” maintained as part of their Civic Tech Field Guide.50
One of the key insights from the Web 2.0 era is that the Internet lowers the barriers to public participation and collaboration. In so doing, we can more fully act on our preferences. Fan communities and niche publics have flourished online, letting hobbyists and passionate amateurs collaborate around complex creative endeavors. But what we often forget is that the Internet does not create our preferences, it reveals them. The reason the Internet failed to unleash pent-up demand for a radical-centrist third political party in 2012 is that there is no evidence such demand exists. The reason so many civic tech companies have tried and failed to construct vibrant online communities around discussion of public affairs is that very few Americans are interested in routinely discussing public affairs.
We can trace the history of civic technology failures all the way back to the pre-World Wide Web Internet. In the mid-1980s, the city of Santa Monica, California, launched the very first “e-democracy” project. It was heralded as a success, as a signal flare lighting up our promising civic future. Then it fell into disrepair, and was abandoned without comment. The rise and fall of Santa Monica’s Public Electronic Network (PEN) has been replicated in broad brush strokes, its lessons rarely learned over the decades.
PEN was meant to foster government responsiveness and civic participation. It was a municipally owned e-mail and computer conferencing system, built during the era that saw the Internet as a “virtual community.” Residents could participate through a home computer or through one of twenty terminals in sixteen public locations. Through PEN, citizens could hold discussions on matters of public concern, contact elected officials, and learn information about government services and activities. PEN showed great promise early on. About 5 percent of Santa Monica residents registered for the system, including several hundred homeless residents who accessed it through public libraries and recreation centers. One of those homeless residents remarked on the liberating potential of the system, noting “No one on PEN knew that I was homeless until I told them. After I told them, I was still treated like a human being. To me, the most remarkable thing about the PEN community is that a city councilmember and a pauper can coexist, albeit not always in perfect harmony, but on an equal basis.”51
But PEN failed to grow, and it never realized its potential. Within a few years, the network had only a few hundred residents participating in any given month (less than 1 percent of the city), making it hardly representative of public opinion. The system also only played an advisory role, meaning it was divorced from any real political power. And though there was initially some promising online discussion, it eventually devolved into incivility and trolling. As new digital technologies were layered on top of the old, public attention shifted away from PEN and it was quietly shut down.
This story has played out dozens of times in the years to follow. E-government initiatives have been launched under the banner of unleashing a wealth of untapped civic potential. Instead they have mostly resulted in a faster way to pay your parking tickets online. The Obama administration launched a petition platform called “We The People” as the centerpiece of a new initiative to make government more open and transparent. Even with the best of intentions, the administration struggled to make the petition site a meaningful experience for its users. By 2013, many of the petitions being launched were thinly-veiled racist bromides, declaring that “Immigration is white genocide” and attracting a few dozen signatures.
The lesson here is not one of inevitable despondency. The Internet can be and often is useful in promoting and empowering engaged citizenship. Initiatives like Eric Liu’s Citizen University work to inculcate civic values, helping to build a culture in which more of the public sees value in civic engagement. There is also some promise in participatory budgeting initiatives at the local level. These initiatives raise the stakes for citizen engagement by attaching government resources to the outcomes of public deliberation.52 The mistake that has so often been made by well-meaning technologists, and the investors who support them, is that they begin from a faulty assumption that there is high pent-up demand for civic collaboration. After thirty years of civic tech failures, we are better off assuming the demand for citizen engagement is low, and treating the work of fostering it as a worthy challenge.
- 49Thomas Friedman, “Make Way for the Radical Center,” The New York Times, July 2011.
- 50See https://www.civictech.guide.
- 51Joan Van Tassel, “Yakety-Yak, Do Talk Back!” WIRED magazine 2 (1) (January 1994).
- 52Hollie Russon Gilman, Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2016).