The idea of open, accessible, unmoderated forums for discourse and exchange inspires me. Afterall, that is what I do for a living: I design processes that enable many people to engage in collaborative decision-making. That technology could push this process open even further, to many more people, to a borderless conversation, a churning think tank for innovation is a possibility I dream of. For this reason, I have been an increasing proponent of the growing internet trend toward social media.
I remember my first impressions of social media sometime around 2005, which were based on some vague awareness of Friendster or MySpace as being something for kids, akin to an electronic yearbook. Seeing absolutely zero utility to me and my world, I successfully ignored whatever “social media” might refer to. Some time later, I developed a more-than neutral impression based on the press and an episode of Law and Order that thinly disguised the Meghan Meier suicide case in its storyline. My neutral impression then became tainted by the sinister. I still, however, dismissed social media as largely irrelevant. (It’s plain to see, I have not been in the early-adopter crowd.) I finally found my own personal application: communicating with my niece and nephew, then in their mid-teens, and set up a Facebook account.
Of course, before Facebook, I used Google and soon after discovered Wikipedia, both of which quickly became indispensible to both my work and personal use. YouTube came later, and I say with some chagrin, I have yet to post a video of my own. However, that’s not far off.
In the past year, I have watched, with the rest of the world, as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have skyrocketed in prominence. Not only are they growing exponentially in users, but (and perhaps more importantly) they are also now celebrities themselves of film (“Social Network”), revolutions (Egypt), and new industry (social media technology and marketing). I have felt increasing enthusiasm over what these portals portend as possible…access, information, sharing, borderless society, innovation on a grand scale. And I have excitedly expanded who I follow on Twitter to open my world of ideas and awareness, which has meant more YouTube, more Googling, more Wikipedia visits, more trafficking in the social media world.
And in this journey into the new world, I have become vaguely aware of the growing concern about it. But it wasn’t until I attended a seminar on the First Amendment that I thrust myself into inquiry of exactly what is up. Well, a lot is.
For starters, there is a fundamental change in how ideas and communication flow. Fifty years ago (1961: the year I was born), Americans were happily ensconced in the TV era. This new mass medium had trumped radio and was being debated by then FCC chair, Newton Minow, as “a vast wasteland.” As a result, TV was mandated to provide programming aimed at the public good. I was raised in the age of the ubiquitous cop show and rising sitcom, free from explicit violence, sex and bad language. Commercials for liquor and cigarettes disappeared in the mid-60s, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street gained in popularity, and the Fairness Doctrine was enforced. TV was nice, news was smart, and channels were few. And that’s the difference: there were few speakers, speaking through a handful of regulated distributors, to a mass audience.
With the onset (or onslaught, depending on how you view it) of cable, TV changed: many, many speakers, many barely regulated distributors (remember, FCC jurisdiction stops at airwaves), to a mass audience. And we began to see explicit sex, graphic violence, and hear profane language, all the more shocking since it was coming at us out of the previously known “bland box.” And then with the arrival of the internet, the number of speakers proliferated infinitely. We are now they: bloggers, tweeters, posters, commenters, and on and on. We have gained an open forum, so open sometimes it feels too open, like when I happen across some porn site or rabidly violent one, or a blog that is scathing in ways that make me uncomfortable and sad. We have lost our intermediaries – the media no longer can be counted on like dear old Walter Cronkite to bring us news we can trust, now we must sort it out for ourselves; we have lost our protectors – the FCC abandoned the Fairness Doctrine and now it seems like a true anachronism with its goal of ensuring a diversity of viewpoints in the midst of what often feels like a free-for-all. But most important of all, we have also seen a massive decrease in media distributors, or rather, in the number of them.
Think about it. Google owns YouTube, Facebook has supplanted MySpace and Friendster with 500 million users, Murdoch owns TV and newspaper, and Comcast owns cable and AT&T. A few distributors for what has become the most massive communications infrastructure the world has ever known. The question is, are these owners of telecomm channels (or “pipes,” as they are called) more like utilities or more like content providers? And who even cares? Well, you and I should.
Enter net neutrality. The idea is that the FCC should assert its authority to keep the pipes open and accessible - to ensure a diversity of viewpoints can be expressed. In other words, should Comcast be able to decide to whom they give access to cable programming or bandwidth? Should Google be able to screen or limit searches? Should Murdoch be able to cover only the stories he cares for, or what’s more, lie about those he does not? The idea behind net neutrality is that purveyors of access, such as Comcast broadband or Sprint or Google, should have to offer that access fairly. They should not be able to exercise their preference. Sounds reasonable. They are, after all, providing access to huge numbers of people through their monopolies. But the problem is that the FCC only has jurisdiction over public resources, that is airwaves (and also, interestingly enough, phone lines, because they are considered “common carriers”). So, while they can tell telephone and network TV companies to be even-handed, they don’t have the authority to dictate to the owners of cable lines, broadband or otherwise. Nor do they have jurisdiction over Google and its search engine. Makes for some interesting concerns now, doesn’t it?
And even if we decide (and by “we” I mean Congress) that we do want the FCC to regulate net neutrality for us – to stand between us and the big media pipe owners – what will that mean for freedom of speech? Will the government stray further into regulation of cable, the internet, and Google? And will that regulation be for our good or to our detriment? Was TV in the 60s, 70s, and 80s really representative of the diversity of viewpoints in this country? Hardly. But I sure feel right now that the big pipe owners need to be held to account by somebody so that they don’t get the idea that they are arbiters of what we know or don’t. However, then I got to thinking, what the heck is the difference anymore between government and big business? Is the line that bright? Can one watchdog the other? And the real rub is, who I want to watchdog whom is dictated by whomever I am most afraid of in any given context or in any given moment. Now that’s something to think about.