The New New Internet

Theorizing The Web: Data Serfs vs. Data Lords and Free Speech vs. Banning Reddit

When asked what he would change about the Internet, Mr. Chen replied without hesitation, “Ban Reddit.”
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Danah Boyd, Adrian Chen, Zeynep Tufekci, Jesse Daniels (Photo: Aaron Thompson/Picasa)

National Day of Unplugging lasted from sunset on Friday, March 1 to sunset on Saturday, March 2. But judging from the smartphones, Macbooks, and tablets at the third annual Theorizing the Web conference, no attendees took them up on the challenge.

This past weekend was the first time the conference has been held in New York City, at the CUNY Graduate Center near Herald Square.

Gatherings of this sort are typically insular, academic affairs, but organizers Nathan Jurgenson and PJ Rey, both sociology grad students at the University of Maryland-College Park, have attempted to broaden the tent to include bloggers, writers, and journalists of all stripes. “We wanted to create the sort of conference we would want to attend,” said Mr. Rey.

In the opening remarks on Saturday, Mr. Jurgenson elaborated, “We would go to theory conferences, and nobody wanted to talk about the Internet.” What ties the two worlds together, he added, is a concern with social justice—public intellectualism rather than institutional prestige.

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(Photo: Aaron Thompson/Picasa)

Friday’s panel, “Free Speech For Whom?” was a good example of that hybrid approach.

Panelists included social media scholar Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research better known as @zephoria; Gawker staff writer Adrian Chen, an editor at The New Inquiry; and University of North Carolina professor Zeynep Tufekci, a fellow at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy. CUNY Professor Jessie Daniels, author of Cyber Racism, moderated.

Compared to the rest of the world, the panelists concurred, web companies founded in the U.S. and protected by the First Amendment are far more permissive regarding free speech. “The idea that what you do online should not affect your real life is outdated,” argued Mr. Chen.

Ms. Tufekci recalled being in Egypt and witnessing how Twitter quite literally changed what was acceptable language for people to use when discussing Hosni Mubarak. People who used Twitter and other social media were far more comfortable speaking critically of the former president even after he was overthrown than those who did not use the service.

Ms. Tufekci nonetheless qualified her enthusiasm with an awareness that the “constant affirmation of each other” in digital spaces and the “shifting of norms of what it is permissible to say” might take a darker turn. “When are we going to have a Twitter-enabled ethnic cleansing?” she wondered.

When asked what he would change about the Internet, Mr. Chen replied without hesitation, “Ban Reddit.” The crowd burst into laughter. “I’m only half joking. It’s built on bad values that I don’t respect. Hive-mindedness and misogyny are built into its infrastructure.”

Malcolm Harris, a fellow editor of Chen’s at The New Inquiry and perhaps more infamously known as that guy who pranked Occupy Wall Street, spoke Saturday on the kinds of political violence enabled by new media.

“We can tolerate structural violence but organized cadres with guns freak people out,” Mr. Harris observed. In the 21st century, character assassination is the most efficacious method of bringing down powerful people or organizations—spreading rumors and misinformation via the Internet.

Mr. Harris proposed the establishment of a “People’s Kill List,” a list of names of those who are in power who ought not to be. The list remained an abstract concept, however, as Mr. Harris refused to suggest any specific individuals or groups who should be added, even at the behest of Rachel Rosenfelt (his boss at The New Inquiry).

Ms. Rosenfelt, despite being in attendance at the panel, had submitted her question via Twitter—each of the panels had a designated hashtag for exactly this purpose. The hashtag moderator would sift through the questions and choose which would be asked, although this was not always an entirely successful strategy.

“There are a lot of comments on Twitter, but not a lot of questions,” hashtag moderator Karen Gregory told the panel on “The Facebook Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.”

Matters were complicated further around 11:30am on Saturday, when Twitter accounts with busty female avatars began flooding the conference’s main hashtag (#TtW13) with spam. “I’ve seen it happen at conferences before,” laughed Mr. Rey. “We’ll take it.”

This was not the only instance in which the technology seemed to betray its theorists: for the first 15 minutes or so of Friday’s public symposium, the panelists were forced to compete for the audience’s attention with an insistent, distracting digital buzz — the sort that computer speakers make when a nearby cell phone is about to ring.

There too the panelists sat onstage in front of a massive screen. Enormous and glaringly white, the backdrop made the panelists somewhat difficult to look at for too long at once.

“Throughout the conference, we are trying to embody the theories that we are talking about,” Mr. Rey told me on Thursday when I met up with him, Mr. Jurgenson, and a number of other participants at a bar after they had tweeted an open invitation to come have a few drinks. “This night is a microcosm of the whole weekend.”

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Data serfing (Photo: Aaron Thompson/Picasa)

That may be so, but beers and conversation at a Lower East Side bar hardly prepared us for David Lyon’s keynote address, “The Emerging Culture of Surveillance: Digital Data, Visibility, and the Web.” Mr. Lyon, a sociologist, is the director of the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

His address offered a survey of surveillance from the medieval Eye of God to the Cold War. “There’s no point in imagining some kind of Zuckerberg-moment in 2004,” he proclaimed.

By his own admission, Mr. Lyon is not a prolific user of social media. Thus horizontal surveillance—the modern condition of everyone watching everyone else—went largely uninvestigated.

Earlier on Saturday, however, at the panel on “The Facebook Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” Jeremy Antley, an independent researcher from Portland, took steps towards bridging the gap, arguing that companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google—what he called “data platforms”—are creating a modern version of feudalism. “We are all data serfs,” he argued. “Corporations collect vast amounts of data, even more than governments.”

We’re not unaware of this, either, Mr. Antley says. “The most appealing aspect of being a Data Serf,” he claims, “is the promise of becoming a Data Lord.”