OK, I have another Benkler reading to process. Here it is:
Emergence of the Networked Public Sphere, The Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler p212-272. (Reader)
Where do I begin? I am so full of questions and a bit of very acid commentary,
no make that a lot of very acidic commentary. I have to deal with Benkler's boring
style so it makes me mean.
Let's start with the first question. The Pew report says that only eleven percent of American
internet users read blogs at all, at any time, on any subject, and in any amount. That means
that roughly one in ten users in the US at most read political blogs. Can something that
reaches ten percent of the population be much of a force?
That leads to another question: What are the ten or twenty most popular web sites? Since
there is a power distribution of visits and links, it would be good to know where
the vast majority of visits go.
Second, are the victories that Benkler cites outliers and how really good are
those victories. Let's start with Diebold. I live in Georgia. In less than a month,
I will be voting on a Diebold touch screen voting machine and so will many others
in states where the Boards of Elections kept the machines. Why did my state's Board
of Elections turn a deaf ear to what were fairly good watch dog sites and some real
evidence that leaked out of Diebold like dirty water from a raunchy sponge? Simple,
my state is controlled by Republicans. Georgia is a very red state, the first state
in fact to go for Bush in 2004. Being in an Eastern time zone of course helped, but if you
go any deeper in to the South than some parts of Georgia, you fall in to the Gulf of
Mexico. To paraphrase Scripture, sometimes the best seeds fall on stoney ground. Georgia
is stoney ground.
Then we have the Sinclair boycott. The good folks at TalkingPoints who happened to
get an anonymous tip about how to talk to sponsors and in turn hit a broadcaster
where it hurts, did prevent the documentary, Stolen Honor, from being shown. I don't
know how Democratic this was since there were people who were probably looking forward to
seeing it who did not get it. Fortunately, they can rent or buy the DVD and see it at home.
It is still available.
In reality though, the Stolen Honor incident was a side show. Two years after the 2004
election, the name, Swift Boat Veterans, is still a household word. The Bush campaign
did an excellent job getting those commercials out and the Republicans in general decalred
open season on veterans during that camapign. Chickenhawk is also a household word. In
Georgia Mat Clelland, who lost multiple limbs in VietNam lost out to Saxby Chambliss for Senator. Chambliss,
I believed also attacked Clelland's VietNam record. It looks like the RNC scored far more hits
than misses and the Boycott Sinclair crowd got one tiny hit.
Now let's look at an usuccessful political web site. It's still in business and probably will
be forever since its owners feel they are on a mission. The owner is now the daughter of the
site's creator. He died several years ago, but she has lots of support. Anyway, here is
DORWay.com. I think all of us would agree that pure
food and drug laws are part of the public sphere. Some of you may also try to avoid
artificial sweeteners, including aspartame. The late Mr. Rietz and his family have amassed
volumes of data, all of it from public sources (Senate Hearings, Medline, and the like).
After several years of unsuccessful work, people like to dismiss Rietz and company as cranks, but
aspartame DOES NOT have an entirely clean record. It is also still on the market. Why
hasn't the DORWay.com crew had the same success as those trying to get Sinclair not to show
a particular movie or the groups getting at least one state to think twice about Diebold
voting machines? One could say that DORway never happened upon the same savvy activist
as TalkingPoints found. One could also say that DORWay's cause is as worthy as that
of the antiDiebold or Boycott Sinclair factions.
I have another reason though: MONSANTO. Monsanto is a tougher customer and opponent than
either Sinclair or Diebold. Nearly everything on the DORWay site is publicly available. Monsanto
appears to be leakproof. Of course Mosanto has had to defend its geneticly modified crops and its
Roundup Herbicide so dealing with DORWay is no problem. Monsanto keeps its gates shut tight. DORWay can
not get a smoking gun and without it and without the ability to threaten real world damage in a
credible way, they remain unable to reach their final objective, banning aspartame.
There is a lesson to be learned in the DORWay story: money buys influence in the world of
the "networked public sphere." In the case of Monsanto, money buys improved security to
guard against embarassing leaks springing. Good security, a tight intrantet for example, costs.
There are also mundane ways to buy public sphere influence on the net. What good after all is
a site if you don't go there, even if a site if of pressing local interest? What if you need
people in your local community to support smart redevelopment
of an abandoned shopping mall or stop high rise
development next to single family homes, or just want to
make your city walkable? Well you need lawn signs? Yes, these advertise your site to its local
audience, but lawn signs cost money. Enough said. By the way, I found all three of these
sites by stopping and reading signs on people's lawns within a two mile radius of my apartment. Lawn
signs work at least with me.
Then there are creative ways to spend money to influence the networked public sphere that are
probably excellent uses for cash. The first is espionage. Pay someone, a consultant, an
under employed college graduate, etc... to watch enemy blogs. Since the net is networked, it should not be that difficult to
map out enemy nodes where information percolates from the fringes toward the center in a very public and
form of peer review. The professional flies on the wall can catch a trend before it snowballs and those
on the other side can be ready to spring in to action at their own sites where their spokespeople are also
monitoring. Yes, you are going to have to pay your spies and your mouthpieces and neither comes cheap.
Hand in hand with espionage comes sabotage. There is a crude form of sabotage useful in authoritarian countries and
maybe here as well. It is almost vandalism. It involves polluting the public sphere with spam and defective or corrupted
copies of leaked documents. With email spam, reading email becomes a major slog on all but the government's or the
big corporation's spam-free well filtered provider based or web based server. This will discourage
the use of regular email. The counterfeit and corrupted document strategy is an antidote to a leak. It works very
much like the release of sterile male screwflies in Florida long ago. With enough bad pieces of document around
on a Freenet or similar document sharing service it will be very difficult to put together an entire viable
copy of the document or code. Better yet, the corrupted document parts could contain a trojan or worm. Hiring
programmers to create the corrupted pieces and mount them and eyes to monitor the Freenets and other
public circles again is going to cost money, and saboteurs are not cheap.
Finally, there is the sophisticated and risky strategy of the agent provocateur. He or she
will of course be an avatar. I know from experience that
avatars are not that difficult to construct and fairly easy to slip under the radar. They can even
function in environments with a participation requirement. The avatar enters, becomes a trusted member of
the enemy blog and then proceeds to give carefully crafted and difficult to detect disinformation or give
bad policy advice. That is what the enemy gets for doing business in public. Of course agents
provocateur and their support crews do not come cheap either.
I am willing to predict that in the next few years you will see: better security,
more use of off net advertising, spies or flies on the wall, sabotage, and agents
provocateur operating throughout the networked public sphere. The result will be a push not
to do as much operational business on the open net where one is very very vulnerable.
And you know, I'm not finished. Most of what I just described does not effect the average net
denzien who neither contributes to nor reads a political blog. Still, their part of the networked
public sphere is heavily under the influence of the all mighty dollar. Now, I love the free
enterprise system. I think it is the best economic system out there, but even so, monopolies
or near monopolies can become corrupt, and private property is just not the best place for free
For your average Joe or Joesephine who wants a presence on the net, the choice is frequently a handful
of free web site providers or MSN Groups, and for Joe or Joesephine Junior we have Neopets. Let's talk about
both MSN Groups and Neopets. Neopets (who does not get the benefit of a link for good reason) is a behemoth
with over a million members and probably thousands who are actually active. Twenty percent of
Neopians are adults and the actual percentage of active members who are adults is probably higher. In addition,
why shouldn't kids be in the public sphere too, especially teenagers.
Besides offering a lot of cute graphics and a virtual pet, and endless mindless Java games, Neopets offers
web boards which are always active and have absolutely zero spam. They are the place to meet and greet and have something
approaching a quickie discussion or role play (fiction!). What no one has at
Neopets is free speech. I'll refer you to my
essay on Neopian censorship for the details. Restrictions on free speech in Neopia go way beyond
what is required to provide a clean well lighted site for either children or adults. I've had
one Neopets account frozen over intellectual freedom issues, and if you want to use the children's
site excuse, remember that over one in five Neopians is an adult and many are older teens. Neopets is probably
in the head of any J-curve of internet sites. When a site this large restricts speech this
much, it is scarey.
Now let's move on to MSN Groups. I adore MSN Users. They
give the ordinary user who does not have the gift of glibness or credentials that will
sink a table access to web boards and storage for remote loading. The posts can be graphicly rich.
The problem is MSN has a very ugly reputation. MSN routinely closes down boards for copyright
infringement or so I have been told. It does this even if the poster has a fair use exemption, which by
the way is available to any one writing nonfiction such as this essay. It does this even if the cease
and desist order is questionable. It may also close boards for political speech or something
that is too risque and enforcement is selective and heavy handed. Personally, I have never had a group
I've run pulled for anything but inactivity and MSN did give me plenty of fair warning.
It feels freakish to operate in an MSN milieu and have to
worry about whether a piece of fiction about soon-to-be trophy wives or a Willendorf Venus pushes
my board from the Mature to the forbidden Adult territory. I also wonder what sort of political
speech and graphics are off limits.
The saddest part of all is that many Managers (Group owners are called Managers at MSN Groups) have
internalized MSN's rules or at least the atmosphere of fear that surrounds their heavy handed
enforcement. Members are proud of their "coypright awareness." I too am copyright aware (I do
like the sound of that!) but not out of fear of MSN. I believe that those who do not honor individual
private property end up not honoring individuals. I learned that the hard way at Brainstorms. I also feel
that copyright encourages creativity.
Now all this leads to a sixty-four thousand dollar question? Why don't disgruntled Neopian adults and
MSNGroup owners/managers go elsewhere? There are other social venues on the net. There are tons of
role play boards at Invisionfree and there are numerous
other remotely hosted web board providers if a web board is what you want.
Well picture being told that you can't gather signatures for a petition or even pass out leaflets at your
favorite shopping mall. Of coruse you can't. The mall is private property, the cornerstone of the
free enterprise system. You are free to pass out leaflets on the lonely highway outside the mall
or from your own front yard. Somehow these last two options don't sound that appealing or effective, do
Now let's move on to the net. We are going inside that J-curve. MSN Groups where members overlap and have memberships
in each other's groups is a big fat shining node. Neopets also is a shining node compared to an Invisionfree.com
board with five or six active members or one's personal blog or web site with just you and God. How many
people want to go out in to the darkness of the long tail when there is a big, bright, shining node so that big
bright shining node which is run by a corporation that makes a fair amount through advertising and in the case of
Neopets product tie-ins, has a captive audience. So much for a democratic networked public
OK, I'm not finished yet. I am just done with the criticism. I have questions? At what age does
one enter the public sphere? No one has said anything about children or teens in the public
sphere. When I went to middle school we discussed politics in current events and in high school I
took Seminar in Politics where I got credit for working on a political campaign. I worked for the Republicans because the Democrats
had all the volunteers they needed. I knew a lot of kids with more scruples who did not get a campaign
slot that fall. At seventeen and over a year away from voting for the first time, I was in the public
sphere or was I? Arguments about what older minors can hear, see, and read are a big part of life
in the public sphere and usually take the form of book challenges at libraries.
Second, what part does religion play in the public sphere. Churches sold great blocks of
tickets to the movie, Passion of the Christ, back in 2004. Christian organizations have mobilized
my sister in spirit, April, not to shop at either Target or Wal-Mart. She boycotts Target because
they "discrinminate against Christians" and won't shiop at Wal-Mart because they support a
Gay and Lesbian Agenda and because they tell their workers to say "Happy Holidays" instead
of "Merry Christmas." For April this is a financial sacrifice. I admire April's courage
That is pretty much it. I have two and a half readings to go. I really don't want to move on a net
where one has to wade through spam, fear the wrong set of eyes seeing what you do, and worry
about those you entrust with great responsibility. Oh well...I guess the real world is like this,
so why should the net be any different. I guess I am just cynical tonight.