This post was updated on Friday, August 10 at 7:53 p.m. to reflect the author’s role as the founder of a Facebook-funded project.
Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the internet are not media. They are something new we do not yet fully understand.
We are often doomed to see the future as the analog of the past. Journalists see screens that contain familiar text and images, and that serve what used to be their ads—and they call that media. Such a mediacentric and egocentric worldview brings too many presumptions and misses too many opportunities.
To call these platforms publishers—as The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance recently did—is to presume that their task is merely to produce content. It is to presume, then, that the internet should be produced, packaged, and polished, and that when someone says something bad anywhere on it then the entire internet is beschmutzed. In Europe, it also means that the internet should be regulated, and in a growing list of authoritarian nations—China, Russia, Iran, Turkey—it means that the internet and the public’s speech on it should be controlled.
The larger question, of course, is what the internet is and how it fits into society and society into it. We are just beginning to see what it can be. The essential value of the internet is conversation, not content. The internet connects more than 3 billion people and enables a grand diversity among them to speak, if not yet to be heard. “Republics,” said the late Columbia University professor James Carey, “require conversation, often cacophonous conversation, for they should be noisy places.” That sound you hear, which sometimes grates, is the racket of society negotiating its norms and standards, its future. It is the messy sound of democracy.