Democracy After Facebook

It’s Mark Zuckerberg’s world, and we are just scrolling through it: 2 billion of us now, a quarter of all humanity. We’re the unpaid production staff of the fourth most valuable company in Silicon Valley, which means: in the US. And the whole idea, born in a Harvard dormitory, isn’t 15 years old yet.

Mark Zuckerberg in his Harvard dorm room

Fourteen years ago Facebook was a social network for college kids that became a mind-reading marketing tool, then an advertising engine, and now a main gateway to media, ideas, and politics. Add video, and it’s the new television, with a grip on our attention like nothing since television.  But Facebookers are, in truth, more used than users.  

For the backstory to Facebook’s modern hegemony, we turn to our favorite historian of Silicon Valley, Fred Turner. He tracks the transformation of California counterculture in the Summer of Love into cyber culture and digital utopianism in modern San Francisco. He also sees the whole, pseudo-religious ethos of the techno-saviors ritualized annually at Burning Man.

Siva Vaidhyanathan studies the foggy landscape of digital capitalism—an area marked by novelty, mystery, non-regulation, giant growth, amazing profits and compound social effects. He’s soon to publish a book on how all these themes play out in Facebook world, as well as the new threats they pose to American democracy. 

Moira Weigel co-founded a new magazine called LOGIC—centered on technology, but also covering, in the first three issues, the interrelated topics of intelligence, sex, and justice. Her recent piece in The Guardian calls for the rising “Tech Left” to unite and stand up against the “Big Tech” worldview, as represented by Facebook and others. 

Paul Budnitz, in Vermont, offers us another alternative to the Facebook model. He built the community site “Ello” for artists and their friends; their rule was no ads on the site and no collection of user data.  He marks the moment when Mark Zuckerberg took another path, and still worries about where that road will lead. 



Guest List
Fred Turner
professor of communication at Stanford University
Siva Vaidhyanathan
professor of media studies at University of Virginia
Moira Weigel
junior fellow at Harvard University and co-founder of LOGIC .
Paul Budnitz
artist, designer, and founder of Kidrobot and Ello

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  • Eda

    “Social media” has corrupted the internet. The old protocols (email, dedicated mailing lists & forums, required thought & reflection before participating – “intentional” rather than “social” media – are hardly understood or used by the FB, twitter, etc. etc. “social” venues. Fascism will follow behind “likes”…

  • This was a good start. Please consider making time to talk more about the role content plays in social media the next time this topic comes up.

    How social media works is obvious and we embrace it: users provide content to a few popular companies that systematize submissions for a profit. But beyond concerns about addiction or control over our attention, it’s viewing content as a resource that fascinates me.

    Not only do we provide these companies with the “natural resource”, but we’re also doing the work of submission, curation, promotion (Likes, etc), and, more and more, we’re being asked by these companies to police others’ content.

    The concentration of wealth that occurs as a result of the network effect – billions of users at the oars – is also very interesting. So is FB’s recently proposed solution to revenge porn. But that’s an entirely different conversation…or is it?

  • MB

    From your man Emerson…

    “The key to the age may be this, or that, or the other, as the young orators describe;—the key to all ages is—Imbecility; imbecility in the vast majority of men, at all times…

    …and, even in heroes, in all but certain eminent moments.”


  • Vigilabo_Vigilum

    I’m a veteran of over half a dozen startups, half in Silicon Valley, half here in the Boston area. Based on my experience, I’d say the so-called ideals of social media & digital utopianism are all hogwash. People like Zuckerberg, Dorsey, Page, Brin & the like espouse a lot of idealism, but only as long as they control it. The correct description of social media is Orwell’s Animal Farm, where all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

  • Frank Conte

    Excellent show. Glad I tuned in.

  • Potter

    Facebook never appealed me. I passed on connecting this way even to those I love for the very reasons explained in the show by your guests. It’s an excellent show and would bear listening again for this older brain to understand more fully. But being out of the so called “sixties generation” I object, as I always do, to the generalities about it. No question some of what was said was/is true for some. As well Facebook, Twitter and the other two “horsemen of the apocalypse” have made us a much more global world in some positive ways as well as some very negative ones. (note today’s NYTimes op ed Hey Mark Zuckerberg:My Democracy Isn’t your Laboratory.) Government (as in the people) has to step in and hold these horsemen accountable as monopolies. We see they can be harmful to the public interest. Ultimately people, individuals , have to awaken to how they are being taken advantage of and manipulated. Children must be taught.

    Thank you!

    • Potter

      One of my two notes from this program “against deep thought… deliberation” This is very dangerous as we can see now, and to think we are cultivating this. I am reminded of Hannah Arendt as described here:

      In her final, unfinished work, The Life of the Mind, Arendt distinguished between thinking conducted in isolation with oneself – the “two-in-one” of thinking as she put it – and thinking that constitutes “the dialogue of thought” with others. In both cases, different viewpoints and standpoints are, in her terms, “represented” through either internal dialogue or thinking together with others. Because thinking inflects inward to the self and outward to the other, it is, she claimed, grounded in common experience and “not a prerogative of the few but an ever present faculty in everybody”. Thinking is ordinary, everyday, commonplace. It is what connects us with ourselves and with one another.

      Indeed, she developed a profound suspicion of “pure thought” that isolates the thinker – not abstract thought but any kind of thinking that entraps the thinker within a closed system. ….