There is no such thing as the public internet. Everything flows through private pipes. This statement appears in the conclusion of The People’s Platform, but frames Astra Taylor’s entire book. Her chapters descend a steep curve of hucksterism that has us all in its thrall.
It is rare that I get book this clear, this well thought out and this well organized. The People’s Platform condemns Web 2.0 for making everyone a serf in the billionaires’ playground. We create content, we upload everything in our lives, we list our friends and contacts for the social media sites to exploit, and we get nothing for it, at all. We do it for the “freedom” it gives us, for the creative license it gives us, for the feeling of community it gives us. The massive profits from it go entirely elsewhere. And those same corporations now dispense with our services for the freebies we give them.
The Internet is a funnel. We follow our friends, their comments and their likes and end up buying what they buy or recommend. Facebook even adds our photos to our likes, so friends will know immediately it’s us and it’s true. We populate whole websites with uploaded content for free, so that giant corporations can reap the benefits of either the content or the data about us and all the people we name. A prime example is book reviews, which have certain among us slavishly reading books and analyzing them for the benefit of the site’s sales. Writing critical reviews results in negative votes, which lower the reviewer’s rank, so the successful reviews tend be rather cheery. Taylor calls it digital feudalism, where users work the digital farm and owners reap the very real profits. “Online, originality doesn’t pay; aggregation does.”
That’s just the first chapter. From there, Taylor examines the new way of life, without job security, benefits, decent pay or hope of advancement. Where contract workers are fired rather than being taken on staff. Where endebted graduates have to take unpaid internships. Where Apple employees can’t get a working wage, but Apple has $140 billion it doesn’t know what to do with. Instead, it tells employees to be grateful for living the Apple Experience.
For years, we have criticized the French for (among other things) the majority of their university graduates having the goal of working in the civil service instead of entrepreneurship. But when we look at the new way of life in the USA, that’s a pretty understandable dream.
-The long tail of the internet is a joke. The 80/20 rule is dead; even 99/1 doesn’t do justice to how much the top sites take in, both views and dollars. Efforts outside those sites are pretty much wasted. By 2008, six artists were responsible for almost half of the sixty songs that had risen to number one.
-Journalism is pretty much dead, as sites like Yahoo refuse to consider the whole, and insist that individual articles stand on their own (ie. be profitable). One department can no longer subsidize another, so overseas journalism, for example, vaporizes. The result is four times as many people working in PR as in journalism, because that’s how to get coverage on the internet. Bloggers don’t count because almost none of them do any original research. Bloggers don’t hang out at city hall.
-Advertising makes everything more expensive, produces nothing of value to society, and distorts our civilization by collecting all the money among corporations to dole out if they can see further profit in it. Things of real value get less and less funding. Job security, above minimum wages and benefits are all going away. This is particularly an American disease, as many European countries actively invest to make their cultures sustainable. In the USA, culture is disposable, surviving at the whim of the for profit sector.
-The whole concept of friend means something very different than it used to. Friends are now people you keep up with by reading, not by engaging. Actual personal relationships have given way to the necessity of building networks and personal brands and sacrificing all else for the larger numbers.
-The whole notion of the internet ushering in a new era of openness and transparency has failed. The internet is controlled by gigantic corporations pushing their brands. They own the culture through copyright laws they have purchased in Washington. They can even prevent artists from using their own works.
There are moments where Taylor lowers her standards. In the advertising chapter she asks if we could imagine Silent Spring being sponsored by Autozone. Too silly. Autozone would never sponsor Silent Spring. (Maybe the Sierra Club would.) Autozone would sponsor Cars XVI. She degrades the main point, that journalism, authorship and creativity are all caving to advertising and its restrictive covenants. Overall, The People’s Platform is a challenging condemnation of what was to be our salvation. Instead, it’s not just more of the same, it’s worse.