"I think if I had to say, the one takeaway from the years of that work is that the internet and the technologies we use every day are fundamentally human constructs.... The things that we presume or assume to be computational are often human processes and even when they are computerized they are reflecting those human norms and positions." — Sarah T. Roberts
The integrity of the internet is at stake -- what have we lost and how do we get it back?
At the 2019 Texas Tribune Festival, Anil spoke with web scholars and writers about reclaiming the internet through historical context, how we are tethered to social media, the inventive ways marginalized people have always reinvented the platforms available, and more.
Big thanks to LinkedIn for supporting the second season of Function.
Anil Dash: Hi, I'm Anil Dash and you're in for a special treat. This is a bonus episode of Function. All season along in Function, we've been wrangling with this question of trust on the internet and the technology in general. And the basic question we're asking is, can we trust the role the technology has in our lives? Well, we wanted to go deep on that topic. And in the middle of this season, I actually went to the Texas Tribune Festival. Now this festival is one of the biggest gatherings in the country that it's just about conversation about politics and policy. And we decided to focus real specifically on kind of policy changes that need to happen if we're going to have tech be accountable to all of us.
Anil Dash: For this conversation, we pulled together for academics who study four completely different areas of the ways that social media impacts the world. First up is Sarah Roberts. She's an Assistant Professor of Information Studies at UCLA. And she knows pretty much every aspect of social media, but her most recent book is called Behind The Screen. And it's about the content moderators. The people that work to actually try and keep the social networks, well, civilized. She talked to the people who do that work, who clean up after us, who clean up after the worst actors on the internet. And that perspective really informs a deep understanding of how social media looks behind the scenes.
Anil Dash: Next up is Charleton McIlwain. He's a Professor at NYU for Media, Culture, and Communications. And he's also a Vice Provost there. He's written a ton about how social media impacts the world, but what's most striking to me is this most recent book called Black Software. Starting from a perspective of his father, who was the first black engineer at IBM, he's been able to carry forward that connection all the way into the latest evolutions of social media. We also got one of my favorite writers Anne Helen Petersen. She's a Senior Culture Writer for BuzzFeed News. And her newest book is about millennial burnout. But really everything she writes is about perspectives and voices of people who are often overlooked. I love that perspective she brings to thinking about those who get erased in our conversations of social media.
Anil Dash: And finally, there's Siva Vaidhyanathan. Siva is a professor. He's the Director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia. And he's written a whole bunch of books over the years, but his most recent, Antisocial Media. Was one of the most direct and forceful criticisms of Facebook's role in really undermining democracy. That pointed perspective, I think makes this conversation go to a whole another level. All four of these people bring really unique perspectives to a conversation about social media. They go places that pretty much nobody else could. And to get them all on stage together was a really special moment. You're going to hear that in this conversation, especially because the entire audience was super, super engaged. Take a listen.
Anil Dash: I will start with a question for each of you, which I think is usually how these things wrap up, which is your one takeaway. But I think about each of you have stories you tell and particularly detail that when you get a chance to talk to a room full of smart people like this, help them crystallize and understand the work that you do. But also if you can represent the one perspective of somebody that might not be in this room. So I'm going to start Sarah T. Roberts, thank you for joining us. I'd love for you to start with one of those stories that's come out of your work and the people that you get to talk to.
Sarah T. Roberts: So the crux of my work has to do with unveiling the ecosystem behind the technologies that often appear immaterial and other worldly. And I think if I had to say, the one takeaway from the years of that work is that the internet and the technologies we use every day are fundamentally human constructs. And they're often even more closely aligned to human labor than even just that. The things that we presume or assume to be computational are often human processes and even when they are computerized they are reflecting those human norms and positions.
Anil Dash: So we might have a problem that we feel the technology is introducing into our lives or software's introducing into our lives, but the solution is not going to lie and write some more code if you're at Facebook, if you're at Google and solve this problem.
Sarah T. Roberts: I mean that's where I differ from my colleagues in Silicon Valley because they often do believe that that is the solution. But I think that that actually underscores the fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the problem in the first place.
Anil Dash: And so what I want to get to here is we are going to presuppose in the conversation today that there are stresses around the presence of technology in all of our lives. Where I'm not going to do a lot for asking these folks to justify that we sometimes feel creeped out by technology or that we sometimes feel uncomfortable with its impact on our lives and our work. We're going to assume that. So hopefully you can come with us on that journey. And I think that's good context for Sarah, what she say... Charleton I go to sort of your work in, I think giving a historical context but also talking about voices and communities that often get overlooked. I'd love for you to sort of capsulize, give us one of those stories that people don't often hear.
Charlton McIlwain: Sure. And that's a hard question because I have about 50 that I want to jump out and [crosstalk] tell. But I think I'll start with a guy named Derek Brown. He's the guy I met early in my research for this book. Derek Brown is a African-American engineer. Atlanta, Georgia. Went to school at Clemson, Georgia Tech. In 1994 and I'm thinking about my own age at the time, being in a doctoral program and my connection with computing was playing FreeCell, those of you that are similar in age. So that was the extent of mine.
Charlton McIlwain: And so when I discovered Derek, I realized that people in 1994 were using technology to do some very, very cool things that I had no idea. And what I got from Derek, who was a very serious, gentle guy who built a site called Universal Black Pages, 1994, 1995, 1996 and he would talk to me about just the, he'd talk about the web, the internet, computers as something beautiful. And it was beautiful because it enabled him to connect to people, connect to his people. And so I think when you think about community connection and the possibilities of what our present day internet could be, I think we've been where we could still become again someday.
Anil Dash: That's so interesting because we do think about the stresses or the tensions, but also our narrative is really basically shaped around half a dozen big companies and not an individual creator, not the sort of, maybe voices that get overlooked, but also the idea that it can be grounded in traditions that echo what we see in a physical community. What we see in a church, what we see in the community center. Does that seem to connect into traditions that existed long before the internet?
Charlton McIlwain: Yeah, absolutely. And that's what's, that was people's frames of reference. And even if they were on this thing, it was to connect to the people they knew, hung out with in so-called real life. So it was about that connection, was about doing for each other.
Anil Dash: So, and Helen Peterson, I find your work sort of echoes in a similar way, that there are people whose stories are told about them but not by them. And so many times you give voice to them and whether that is because of where they are geographically or demographically, it seems like that's an underpinning to what you're doing. I'm curious about if you have a sort of a galvanizing story that you've found in your work that that crystallizes that idea for people.
Anne Helen Petersen: Well, a story that I heard again and again and also experienced myself, which it's kind of a culmination of going through, I went to U of T to get my PhD. I worked so, so, so hard to try to get an academic job. Was an academia for a while and then went into journalism and just was working so hard all the time. All I wanted was a cool job that would pay me money and have health insurance, right, and allow me to make my student loan payment. But what I found, and this is what my most recent work is on burnout, is that I would end each night in bed just doing like this aimless scroll through Instagram and you look up and you're like, what am I looking at? I used to read before I went to bed, I used to like watch a bunch of episodes of a television show.
Anne Helen Petersen: I did things intentionally, but instead I said I'm too tired to even put down the app and do what I actually want to do. And so many people have told me that they've had similar experiences in terms of why can't I just not, I don't want to be on Facebook. I don't want to be on Twitter. I don't want to be on Instagram. And yet here I am. What is going on? Why can't I do the thing that I actually want to do that would make me less burnt out? And so I spent a lot of time thinking about both what are the mechanisms in place that make it very difficult to put down your endless scroll on Instagram, but also what are the things that make us so exhausted that we don't have the energy not, or to be able to put it down.
Anil Dash: So it's so interesting that sort of rerouting of intention into something that almost happens to you as opposed to something that you're choosing.
Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, totally.
Anil Dash: So Siva, you have looked very deeply at a lot of different companies' roles in this, but particularly Facebook, which obviously one of the biggest companies in the history of the world, one of the biggest companies on the internet, owns a lot of the platforms we use. I think there's a pretty broad understanding of they're doing some stuff that we don't trust, that we don't feel good about. I think they even can see that at this point. But you've got so much deeper into understanding how they came to be what they are and what their sort of influences on the system overall. While we don't want to over index on talking about one company or anything like that, I'm curious if there's a story that illustrates what you've found there that people might not be as familiar with.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: Well, my story is a speculative fiction or maybe science fiction. So imagine if we all grew up in a country where the only real access to any traditional familiar media form is AM radio and all of the AM radio is controlled by the government. So imagine that you didn't grow up in a world with newspapers and magazines and television networks and MTV and even the worldwide web, right? You basically have AM radio and that's it. And then about five years ago, suddenly you get access to smart phones. You are able to get an Android phone or even an iPhone if you have the money. And now you have this amazing fire hose of images and sounds and text coming through to you and it's all coming through to you governed by a company that happens to control Facebook and Instagram and WhatsApp, which is Facebook, right? It controls all three of these things.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: Imagine what our society would be like. Imagine how much of what Annie's been feeling and describing, right? This weight. I used to think about other things. I used to do other things, right? At least you have the capability to do that. If in this speculative world you didn't have that reference, right? Your entire consciousness, your political consciousness, social consciousness, religious consciousness, ethnic consciousness would be dictated by whatever is being amplified by Facebook's algorithms. Well, I said it was speculative fiction or science fiction. It's actually what just happened in Myanmar, right? In Myanmar in 2014, people went from a situation that was media poor, about as media poor as any place in the world to a place that is media rich, but specifically guided by Facebook. So think about all the different ways that our society has been frayed by, pushed by, distorted by Facebook. We have nothing to complain about compared to what people in Myanmar are encountering right now.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: And not coincidentally in Myanmar we see genocide. We see the frayings of the possibility of this gestational democracy, right? We thought five years ago that democracy is going to take hold in Myanmar and it would be the greatest story of the last two decades. It turns out not so much, right? And we see similar dynamics playing out in other parts of the world where even though there had been other media forms, they've all desiccated as Facebook has taken over everything. Places like Sri Lanka, places like the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia, Kenya, Nigeria, these are the places where the action is, right? So again, as much as we think we are suffering, nothing, nothing compared to the rest of the world.
Anil Dash: So it's really telling because these are generally communities and countries where they sort of got the pure distilled, like the crack cocaine version of Facebook, right? Sort of handed to them without the general, they didn't get the frog being boiled gradually over time. They're like, we're dropping you in the deep end, you are going to get-
Siva Vaidhyanathan: And there's no counter-narrative right?
Anil Dash: Right. And so that you go from media poor or less technologically fluent, directly into the hyper optimized version of this social media. And you get repeatedly mass violence. Not, oh, this is fake news, but people are killing each other. Right? And that's happened more than once. So if you need the control for your experiment, we've been able to reproduce-
Siva Vaidhyanathan: I do have to point out that here in the United States, we've experienced mass violence as well, perhaps not as directly attributed to one company, but certainly amplified by many of the dynamics that are sort of central to what Facebook does. And so it's not like the world's immune to it, but again, as horrible as things have been, they could be worse and they could get worse. So if you want to know where we're going, look at Brazil, right? Look at India, because that's where you're starting to see media ecosystems that more resembled ours really shift into a Facebook only or an Instagram only or Facebook major or WhatsApp major environment.
Anil Dash: Right. I feel like a lot of us who look at technology deeply are like, it's going to get worse. Right? Which is a very, it's a cheery message, but there's also this sort of thread of optimism and context and one of the things that, two things that really jumped out I think as we were getting ready for this conversation. One was there is another internet that has existed and did exist before all these tools. And so much of the perspective of what you all talk about is a little bit of history, which I think as we record this, most of the people in the room are old enough to remember this. But there was a time before we were all on Facebook and there was a time before even maybe some of us before we had internet access.
Anil Dash: And certainly before smart phones. I don't think we have anybody who's 12 years old in here. And so there's a very recent bias to this where we're like, this is almost the world that we're in is the world we've always had. But we can, if we squint our minds, remember back to a time before this. And I'm curious about one of the things that was the other sort of really interesting thing that jumped out as we prepared for this conversation was that, Siva you are now teaching Sarah's book for your upcoming class.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: It's an excellent book. [crosstalk] behind the screen.
Anil Dash: Get the plug in. Like I said, we'll have all the links, but I'm curious about, why is that a framework that you think we should be teaching? And then obviously, Sarah, I want you to sort of pick up the baton.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: Well look, Sarah decided many years ago before anybody else caught on, that something interesting was going on. These companies, Facebook and Google being the most prominent of them, were interested in making sure that garbage doesn't show up on their platform very much. The obvious example is pornography, right? Google and its subsidiary YouTube has never wanted to offer easy access to pornography because that ruins the experience for most people, right? You would not have a level of comfort and faith in how you interact with Google if every search you did came up with some pornography site or multiple pornography sites and given the number of double entendres in English language, that's entirely possible, right? So they've been for a couple of decades now hiring, I'm sorry, outsourcing, the job of filtering what in many cases is an easy call, right? So someone is torturing an animal, someone is committing an obvious sex act, it's in these company's interest to not have that easily available or available at all.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: Well, who's going to do this work? Are these companies centered in this place that is incredibly expensive to live and people demand a fairly high wage, going to hire people inside their company and give them access to their cafeteria and their massages and have them do this most horrible of jobs and pay them six figures. Maybe that would be nice. That's not what happened. Sarah tells a story of what happens when they decide to make this someone else's problem, literally in every way, both by outsourcing it to another company and by putting these workers through really debilitating experiences. But it goes beyond that because it goes to all of the questions we should be asking about what the responsibilities are of these companies and of companies in general-
Anil Dash: I want to pause you there because I want to hear Sarah talk about that, what that work entails.
Sarah T. Roberts: Boy, if my trip needed to be made in any way that just did it, let me tell you. Thank you so much. So to kind of draw out on something you were saying to contextualize my work, I think, and I think all of us have this going on to a certain extent. There is a tendency in Silicon Valley to be not only a historical, but I might even say anti historical. To live inside of a mythology that pretends that everything has sort of organically developed for the first time in whatever iteration-
Anil Dash: It's almost the beginning of history.
Sarah T. Roberts: Right. Whatever iteration of the product it is. And what I endeavored to do in the book in so many ways was to show this ecosystem that you've described and its implications for all of us, but also to remind us and to contextualize these platforms as actually being very, very recent phenomena. We're talking about two decades max that these particular companies and their products have really come to dominate and stand in for what we call the internet.
Sarah T. Roberts: And I think what's interesting about all of us, if I may speak for us on the stage, is that this isn't a group of people who are against technology, hate the internet, don't like media. It's actually quite the opposite. We cut our teeth on a nascent internet, most of us, that looked really different from the closed, enclosed ecosystem that is so highly profitable and commercialized today. And so the story of the workers who clean up social media sites, I think really directly connects to a another way, another version of the internet. This isn't a Pollyanna kind of story about how great it was. There were trolls, there was all kinds of nonsense going on. But the scale was different. I think that the impact was different and the-
Anil Dash: The harms couldn't be as broad because the platforms didn't have billions of people on them.
Sarah T. Roberts: Correct. And you know what I'm here to say maybe it might not be a good idea to do that. Right. I think some other folks have that thought too.
Anil Dash: I actually was just thinking about this Charleton, so much of the research you've done are these communities that were vibrant and thriving and meaningful to people. These weren't some one-off sort of thing, but that that narrative goes away because they simply didn't have a billion people on them. You think about there's some of the communities that you have been able to provide evidence of and documentation of, what are some of the ones that jump out that are stories that people don't know?
Charlton McIlwain: Well one I will highlight is this thing that was called the AfroNet, and I'll put that out there because it was built by a guy named Ken Anwar who lives here in Austin, Texas now built it when he was at University of California, San Diego. And the AfroNet was simply a network of all Black folks. They were distributed across the country, but it was a network built for them to connect. So it was still a kind of internet in that we did not, and people did not necessarily know they weren't in the same geographical place, but there was an underlying ethic of care, concern, connection that drove the technology. And it wasn't about the fetishizing of that technology per se. It was what could-
Anil Dash: What could you do with it?
Charlton McIlwain: What could you do with it. And what I could do with it was reach out if I'm in a community where there are not a lot of people like me or people that understand what it is and how I'm living, I could find that person. If I wanted to look for a different love interest, there was some possibility I can get my car and drive out to California from Texas if I met the right person. But again, it was about the people. And I think that was to come back to Sarah's book and I told her before this and I had just finished reading the book and it was so horribly impactful because of the underlying disregard I think for people that was represented in the workers that are driven to do this work.
Anil Dash: But also those communities still echo into current culture and current moments, right? They're the best things that we see online. We talk about something like Black Twitter, which is so culturally generative has this history and these roots in these early communities. One of the standout moments to me that was totally surprising and really exciting as a geek of a certain age was Solange, when she dropped her last record, did it on BlackPlanet, right? And this is a site that gets overlooked. Asian Avenue, BlackPlanet, there was a whole cohort of identity based communities in the early days of social, but it's not a hundred years ago. It's like 15 years ago. [crosstalk] People are still, you know what I mean? It's not like you have to get a stone tablet to see where they were, but you have somebody who's a very vital artist who bridges a lot of really interesting communities and she wanted to evoke what that community meant. What do you think that signify? What is she calling back to there?
Charlton McIlwain: I mean, I think she's calling back to, here's, I want to find my people, which is hard to do when you have platforms and an internet now that is just so beyond scale. And I want to find the people who I know have my back who understand it may not be that they agree with me necessarily, but we got each other. I think that's what that really
Charlton McIlwain: We got each other. I think that's what that really represents. And to think about something that goes into a community that is not always fraught with, kind of, battle and conflict, but, as my friend Andre Brock likes to tell about, just pure joy.
Anil Dash: Yeah.
Charlton McIlwain: I can get pleasure in this platform by being with my people and not having the conversation of proving our value, our worth, but [crosstalk]-
Anil Dash: Or defending against trolls and attacks, or whenever [all harms] are coming out there today.
Charlton McIlwain: Exactly.
Anil Dash: Yeah. So it's interesting because I think of that example of somebody at [Solange] where we don't think of celebrities, we don't think of artists as having been exploring the early Internet. Right? But it was pretty common. There were millions of people there. It wasn't that wild, but people were there, and Solange just may be alpha millennial, right? Sort of like this is a definer of this culture. And you spent a ton of time thinking about celebrity and about millennial culture. I'm curious about that fluency of, you know, growing up with this and also seeing it evolve. Is that widely understood? Do you feel like that's been erased by the sort of modern era of social platforms?
Anne Helen Petersen: What community?
Anil Dash: Well, yeah, the community. But that there was a prior generation, that there was like this learning process where whether it was an AOL chat room, or they were on Black Planet, or they were on LiveJournal, or whatever these things that were earlier, has that been overshadowed by everything that's come since?
Anne Helen Petersen: I mean, everything now is so immediate that you can know about every artist, you can find Spot- like, every artist is accessible to you on Spotify all the time, which actually creates this overwhelming ...
Anil Dash: Cacophony.
Anne Helen Petersen: ... amount of information ...
Anil Dash: Yeah.
Sarah T. Roberts: Anxiety.
Anne Helen Petersen: [crosstalk] -with anxiety, right? Because ... and also no real way to cultivate taste. Like the way I cultivated taste was either by, you know, through the spare amount of CDs that my parents had, and then maybe some friends, but then also finding that one thing in the record store that you would dare to spend $17 on if you hadn't heard the whole thing.
Anil Dash: It was a big bet. Yeah.
Anne Helen Petersen: It was a big bet. But then the things that you wagered on and that you fell in love with, those became incredibly pivotal things. And that's not to say that Solange doesn't mean the same to a 17 year old now as Fiona Apple meant to me when I was 17, but it did feel more like a cultivation of tastes. But I do want to go back to something we were talking about earlier, which ... when I was, I just finished the draft for my burnout book and the thing that I found myself wanting to finish every single chapter with, there's two phrases. It was, it doesn't have to be this way, and I don't know how to make you care about other people, which is something that goes around Twitter sometimes in reference to political things, which is, you know ... in order to understand why this matters and why people are mad about it, you have to understand why it matters to care about other people. And that means other people laboring under capitalism. You know?
Sarah T. Roberts: Come on, girl.
Anil Dash: So that, it's an interesting framing, right? Because I think there's a tension between that reminder or assertion, we've got to care about other people and the lived experience I think so many of us have had where the Internet was where there were people that cared about me.
Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, right.
Sarah T. Roberts: That's right.
Anil Dash: Right? I think, you know, I've certainly had that experience where ... when I was broke, or I had moved to New York city and I didn't know anybody. I could find people online and then form a community. And I'm curious, is that a thing that a modern startup-based tech platform even aspires to? Is that the goal?
Siva Vaidhyanathan: Yeah. So if Mark Zuckerberg were sitting with us right now, he would totally agree with the major themes that we've outlined here. He has shifted his vision and his definition of the purpose of Facebook from connecting people, which turned out to not always have positive repercussions-
Anil Dash: As it turns out.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: -to building community, a word he does not understand in the least. Right? And he's also convinced that we build community. No, he's convinced that he builds community by designing his code in a certain way, designing an interface in a certain way, nudging us toward his capital F, capital G Facebook Groups, and then letting us loose within these Facebook groups, letting us loose within WhatsApp groups, letting us form more communities through Instagram, and ultimately living our communities through his platform. What he doesn't want to acknowledge is we were already doing that. Right? So if you look at Charlton's work, you look at Annie's work, that's what we were doing and getting really good at it before he came along with his universalizing grand vision of how he was going to structure our lives. And every one of his statements is top-down. Every one of his statements is "I will build this so that you behave a certain way."
Anil Dash: A sort of paternalistic view.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: Exactly.
Anil Dash: Like, I'm going to give you-
Siva Vaidhyanathan: I mean, he was never admit to being paternalistic, but he is fundamentally paternalistic in the way a master engineer is.
Anil Dash: Where are these conversations happening right now? Like, where are the places that are not Instagram, not Facebook, that people are forming community?
Charlton McIlwain: Well, I think there are a lot of places and, I mean, some of them are on Facebook and in Twitter and on-
Anil Dash: But they may be hidden away or not the, sort of, central experience.
Charlton McIlwain: Right, right. And so I think it's, again, about finding it. So as Siva said about Zuckerberg, who I think doesn't, I agree, fundamentally understand the idea of community and just thinks, look, I can build this platform, I can shape, I can build a tool that will point you in this direction. And what we see over and over again with particularly [minoritized] communities and marginalized communities is just give me the tool, I'll figure this shit out. Right? I can do this. I don't need to be directed this way or that way because that's not really what I want to do or who we are.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: What's that James Brown song? Just opened up the door and I'll get it myself.
Anil Dash: There you go.
Charlton McIlwain: And so I think that's where we make the mistake. And you know, the Zuckerbergs of the world and so forth think about and confuse a social network, a social platform, with community. You just create this space, throw a lot of people in there and you've got a community, and that's fundamentally not what community is about.
Sarah T. Roberts: The other thing that the move towards pushing people into self-selected or quote-unquote "groups" is that it-
Siva Vaidhyanathan: They are algorithmically selected groups.
Sarah T. Roberts: Yes, correct. Nudged groups is that, I think, there's a fundamental desire to lessen the responsibility that the platform has to govern content. And so it's a downloading of that responsibility on, say, the person who decides to be the moderator of that group. Or it's a mechanism by which a company might conceivably say, "Gosh, you don't want us to monitor your private dialogues." So we don't know what was flowing through that WhatsApp group, for example, because the problem of managing content is already so far beyond their ability to handle it. To me, these are mechanisms and turns that get them out of that business even more than they are out of it, to a certain extent. Now they're both out and in. It's very odd.
Anil Dash: So the algorithm is like a mechanism of abdicating responsibility. It's not our fault because we've used this as our name, but they make the algorithm.
Sarah T. Roberts: Right.
Anil Dash: So it's still ultimately-
Anne Helen Petersen: But it's just math.
Anil Dash: It is, right, right. [crosstalk].
Sarah T. Roberts: No, it's not.
Anil Dash: But their argument is the math did this thing, I don't know how it happened, like, who can say? And yet it caused ... they wrote the code, right?
Sarah T. Roberts: I mean, I guess I often come back to your point at the end of the day, which is to what extent was it ever a good idea to render the gamut of human expression into a technological system? That is taking it a step further, made for profit and advertising in the first place?. What a limited worldview that is, right, to put everything inside that frame? And so I think one of the things that we need to do for our students, those of us who teach, or for our constituencies when we're talking to people, is to remind everyone about the capacity of our own imagination, to think about other ways. This has sort of been presented to us over the past 15 years as the way to do it. Folks have been incredibly successful. Obviously they've gotten people across the globe engaged in their systems, but 15 years is a very short time.
Anil Dash: For this amount of change.
Sarah T. Roberts: Yeah. And I think that's actually, again, when I look for those rays of light or hopefulness, I think that's actually a very quick time for humanity in terms of rethinking or creating something new that could take hold, or reinvigorating institutions that already exist that we've let fester and die in the face of some of these other platforms.
Anil Dash: So one of the things that ... I think a framework that often comes up when talking about technology is this analog to food. We talk about a digital diet, right? And many times we say if we look at the major social platforms, this is sort of our factory farmed food, right? Or your fast food. And you know, sometimes moderation. Sure. We all like a good McNugget sometimes, but not for every meal. Not all day, every day.
Anil Dash: And then I think, very personally, that I remember great meals I've had in my life. I remember ones that are from the culture and the tradition I grew up in, the cuisine that I was raised with. I remember once where I knew everybody who was in the kitchen, I knew where the food came from and we grew in the garden. Right. Here's the hard question I have for each of you, which is how much of your digital diet, of you spending time on your phone, is locally grown, organic, made by somebody in your community, home-picked, home-cooked tech? I mean, are you using ... I'll start with you, but it's like, are any of the apps on your phone made by somebody you know?
Anne Helen Petersen: We're all academics or former academics, so no.
Anil Dash: It's hard, right?
Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.
Anil Dash: And I have the same thing. I'm not pointing any fingers, because I have the same problem. It's hard for me to think about-
Speaker 1: I mean, I was only thinking, because you've built a few things.
Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. [crosstalk]
Anil Dash: But, yeah. I mean, there's outliers and exceptions if we've been around long enough, but for the most part I'm spending my time on apps made by people I don't know or people that I actively mistrust, and I ... So I'm like, well, this is a food desert. All I've got is three fast food places and drive-throughs and I can't get organic produce in my neighborhood.
Sarah T. Roberts: You can't even have a garden to grow it in if you so chose, and that's part of this shrinking ecosystem for regular people, where there was a time you could open up the guts of your computer and mess around inside. You go ahead and try to open your iPhone, you guys. Good luck. You need special tools.
Anil Dash: You'll need a handler.
Sarah T. Roberts: You'll ruin the warranty, that's not allowed. It's something that a number of years ago, Jonathan's attorney wrote a book and he talked about tethered devices. That's what these are. These are enclosed ecosystems not designed for us to have interactivity in that way, and that's ...
Anil Dash: And arguably we just don't even own them-
Sarah T. Roberts: No.
Anil Dash: -because they can be remotely shut off or erased or whatever.
Sarah T. Roberts: I don't know the last time I actually paid outright for a phone, by the way. It's all on constant loan. But you know, I'll give a counterpoint. One of the interesting things that I've experienced in my time on the internet, and I've been on the internet since 1993 ... When I got on the social internet at that time I thought I'd really missed the boom, and I was a late adopter. It was cooler in the 80s, I guess. Anyway, since that time I've had this cohort of people that I've known all throughout my life. And over time the platforms, or the code that was running on machines, or the machines died, people moved on, commercial platforms became a thing. And so what this group of people has done over the past almost three decades is migrate together like this group of nomads. We go from place to place to place. So when our homegrown BBS software was no longer viable and it was no longer possible to run it, guess where we went? Guess.
Anil Dash: AOL?
Sarah T. Roberts: No, LiveJournal.
Anil Dash: Oh, all right.
Sarah T. Roberts: Which, to my mind, was the province of young people kind of keeping diaries, but we created our community within LiveJournal. We all connected. We moved-
Anil Dash: And for context here, BBS was a bulletin board system. And in a world before the, sort of, World Wide Web, you would dial up and they were local.
Sarah T. Roberts: Text only.
Anil Dash: It was like some person in your community had a computer and you were calling their house. And sometimes somebody else would be picking up the phone to order a pizza and you get kicked off. But it was very [viscerally] local. Also, because you cared about ... back then, you had long distance calls. It cost money to call somewhere else. You had to call somebody local. So it was the constraints of the architecture, of how we make the calls, that meant that you were going to call somebody in your town.
Charlton McIlwain: Yeah. And the beauty of, I spoke earlier about AFRONET, was it was a way around that, right? So it was a way to get around the long distance calls or at least one person, not the whole community, bore the brunt of the cost for that. But I think as part of what, you know, Sarah was saying of the innovation as we moved from platform to platform, technology to technology, and particularly for underserved communities, that is a constant and historical relationship with technology. That is, we're not building it, we don't own it. We use what we are given. And the constant vulnerability that that puts us in, which is ... boom, it's gone in a minute. And everything we built here is now gone. And I think we saw that at 1994, the folks that were online in the 80s on the BBSs ... 1994, it was like, what is this web stuff? I'm out, I'm gone. I'm done. Some migrated to the new and innovated, but that's the constant vulnerability.
Anil Dash: But there are communities that went from we had an email list in the 80s, to we had a AOL chat room in the 90s, to we got on LiveJournal in the 2000s, to we got on a Facebook group. Now there are people that have carried through- [crosstalk]
Siva Vaidhyanathan: And let's remember that when, I mean, one of the things that Facebook has done is learned from many of those experiences. It could be any of the people that worked at Facebook were a part of those same communities, and they've simulated that experience in the context of Facebook the way that Starbucks simulates espresso. They give a remarkable facsimile of it, right? And then-
Anil Dash: Wow, he brings his coffee snobbery into this.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: And yeah, because of the resilience of human beings wanting to connect in a sincere way, we can look at the experience on Facebook and find that exposure, right? So as much of a critic as I am of the company itself, people find, even in the food desert of Facebook, small growth to be able to do something cool. Annie runs a Facebook group that has a remarkably live and interesting set of conversations, right? Can you talk a bit about what happens? I mean, you're one of the few I know who sort of fosters this sense of conversation and community and ...
Sarah T. Roberts: Well, I have the page and that's just run by me. And I've been doing that since 2007.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: And it's called?
Sarah T. Roberts: It's called Celebrity Gossip Academic Style, which was the name of my WordPress blog when academic blogging was cool. So that's like, 2007.
Anil Dash: These things come in and out of fashion. [crosstalk]
Sarah T. Roberts: Yeah. And then last year some people were like, what if we had a group? Like what if we had a place where we could also post? So there are ten women across time zones who are in charge of my ... like, no pay. I don't have anything to do. I was like, I'm happy to have this group, an offshoot of this, but I don't have the mental capacity to moderate everything. And so they do all of it. But one of the things about this group and the page is that people say, "I'm only on Facebook for this page," or "this is the only good thing on the internet." That sort of thing. So you get these cultivated spaces. And people don't, it'd be great if we were off of it. Right? But then maybe we'd be on Slack and that'd be weird in other ways too, you know, like another Starbucks.
Anil Dash: Well, and there's the thing I want to sort of get into there, which is we have a very, sort of, consumerist way of looking at these things, which is like I'm going to boycott, I'm going to not use that. Right. And then ignores this sort of coercive power of, that's the only community I have where I can talk to people about this. Or Instagram's the only place I can see a picture of my cute nephew or niece or you know, whatever it is. It's like, I'm not going to forgo staying connected to my family because this company is odious. Because it's like, I'll walk through fire to stay connected to my family. You know what I mean? I'll do anything. And so I think there's a really, there's a narrow set of paths forward that we can imagine.
Anil Dash: Right? Because you're not quitting Facebook. I'm sorry, you're just not. You know what I mean? You're not quitting Instagram. Like, that's not happening, and everybody talking about that. But that's the model we have. And also the other part of this I think about it a lot as a technologist is there's no lunch counter to boycott. If I say I'm not having anything to do with Google, I don't believe in what they do. I don't support them. I deleted my Gmail account. If I'm emailing you and you've got a Gmail account, they still have my email, right? They still got a profile on me.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: I mean, in one sense that pose, there's a bit of narcissism attached to this. Look, Facebook has 2.4 billion users around the world, and in the United States it has 220 million users, right? So if everyone in this room quit Facebook right now ... No one at Facebook would notice or care if 100,000 Americans quit Facebook today. It might cause a meeting. Right? But no one's going to change anything, because in the same time-
Anil Dash: That's the punishment they deserve, a meeting.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: A hundred thousand people in Brazil are going to join. Right? So they know where the growth is and why, and they have such a penetration in the world and such a level of dependence right now that there is not much that we can do, even in a quasi-organized fashion. Google the same way, nearly two billion people use YouTube. Can you imagine? Living without Google is tough enough. Living without YouTube is not that much easier, right? There's a lot of basic cultural, political experience and information that now, unfortunately, is rendered only through YouTube and it's because we let this happen and there's not much we can do to strike back against it in the short term.
Anne Helen Petersen: But it, I mean, it's kind of like how people want to drop out of capitalism, right? Like, I would love to drop out of capitalism, but this is going to continue. Even if Bernie Sanders is elected, it's still going to be the [animating], right?
Anil Dash: First step is you've got to bring 100 million of your friends with you. Right?
Anne Helen Petersen: But, so what do you do? You stay within it, but you try to change it.
Charlton McIlwain: And there's that ... I mean I think there is some hubris in the whole let me opt out, let me boycott and so forth because that's a privilege for some of us- [crosstalk].
Anil Dash: -to not be online.
Charlton McIlwain: Exactly, exactly. And that's not the experience for immigrant communities or many others.
Anne Helen Petersen: That's right.
Sarah T. Roberts: I mean I think the evidence is pretty telling when we find out who some of the biggest advocates for opting out of screens are, they're located where? Silicon Valley?
Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.
Sarah T. Roberts: That tells us something about what they think of their own products and the cost to using them. I mean I think, again, it's got to be a longer game. We've become accustomed to short term gains and quick turnarounds and very fast innovation. One of the things that really rankles me these days is that the CEO of YouTube, Susan Wojcicki, goes around the country saying YouTube is a library. I'm going to tell you what YouTube is not. It is not a library. And I'm going to start by saying it's missing something that libraries have, which is librarians, okay? Which are people with expertise who can help guide others who need information. And that fundamental misunderstanding, or I think misrepresentation is a more accurate way to put it, really bothers me because this company is trading on one of the very best things that we've collectively built in our society, which is a public institution open to all for free, designed to provide information.
Sarah T. Roberts: I don't think they should get to trade on that like that. They don't really agree with me necessarily. I was on the phone one time with someone from YouTube and I got really animated and said, "You owe it to society to blah, blah, blah!" And they didn't call me back. So anyway ...
Anil Dash: It's a good way to not get called back.
Sarah T. Roberts: Yeah, it's cool. I just, I mean, we, the public has a desire to be informed. The public has a desire to seek information. They have a right to do those things. But what we've done is decimated our public school system, our public institutions. We've eliminated even just public space in general. And it's not that people have-
Sarah T. Roberts: [inaudible], and it's not that people have decreased in their desire to want to be informed or just to stay connected. It's just that they've been shoved from these public spaces into what is essentially a shopping mall that then goes around and masquerades as if it isn't. I think that is a real social problem that we have to address, and we know there are costs to that.
Anil Dash: Well, there's a part of this, too, where you talk about humans have a desire, people have a desire to learn. They also have a desire to share their knowledge.
Sarah T. Roberts: That's right.
Anil Dash: It feels good when you're like, "I figured this thing out. I want people to know-"`
Sarah T. Roberts: Well, actually...
Anil Dash: I mean, yeah, there's the mansplainer version of it, but I think there's also the, "You know what? I sussed out how to get this thing working," or whatever or, "I mastered this trick on my skateboard," or whatever it is that's this feeling of "I learned something and I shared it and I'm proud of it," or "I want to represent my culture or my people" or whatever it is that is this impulse, this very, very human impulse.
Anil Dash: And to your point about the public institutions, there's no public school in America that doesn't rely on YouTube, is there? I mean every single one has got to be showing YouTube videos.
Anne Helen Petersen: And they rely heavily on Facebook for events. That's how they to post to...you have to be part of that.
Anil Dash: We haven't had that before, of a commercial entity that our public institutions were dependent on. Every politician is dependent on social media to fundraise and do these things.
Anil Dash: Yeah. I want to go back, Charleton, on one of these sort of earlier themes that was just hit, which was almost the migration of communities, like this sort of evolution that happens. I think of a lot of marginalized communities, whether it is the Black experience and the Great Migration. I think of a lot of Asian immigrants, where we have a sort of community-by-community almost a seeding of, obviously for me being South Asian, Patel motels, where they get your foot in the ground and go to the next town. Chinese restaurants had this, too, for Chinese immigrants. But there's this sense of, "Somebody gets a foothold, we'll bring our family in, we'll bring along the community, we'll help each other lift each other up."
Anil Dash: Are we seeing that behavior anywhere online? Are people putting out those feelers of like, " Let's take a first tentative step out of the current era, out of YouTube, out of Facebook?"
Charlton McIlwain: I mean, it's a good question. I don't see it a lot. And I think it's in many ways connected to just the power of the platform. It's hard to find something else to leverage that much visibility. So, I think it's been more of a case, at least in my point of view, that folks are using those platforms and doing this migration through those. So Black Twitter could be just a very good example. It's one place where you look, and especially the early days when we started to know about what Black Twitter is and so forth, you look there and you see that there is a level of ingenuity, expertise, et cetera, that didn't start in Twitter. Right?
Sarah T. Roberts: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Anil Dash: Right.
Charlton McIlwain: And that's what first got me kind of looking back, because that was the migration. That was the migration of people who in other generations were dealing with, "Here's the technology, how do I use it to make me and my life and my community better? I'm going to do it here, and that might be foreclosed on, and where do I go next?" And then it's here, but I'm building up that expertise, meaning I know how to connect my people, whoever those people are. And this becomes an iteration of that.
Anil Dash: So, there's something extraordinary there, which is about the mastery of a platform being separate from the creators of the platform. So historically if you create something world-changing, it's directly about empowering you and your family. That's a very different thing where Twitter has no Black founders, Facebook has no Black founders, yet consistently you look at the peak era of Vine a couple of years ago on Twitter or you look at Black Twitter every single day or even movements like Black Lives Matter. These are happening on these platforms. And I don't think Jack Dorsey is against Black Lives Matter happening on Twitter, but he certainly isn't like, "That's why we made it!"
Charlton McIlwain: That's not what he...exactly.
Anil Dash: You know what I mean? That wasn't what he had in mind.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: There were no black inventors of the turntable, but who mastered the turntable?
Anil Dash: Right, well, but also they did learn from prior art. There was a lot of different communities contributing to. But the reason I mentioned this is I'm curious about this...I'd sort of had this very "These are the master's tools." There's a very defined set of expectations around what a technology can enable, and we still see surprising things happen. Whether it is Black Lives Matter, Me Too. Movements that arise that the platforms didn't expect that are positive, but they certainly weren't trying to enable. Right?
Charlton McIlwain: Yep.
Anil Dash: How is that happening? How is that possible? Because that complicates my view of either people build a platform and give themselves power or a community builds a platform to give everybody power. But the idea of like, "And we empower these other people accidentally," how did that happen?
Charlton McIlwain: I mean, I think in a lot of ways it's the history of certainly this country. You think about slaves who at some point became free, and that freedom wasn't just, "You graciously granted my freedom." We fought for it, and we killed for it, and we died for it, because there was something that was driving that.
Charlton McIlwain: So I took...and her name is blanking on me now. Dark Matters.
Sarah T. Roberts: Simone Brown.
Charlton McIlwain: Simone Brown talks beautifully in that book about the old technologies that were used to free other people. And I think as we've gone through this historical trajectory, it's just become the way. We know we don't have the tools, or at least historically we have not, as a community of Black folks, folks of color, et cetera. So you build a way of life, which is, "I have to survive-"
Siva Vaidhyanathan: "Let me repurpose this other tool."
Charlton McIlwain: "I have to thrive, I'm going to repurpose, and I'm going to take whatever you give me, and I'm going to find a way to do what it is I have to do."
Sarah T. Roberts: I mean, for me, this is an exemplar of the problem of narrative with Silicon Valley that-
Anil Dash: I didn't go to college, so you're going to have to take that down [crosstalk].
Sarah T. Roberts: Well, the narrative of the technology having the primacy of the story.
Anil Dash: Right, it's not the code, it's the people.
Sarah T. Roberts: Right. It's actually this ingenuity in innovation that comes from often oppressed and marginalized people that should be the story, or at least it should have parity with the product or the architecture of the platform. Because I often think about these platforms without our contributions, they would just be empty vessels. They're reflections of what we put into them, the good and the bad.
Anil Dash: Yeah. I think about this where my life was changed by social media and by having tools to use. I was able to meet all of you, and to get to be on a stage, and do all these exciting things. But Mark Zuckerberg would have been pretty rich regardless, I think. He was already in Harvard. He was fine.
Anil Dash: So he didn't say, "Social media..." I mean, it opened the door for him to be a billionaire. But he's not like, "I made all my friends there online." He didn't say, "I found this great meme and I thought that was funny and it brightened my day." All the things that I think bring us joy online, or I got to organize and be part of a movement, none of that's his experience.
Anil Dash: I'm curious, is that just simply the, "Well, this tool wasn't designed for us but we're going to put it to our use," or is there some truth to this narrative about technology, which is it can empower people, it does let people reach their higher selves, or be their best selves, or change the world, or whatever the rhetoric is that we hear?
Anne Helen Petersen: Do you think he knows how to make a meme?
Anil Dash: Yeah, I'm sure he has analyzed how memes are created and is like, "I can make a tool for this." I'm certain that's happened.
Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.
Anil Dash: I don't think he does it for fun.
Sarah T. Roberts: Well, I think, of course there are so many positives that come out of one's own personal experience and then an aggregate, but I want to be cautious about handing the credit for that over to firms. I think a lot of that is, again, it's the sum total of humanity and they don't get to actually take credit for that.
Anil Dash: So I had my fifth birthday party at a McDonald's, but it wasn't McDonald's credit that I had fun at the party.
Sarah T. Roberts: Yeah, yeah.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: We also have a weird relationship with a lot of the things in our lives and a lot of the processes and platforms and technologies in our lives.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: I love my car. I have a blast in my car. It does exactly what I want it to do, takes me everywhere that I want to go, serves me well, rarely lets me down. My car is great for me. I have a story I could tell you about my car. I have a story I could tell you about other people I know and their cars and how much better our lives are because of our cars. But you take it to the scale of the globe, and our cars are terrible for us. Car's great for me. It's terrible for us. That seems paradoxical. It's really not because at scale everything gets distorted.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: So I have a great story, as you have a great story, as we all have a great story about the richness added to our lives because of this really convenient way to connect with people, really convenient way to share all sorts of cultural objects, and convenient ways to gather people in the same room. We all have that story, but collectively it's been a disaster. And it's been a disaster unevenly.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: So, we're all winners. Even as critical as we are, we're doing just fine with this because we kind of figure out how to live well with it. But there are lots of people and lots of places in the world where it has been a complete and utter disaster despite the fact that individually almost everybody sees value in it or they wouldn't be there. There are not 2.4 billion idiots and fools out there on Facebook, right?
Anil Dash: Right.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: They all find value in it, and it grows every day because people find value in it individually. But again, collectively, it becomes a disaster.
Sarah T. Roberts: I mean, I think that we have to think about platforms and these firms as being as dynamic as every other-
Anil Dash: System around us.
Sarah T. Roberts: ...force or system, right. So that they have absolutely changed and morphed over this period of time. And I would argue that we're in a moment where the functionality arms race of platform-to-platform has largely subsided for the major firms. They are what they are. They're going-
Anil Dash: They can all take a picture, you can all have a filter, yeah.
Sarah T. Roberts: Yeah, yeah! You can live stream on all of them. Wasn't that a great idea? So they've kind of hit peak functionality. Where the bread is being buttered is on the policy side. And what's going on with companies like Facebook and others right now is that you're seeing them engage at a nation-state level.
Sarah T. Roberts: So, we've spent a lot of time talking about the technology and the platform, but really we ought to be thinking about policy, and we ought to be thinking about governance. This is where the companies are going now. This is where they are. They have a seat at the table with the heads of state. They're putting together Supreme Courts. Their systems are looking more and more like what we might recognize as a country or as a nation. Right?
Anil Dash: Right. Quasi-governmental.
Sarah T. Roberts: And that evolution is really something to behold, and that's where we ought to be watching.
Anil Dash: And that's unprecedented to both have that governmental function but as well as the governmental budget.
Sarah T. Roberts: Right.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: Except for the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company, which were quasi-governmental. Also global in scale and in reach, and also massively destructive.
Sarah T. Roberts: Yep.
Anil Dash: Well we know how that one turned out a little bit.
Sarah T. Roberts: Yeah, yeah.
Anil Dash: I'm curious about, and this actually gets to this point, I think there's sort of this theme, which is...I think Charleton, you said this. You take the technology and you use it.
Anil Dash: My family's lived experience, when I would visit my grandparents in India when I was a kid, is they had a printing press upstairs. And when I got old enough I said, "What are we doing with that?" and they said, "That's how we printed flyers and posters in the Independence Movement," which was the legacy of things like the East India Company. It was cutting-edge technology for sharing information, peer-to-peer between people, in the service of liberation. That was not why that tool was invented. That was probably not even what the intent was of whoever sold it to them.
Anil Dash: I'm curious, going forward, and this is sort of a closing question for each of you, what are the ways we can empower ourselves? Like we've said, it's not going to be a mass consumer walkout. We can't unplug. These are going to be parts of our lives for the rest of our lives. What are the things we can do? What are the track of things we can do? Whether it's policy, whether it's using other tools, other technologies.
Anil Dash: Siva, I'd start with you.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: Yeah. I mean, one of the things we've done today and that each of us had done in our work is demystify these systems. So we see the human hands at work, and we see both the human cost and the human flourishing going on through these systems. And the more we can see people behind our screens, the better off we will be individually and collectively, the smarter choices we will make. We won't just accept the new thing as if it's some magic force brought down on us, given to us. That's number one.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: So, yeah, demystification, which is a constant cultural and intellectual effort, because these boxes that we look through are meant to look magical. They're not meant to show the human beings that went into it and the human being still working in there. So that's one thing.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: The other thing we have to do is understand that there is ideology to technological change and that ideology is basically techno-fundamentalism, this notion that there is a problem in the world, a technology has either amplified it or contributed to it, or maybe even caused it, and the best and perhaps only way to address it is to invent new thing. A new technology to solve the problem of the old technology, that's techno-fundamentalism. We see it time and time again. We have to get off of that hamster wheel. It's a disaster, and it's creating more problems than it's solving.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: We need a better vocabulary for how we talk and think about this. At least that's the start. And I think that's what we're all really contributing to right now. I don't have a list of legislation I would like to see passed. I kind of do, but it's really not that relevant.
Anil Dash: We'll put it in the show now.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: I have a bunch of wishes that if I could have a long conversation with some of these company leaders, I might wish them to do things. But again, that's dreaming, that's not really helpful. But ultimately we need to reorient our relationship with these devices and with the messages that we get from these centers of power. And then that's the first step. But I hesitate to prescribe because I think we need to unleash the imagination of a lot more people who are smarter than we are to address these problems.
Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, I think about it in terms of controls on the production side and controls on the reception side. So, on the production side, I think just understanding that at various points in our history, which again Silicon Valley doesn't like to think of history, but when capitalism just in and of itself, it wants to go wild, it wants to just exploit as many people, as much of our environment as possible, the only way we've made it work at various points historically in the least exploitative way possible is through regulation. So we have to understand that regulation is not tampering the capitalist spirit. It's just making capitalism livable.
Anne Helen Petersen: And then on the reception side, the most useful book for me has been Jenny Odell's How To Do Nothing, which I really can't recommend enough. The title is somewhat misleading because it's not so much about how to do nothing so much as how to understand and harness your attention. And she is not a Luddite. She does not say, "Get rid of your phone," she just says, "Think about your attention as something you have control over instead of these companies." So, I can't recommend that highly enough.
Charlton McIlwain: I would say a couple of things. Number one, that we need to make demands. We do our work, we live, we do all these things on these platforms. We need to make demands of those platforms.
Charlton McIlwain: I spent yesterday at an interesting gathering of civil rights and tech, which was sponsored by Color of Change and Facebook, and I won't go into the interesting parts of it other than to say there were great moments where folks were standing up and saying, "Look, we know about civil rights. We know about what it takes to make political change. And I know, Facebook, you're sitting in that front row. This is what you must do. This is what we demand you do, and we're going to stay up in your face until you do it. So I think we've got to do that.
Charlton McIlwain: And then I think finding a way to harness, let work, the ingenuity of marginalized people. And so I'll end with a story, kind of like we began with. I was thinking about being blown away meeting a guy named E. David Ellington, who was the founder in 1994 of a platform called NetNoir, which was the first hub community within AOL's garden. What I took from that was there was a moment, and there's a story that he narrates with the head of AOL, saying, "Look, here's my idea. People like Black people, people like Black content. Let's make that the way to bring people onto the internet."
Charlton McIlwain: And you know what? It worked.
Anil Dash: That's incredibly innovative.
Charlton McIlwain: Incredibly. So, I think, ways to just put people in a room and let them go, and to fund and support and say, "Look, you know what you want. You know how to get what you want. You innovate. Let me support and make that happen."
Anil Dash: Sarah?
Sarah T. Roberts: Well, I think I'll just echo what everyone already said by reiterating that we need demystification. We need dialogue, such as this event today and others. We need to make demands and harness and remember our own agency. We need to historicize and contextualize what's actually going on. And we need to strengthen public institutions.
Sarah T. Roberts: I think it's going to be a long game. I think it's going to take a lot of different kinds of endeavors, but we know that the status quo is not sustainable on so many fronts, and we do actually have these moments of incredible opportunity to do all the things we've talked about. And so I have to be hopeful because what else can we be? Right?
Charlton McIlwain: Indeed.
Anil Dash: Well, I think on that note of a little bit of hope and optimism amidst all of the challenges that we've identified, it makes me feel like there may be a way forward with an internet that is worthy of us, that perhaps we could trust.
Anil Dash: I thank you all so much for joining for this conversation.
Sarah T. Roberts: Thank you.
Siva Vaidhyanathan: Just as a reminder, Sarah will be signing books across [inaudible].
Anil Dash: As you can see all four of these scholars that we had on stage bring a perspective that everybody needs to hear. That's it for our special bonus episode of Function recorded live at the Texas Tribune Festival. Stay subscribed because we're going to have more of these kinds of special episodes and bonuses coming up for you soon. Function is produced by Bridget Armstrong. Our producer at Glitch is Keisha TK Dutes. Nishat Kurwa is the executive producer of audio for the Vox Media Podcast Network. Our theme music was composed by Brandon McFarland, and a thank you to the engineering team at Vox. A huge thanks to everybody on our team at Glitch, and you can follow me on Twitter at @AnilDash. You can also follow this show itself on Twitter @podcastfunction. Please remember to subscribe to the show wherever you listen to your podcasts and do check out glitch.com/function. That's where the show lives and we have full text transcripts for every single episode. We even have apps and other things you can check out to help you understand the topics we discuss.