Sergi Xaudiera

The Internet and the Third Estate

Originally published 04 November 2019 by Sergi Xaudiera

Read the full post if you want to understand the current state of the internet.

People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society. People no longer have to rely on traditional gatekeepers in politics or media to make their voices heard, and that has important consequences.

For a moment, though, step back to the world as it was: the one where newspapers (and TV stations, etc.) were gatekeepers thanks to their ownership of production and distribution. In this world any viable political campaign had to play nicely with those who ran the press in the hopes of gaining positive earned media, endorsements, etc. Just as important, though, was the need to buy advertising, as that was the only way to reach voters at scale. And advertising required lots of money, which meant donors. And then, once the actual election rolled around, a campaign needed an effective GOTV effort, which took not only money but also the sort of manpower that could only be rustled up by organizations like labor unions, churches, etc. It is all these disparate pieces: partisan media members, advertisers, donors, large associations, plus consultants and specialists to manage them that, along with traditional politicians, made up the “party” in The Party Decides…

Said reticence, though, creates a curious dynamic in politics in particular: there is no one dominant force when it comes to the dispersal of political information, and that includes the parties described in the previous section. Remember, in a Facebook world, information suppliers are modularized and commoditized as most people get their news from their feed. This has two implications:

All news sources are competing on an equal footing; those controlled or bought by a party are not inherently privileged

The likelihood any particular message will “break out” is based not on who is propagating said message but on how many users are receptive to hearing it. The power has shifted from the supply side to the demand side

China is building its own internet focused on very different values, and is now exporting their vision of the internet to other countries. Until recently, the internet in almost every country outside China has been defined by American platforms with strong free expression values. There’s no guarantee these values will win out. A decade ago, almost all of the major internet platforms were American. Today, six of the top ten are Chinese.

We’re beginning to see this in social media. While our services, like WhatsApp, are used by protesters and activists everywhere due to strong encryption and privacy protections, on TikTok, the Chinese app growing quickly around the world, mentions of these protests are censored, even in the US. Is that the internet we want?

★ Ben Thompson, Stratechery