By John Naughton
The same unaccountable power that deprived Donald J. Trump of his online megaphones could easily be deployed to silence other prominent figures, including those of whom liberals approve.
‘From the Desk of Donald J. Trump’ lasted just 29 days. It’s tempting to gloat over this humiliating failure of a politician hitherto regarded as an omnipotent master of the online universe.
Tempting but unwise, because Trump’s failure should alert us to a couple of unpalatable realities.
The first is that the eerie silence that descended after the former President was ‘deplatformed’ by Twitter and Facebook provided conclusive evidence of the power of these two private companies to control the networked public sphere.
Those who loathed Trump celebrate his silencing because they regarded him — rightly — as a threat to democracy.
But on the other hand nearly half of the American electorate voted for him. And the same unaccountable power that deprived him of his online megaphones could easily be deployed to silence other prominent figures, including those of whom liberals approve.
The other unpalatable reality is that Trump’s failure to build an online base from scratch should alert us to the way the utopian promise of the early Internet — that it would be the death of the ‘couch potato’, the archetypal passive media consumer — has not been realised. Trump, remember, had 88.9m followers on Twitter and over 33m fans on Facebook.
“The failure of Trump’s blog is not just a confirmation of the unaccountable power of those who own and control social media, but also a reflection of the way Internet users enthusiastically embraced the ‘push’ model of the Web over the ‘pull’ model that we techno-utopians once hoped might be the network’s future.”
Yet when he started his own blog they didn’t flock to it. In fact they were nowhere to be seen. Forbes reported that the blog had “less traffic than pet adoption site Petfinder and food site Eat This Not That.” And it was reported that he had shuttered it because “low readership made him look small and irrelevant”. Which it did.
What does this tell us? The answer, says Philip Napoli in an insightful essay in Wired,
“lies in the inescapable dynamics of how today’s online media ecosystem operates and how audiences have come to engage with content online. Many of us who study media have long distinguished between “push” media and “pull” media.
“Traditional broadcast television is a classic “push” medium, in which multiple content streams are delivered to a user’s device with very little effort required on the user’s part, beyond flipping the channels. In contrast, the web was initially the quintessential “pull” medium, where a user frequently needed to actively search to locate content interesting to them.
“Search engines and knowing how to navigate them effectively were central to locating the most relevant content online. Whereas TV was a “lean-back” medium for “passive” users, the web, we were told, was a “lean-forward” medium, where users were “active.” Though these generalizations no longer hold up, the distinction is instructive for thinking about why Trump’s blog failed so spectacularly.
“In the highly fragmented web landscape, with millions of sites to choose from, generating traffic is challenging. This is why early web startups spent millions of dollars on splashy Super Bowl ads on tired, old broadcast TV, essentially leveraging the push medium to inform and encourage people to pull their online content.
“Then social media helped to transform the web from a pull medium to a push medium...”
Credit: Adem AY for Unsplash
This theme was nicely developed by Cory Doctorow in a recent essay, “Recommendation engines and ‘lean-back’ media”. The optimism of the early Internet era, he mused, was indeed best summarized in that taxonomy.
“Lean-forward media was intensely sociable: not just because of the distributed conversation that consisted of blog-reblog-reply, but also thanks to user reviews and fannish message-board analysis and recommendations.
“I remember the thrill of being in a hotel room years after I’d left my hometown, using Napster to grab rare live recordings of a band I’d grown up seeing in clubs, and striking up a chat with the node’s proprietor that ranged fondly and widely over the shows we’d both seen.
“But that sociability was markedly different from the “social” in social media. From the earliest days of Myspace and Facebook, it was clear that this was a sea-change, though it was hard to say exactly what was changing and how.
“Around the time Rupert Murdoch bought Myspace, a close friend had a blazing argument with a TV executive who insisted that the internet was just a passing fad: that the day would come when all these online kids grew up, got beaten down by work and just wanted to lean back.
“To collapse on the sofa and consume media that someone else had programmed for them, anaesthetizing themselves with passive media that didn’t make them think too hard.
“This guy was obviously wrong – the internet didn’t disappear – but he was also right about the resurgence of passive, linear media.”
This passive media, however, wasn’t the “must-see TV” of the 80s and 90s. Rather, it was the passivity of the recommendation algorithm, which created a per-user linear media feed, coupled with mechanisms like “endless scroll” and “autoplay,” that obliterated any trace of an active role for the aptly-named Web “consumer”.
As Napoli puts it,
“Social media helped to transform the web from a pull medium to a push medium. As platforms like Twitter and Facebook generated massive user bases, introduced scrolling news feeds, and developed increasingly sophisticated algorithmic systems for curating and recommending content in these news feeds, they became a vital means by which online attention could be aggregated.
“Users evolved, or devolved, from active searchers to passive scrollers, clicking on whatever content that their friends, family, and the platforms’ news feed algorithms put in front of them. This gave rise to the still-relevant refrain “If the news is important, it will find me.” Ironically, on what had begun as the quintessential pull medium, social media users had reached a perhaps unprecedented degree of passivity in their media consumption. The leaned-back “couch potato” morphed into the hunched-over “smartphone zombie.””
So the failure of Trump’s blog is not just a confirmation of the unaccountable power of those who own and control social media, but also a reflection of the way Internet users enthusiastically embraced the ‘push’ model of the Web over the ‘pull’ model that we techno-utopians once hoped might be the network’s future.