read an excerpt from Mike Ananny’s new book, Networked Press Freedom

cover, Networked Press FreedomIn my new book Networked Press Freedom: Creating Infrastructures for a Public Right to Hear [MIT Press | Amazon] I critically examine what press freedom means today.  I argue that, as news production, circulation, and interpretation are increasingly distributed across a new and unstable set of humans and nonhumans—from journalists and algorithms to platform designers and bots—it is increasingly difficult to say exactly what press freedom means.  What is the press trying to be free from?  To what ends and for which versions of the public?  How do we recognize a free versus an unfree press?

I define networked press freedom as a system of separations and dependencies among humans and nonhumans that helps to ensure not only journalists’ right to speak but publics’ rights to hear.  Engaging with a wide range of literature and analyzing a 7-year corpus of digital news examples, I argue that the networked press earns its freedom to the extent that it creates defensible publics.  Instead of only seeing press freedom as journalists’ right to pursue their visions of the public free from governments, markets, and technologies, the book tells a nuanced and historically grounded story that helps readers ask: what kind of public, what kind of freedom, and what kind of press?  Below is an excerpt. (This excerpt was first posted at the Nieman Lab.)


What, exactly, is press freedom, and why does it matter? In the popular discourse of the United States, we do not ask this question very often or very deeply. The answers are obvious and almost cliché: the public has a right to know, journalists are the people’s watchdogs, they afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, democracy dies in darkness, and voters need objective information to be good citizens. Popular histories of modern U.S. journalism celebrate heroes who spoke truth to power and brought down institutions—Ida B. Wells, Nellie Bly, Ida Tarbell, Edward R. Murrow, I. F. Stone, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Walter Cronkite. They often are remembered as most effective when they were left alone to pursue their visions of what they thought the public needed. These virtuous, creative, public-spirited, hard-working storytellers occupy powerful positions within the modern mythology of press freedom. If we just get out of the way of good journalists and let them tell truth to power, they will produce the information that vibrant democracies need.

This myth is somewhat true, and these heroes were indeed expert storytellers who challenged each era’s norms. But when we think about press freedom only or even mostly as the freedom of journalists from constraints, it becomes a narrow and almost magical phenomenon that depends on individuals and heroism. It says that journalists already know what the public needs, and just need freedom from the state, marketplaces, and audiences to pursue self-evident things like truth and the public interest. These brave journalists and publishers show their commitment to the public and the power of their independence by going to court and sometimes jail to protect sources and fight censorship. If journalists and publishers can get truth to the public, then individual readers and viewers will be able to make informed decisions about how to think and vote. Ultimately, the press wants to be left alone so that you can be left alone. The kind of democracy that dominates this common image of press freedom relies on a lot of independences—a lot of freedoms from.

This book tries to challenge this mythology. I want to complicate the idea of press freedom and show that it emerges not from individual heroes but from social, technological, institutional, and normative forces that vie for power, imagine publics, and implicitly fight for visions of democracy. I see press freedom as a concept to think with—a generative and constructive tool for looking at any given era of the press and public life and asking, “Is this version of press freedom giving us the kind of publics we need? If not, how do we revise the institutional arrangements underpinning press freedom and make a different thing that we agree to call ‘the press’?” Alternatively, how do we adjust our normative expectations about what publics should be, creating a different image of freedom that we then might demand from institutions that make up the press? If we see press freedom not as heroic isolations—journalists breaking free to tell truths to the publics they imagine—but as a subtler system of separations and dependencies that make publics, then we might see each era’s types of press freedom as bellwethers for particular visions of the public. Ideas of press freedom become evidence of thinking about publics. Rethinking press freedom can be a way to see how press power flows, a prompt to ask which flows produce which publics, and a challenge: what types of news, publics, or presses are we not seeing because our vision of press freedom is so narrow?

If you think press freedom is a particular thing, you will likely look for that thing when you want to see whether a democracy is healthy or whether journalists are doing their jobs. Assumptions about press freedom can shut down conversations about the press and democracy: “We have a free press, so the election result is what it should be” or “We have a free press, and corruption is still rampant!” or “If we had a free press, then we’d have a different government” or “A free marketplace is a free press because truth comes from competing viewpoints.” Statements like these—coming from journalists, audiences, politicians, advertisers, publishers—assume that we already know what we mean by a free press and that our problem is just implementing it.

But if we can liberate the idea of press freedom from these assumptions and assumptions that equate it with whatever journalists say publics need, then press freedom becomes a generative and expansive tool—a way to think about publics, self-governance, and democracy. Because, as Edwin Baker puts it, different democracies need different media, we can complicate democracy by thinking more creatively about press freedom.

Given this moment, when media systems are in a fundamental flux, this book offers a way to think about press freedom as sociotechnical forces with separations and dependencies that help to make publics. I aim to engage with and use this moment of fundamental change to show what press freedom could mean. Contrary to the dominant historical myth in the United States, I argue that press freedom should not be seen simply as journalists’ freedom to write and publish. Rather, press freedom is a normative and institutional product of any given era: it is what people think press freedom should mean and how people have arranged people and power to achieve that vision.

Most simply, press freedom is the right and responsibility to create separations and dependencies that enable democratic self-governance. It is the power and obligation to know and defend the publics that its separations and dependences create. Today these separations and dependencies live in distributed, technological infrastructures with new actors and often invisible forces, so for the networked press to claim its autonomy, it needs to show how and why it arranges people and machines in particular ways. It needs to understand how its humans and nonhumans align or clash to create some publics but not others. It needs to be able to defend why it creates such meetings, and when necessary for a particular image of the public, it needs to develop new types of sociotechnical power that let it make new types of publics.

Rather than abandoning or collapsing the idea of press freedom—seeing it as naive or anachronistic—my aim is to revive and redeploy it. I trace the idea of press freedom through theories of democratic self-governance, situate it within the press’s institutional history, argue that each era of sociotechnical change creates a particular meaning of press freedom, and ask how the contemporary, networked press might claim its freedom and make new publics. Instead of being seen as a holdover from a time that no longer exists, press freedom could be viewed as a powerful framework for arguing why and how the networked press could change.

Interspersed with this tour of institutional forces, I try to deploy my framework and use this new notion of press freedom to argue for a particular normative value—a public right to hear. I claim that the dominant, historical, professionalized image of press freedom—as whatever journalists say they need to be free from to pursue self-evident public interest—privileges an individual right to speak over a public right to hear. It confuses journalists’ freedom to publish with publics’ rights to hear what they need to hear in order to sustain themselves as publics—to realize the inextricably shared conditions under which they live, discover and debate their similarities and differences, devise solutions to predicaments, insulate themselves from harmful forces and nurture contrarian viewpoints, recognize the resources that hold them together, and reinvent themselves through means other than the rational, informational models of citizenship that dominate the traditional mythology of U.S. press freedom. For publics to be anything other than what unconstrained journalists imagine them to be, press freedom can be defensible only if it can be shown that the press’s institutional arrangements produce expansive, dynamic, diverse publics.

In an era when many assumptions about communication and information are being reconsidered, it is difficult to say exactly what journalists can or should be free from. A better question to ask might be, “How is the networked press—journalists, software engineers, algorithms, relational databases, social media platforms, and quantified audiences—creating separations and dependencies that enable a public right to hear, make some publics more likely than others, and move beyond an image of the public as whatever journalists assume it to be?”

Three stories can help illustrate the phenomenon. First, in September 2008, high in Google News’s list of results for a search on “United Airlines” was a story in the South Florida Sun Sentinel on United’s recent bankruptcy filing. The story detailed how United had lost significant revenue, could not meet market forecasts, and needed protection from creditors and time to restructure. A Miami investment adviser responsible for publishing news alerts through Bloomberg News Service saw the story and added it to Bloomberg’s newsletter; United’s stock dropped 75 percent in one day before trading was halted. Unfortunately for United, the Sentinel’s website displayed the current date (2008) at the top of its page; it did not include the story’s original date of publication (2002). Google’s Web crawler mistook the old story for a current story, creating a perfect storm of misinformation: the Sentinel displayed dates in a confusing manner; Google’s crawler read the only date it saw and made an assumption; the investment adviser assumed that Google highly ranked recent information; Bloomberg subscribers and high-frequency traders assumed that the newsletter contained timely and actionable information; and the stock market assumed that its behavior was rational and based on true information. This is a story of networked press freedom because although the Sentinel may have tipped the first domino, the failure is the fault of no single actor. A sociotechnical failure of data, algorithms, individuals, and institutions together led to the creation of false news that drove action.

Second, in 2008, the Pocono Record published an online story about Brenda Enterline’s sexual harassment lawsuit against Pocono Medical Center. In comments left by readers under the story, several people anonymously said that they had personal knowledge of incidents relevant to the lawsuit. When Enterline’s attorneys subpoenaed the newspaper for access to the commenters, the paper refused, claiming that it had a right and obligation to protect the commenters’ First Amendment rights to anonymity. The Pennsylvania district court agreed, essentially extending a de facto shield law around the Pocono Record’s reporters and commenters. In contrast, also in September 2008, a grand jury in Illinois successfully subpoenaed the Alton Telegraph for the names, home addresses, and IP addresses of anonymous commenters who left responses to an online story the paper had run about a murder investigation. The paper argued that “the Illinois reporter’s shield law protects the identities of the anonymous commenters as ‘sources,’” but the court disagreed, saying that such a shield covers only reporters and not commenters. Such cases have continued, with an Idaho judge ruling in 2012 that the Spokesman-Review had to reveal the identity of an anonymous commenter accused of libel, and a 2014 U.S. federal court ruling that the NOLA Media Group had to reveal names, addresses, and phone numbers of its anonymous commenters. Even though the First Amendment protects Americans’ right to speak anonymously  and several states have shield laws designed to protect newspapers from releasing information against their will (Digital Media Law Project, 2013), it is unclear exactly where newspapers stop and audiences begin. The press may sometimes be free from compelled testimony, but there is little clarity on what exactly the press is and therefore who can claim its freedoms.

Finally, in 2016, Norwegian writer Tom Egeland posted to his Facebook account a story that included Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize–winning photo of Vietnamese children running away from a U.S. military napalm attack. One nine-year-old victim was a naked girl. Facebook removed the post because it contained “fully nude genitalia” and “fully nude female breast,” in violation of the company’s community standards. When Egeland appealed the removal, his account was suspended. The Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten then posted the image and a story on the censorship to its company’s Facebook site—and its post also was censored. The leader of Norway’s conservative party then posted the image and a protest against the censorship—and her post was censored. Facebook initially defended its decisions saying that although it recognized the photo’s iconic status, “it’s difficult to create a distinction between allowing a photograph of a nude child in one instance and not others.” It relented only after the Norwegian prime minister also posted the image with her own protest. Facebook eventually stated: “Because of its status as an iconic image of historical importance, the value of permitting sharing outweighs the value of protecting the community by removal, so we have decided to reinstate the image”.

This is a story of networked press freedom. A Facebook user posts an image that has been recognized with one of journalism’s highest awards. It triggers a review by Facebook’s vast content-moderation operation tasked with policing millions of pieces of media in near real time. The user is suspended for appealing the decision. The incident attracts the attention of a news organization, political elites, and worldwide audiences. Eventually, Facebook relents after deciding for itself that the image is iconic, historically important, and worthy of sharing. In this incident, the journalist’s right to publish and the public right to hear are not housed within any one organization or profession. They instead are distributed across an image with agreed-on historical significance, platform algorithms surfacing content, social media companies with proprietary community standards, vast populations of piecework censors implementing standards quickly, editorial protests of professional journalists and elite politicians, and an eventual reversal by a private corporation only after it thinks that an image should be shared. Here, press autonomy is not just the freedom of Nick Ut, Tom Egeland, or the Aftenposten to publish. It is the product of a network of humans and nonhumans that make it more or less likely that a public will encounter media and debate its meaning and significance.

There are many more such stories. This book is about putting them in context—to show how these seemingly idiosyncratic incidents are indicative of the larger challenge of figuring out what democratic self-governance requires, what kind of free press should help to secure it, and how such freedom is distributed across a network of humans and machines that together create publics. If nothing else, my hope is that readers will take away from this book both a skepticism about the idea of press freedom and a sense of its promise as a tool for interrogating the networked press. If someone says “We need a free press,” my hope is that this book will nudge you to ask, “What kind of freedom, what kind of press, and for what kind of public?” Inspired by Michael Schudson’s question “autonomy from what?,” I try to ask “autonomy of what and for what?”


My aim in this book is not to dismiss earlier theories of press freedom but to argue that they tell only part of the story. That the press is a product of multiple forces and many different kinds of power is nothing new. But if we want to understand the networked press’s potential to create new publics, we might use the idea of networked press freedom as a kind of diagnostic. If we do not like the publics the networked press creates, we should examine its infrastructure and make changes. If we do not like the networked press’s infrastructure, we need to show why it leads to unacceptable publics. If a new element of the networked press appears, we need to be able to say quickly and thoughtfully what its relationships are and how they create new publics. And if we have an idea for a new element that we think should be part of the networked press, we must be able to say why we need the new public it might help create.

Teaching on Day 1 of Trump

This post was spurred by an email from Tarleton Gillespie and Hector Postigo to contribute to a collected series that appeared on Culture Digitally today. The focus of that series is for scholars to “think hard about our own work and research agendas, and how they should shift to face new political realities.”

I didn’t have a chance to contribute to this collection yesterday because I was trying to figure out how to prepare a lecture on the networked press to a class of undergraduates I’d never met before.  Months ago, I agreed to give a guest lecture in Henry Jenkins’s Communication & Technology class and it never occurred to me that November 9th would be such an ominous day.

I hadn’t slept the previous night as I tried to quell a dizzying headache and nausea, thinking about what I could possibly say to students about how a field I’m supposedly an expert in got everything so wrong.  I spent the morning avoiding news coverage, deeply angry at an institution I’m supposed to be invested in.  Instead, I played with different lecture openings, looked at old slides, arranged and rearranged arguments I’ve made countless times before. I thought that I’d just rely on a PowerPoint deck I knew well, get through the 90 minutes, and return to my fog.

Time eventually ran out, I bundled up my preparation as it was, and made my way to campus.

I walked into the room still unclear about what I’d say.  I didn’t know these students (I was the guest lecturer) and, after seeing several “Make America Great Again” t-shirts on campus the previous day, I wasn’t sure what they’d be feeling.  I mentally prepared myself for everything from tears (theirs and mine) to being drawn into an encounter with celebrating Trump supporters.

I began class. I asked them to put away their laptops and had the lingerers in the back come up to fill out the front row seats.

I started honestly: I told them that I didn’t really know how to begin, that I’d never led a class like this on a day like this, and that I wasn’t even sure this was where I wanted to be right now.  Their smiles, nods, and knowing glances at each other put me at ease.

I asked them why they studied Communication.  I told them why I did.  I told them that our jobs as Communication scholars was to figure out why people act together, build meaning, and share consequences.  And I told them that there was never a more important time for us to be world-class at what we did.  I told them that we can’t make the mistake fish make: they don’t know what water is because they’re always swimming in it.  We can’t not think critically about media because it’s all around us and we think we have little power to shape it.

I asked them to take out a piece of paper and free-form write for 7 minutes on two questions: what do you want from online news? And what do we need from online news?  They wrote and I stared out the window.

When the time was up we talked about similarities among their individual desires, where they thought those desires came from, how hard it was to define a “we”, and whose responsibility it was to differentiate a want from a need.  All of their comments were peppered with stories from the previous night: how confused they were about what was happening, how unexpected everything was, how disconnected they’d felt from pro-Trump parts of the country.  It was exhausting, they said, to have to individually create media worlds that challenged what their instincts made them want.  They didn’t know what a public might need from the news.  They assumed that the news media knew.  And they talked about “objectivity” and “balance” and “neutrality” in all the ways students usually do when they first start thinking about journalism.

I then went old-school.  We talked about James Carey’s transmission versus ritual models of communication. I channeled my advisor Ted Glasser to argue that the press exists in traditions not nature (news is never found, it is always made).  We looked at the history of the AP Style Guide to see the contingency of language: e.g., how it took the New York Times a long time to call women anything other than “Miss” or “Mrs.” (“why were woman ever defined by their marital status?” one female student said) and why the Times called gay men “longtime companions” instead of lovers or partners in AIDS plague obituaries.  We talked about the difference between writing “illegal” versus “undocumented” immigrant.  We talked about why the AP captioned an image a young person of colour wading through chest-high water carrying food as a “looter” versus why the Agence-France Presse said two white people in a similar photo were “finding” bread.  We talked about gender, and orientation, and race and I claimed victory when one student said “it seems like objectivity is just a construct.” Yes, yes, yes.

We then looked at Pew stats on social media and the news.  We looked at data, asked questions about where it came from and what it meant, and tried to write headlines for stories that might be written about the findings.  One student said she was “angry” at her Facebook algorithm for keeping from her news about the rest of the country; she’d assumed that her feed of Hillary supporters was similar to everyone else’s.  She didn’t understand why a friend in Georgia texted her to say she was nervous about Trump winning because Hillary’s impending win was “all over social media”.

One student asked when news organizations began endorsing candidates and whether such endorsements mean anything anymore.  We looked at Pew’s stats about how Republicans, Democrats, and Independents use social media differently, questioned their significance, and started asking questions about the people who weren’t showing up in social media statistics.  For me, the best conversation came just as class was about to end.  I asked “if many people are getting their news from social media, why don’t platforms endorse candidates?” and one student replied “because they think they’re being neutral and objective, just like the press thought it was.”

I know there are ongoing debates about the empirical bases for filter bubbles and how it’s incredibly hard—and dangerous—to track media circulation using media effects methodologies.  That wasn’t the point of our discussion.  It was to be fish who noticed and thought about the water.  It was to ask new and uncomfortable questions about platforms and news.  It was to demand different kinds of data.  It was to challenge the wisdom and sincerity of tech leaders who say they’re running technology companies, not media companies.  It was to refuse to accept that media systems are only the responsibility of individuals tasked with figuring out the differences between what individuals want and publics need.  It was to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past: eras not when “we” thought it was okay to run sexist, homophobic, racist media systems but when those with the power to make such systems thought such failures were acceptable artifacts of chasing the myth of objectivity.

I’ll be honest that teaching hasn’t always been the favourite part of my job. I do it, I’m not terrible at it, I sometimes admire and learn from some of my students, and every now and then I get a high from a class well taught or a student who “gets it” and helps us both see the world differently.  But yesterday’s class reminded me of what it sometimes felt like to go to church.  Teaching felt like a form of communion: a way not only to transmit information but critically, reflectively, constructively figure out what it means to live together.  This is the spirit of the media systems we need now more than ever, that I’m re-energized to help build through teaching and scholarship.

Doubting the Impossible: Mike Daisey, the Pragmatists, and Networked Ways of Knowing

Mike Daisey lied to us – but how much you think he lied depends on how you think about ‘truth’.

Some background: in his one-man show ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,’ and a highly popular This American Life episode, Daisey tells several stories about how Apple manufactures products in China.  He presents stories—powerful in their details and emotional resonance—not just as examples but exemplars.  That is, they aren’t meant to be seen as isolated incidents with limited scope.  In his show and on This American Life, he presents them as rich and rigorous accounts that are typical of wide-spread practices and systemic problems for Apple and other Western manufacturers.  The problem is, as This American Life painstakingly detailed in its hour-long retraction this weekend, much of Daisey’s story wasn’t true.

He fabricated sources, exaggerated the number of people he talked to, invented conversations with his translator, presented his own age-estimates as well-sourced truths.  He seems to have intentionally used This American Life and its genre of communication—long-form journalism that works to verify its sources and claims—to underpin a different kind of communication: theatrical storytelling meant to evoke emotional connections to states of the world the storyteller believes to be true.

Reactions [e.g., 1, 2, 3] to Daisey’s fabrications have been varied.  Some say he’s simply from a different tradition and is being judged unfairly.  He’s a storyteller who personally believed something to be true, took too much license in his retellings, and erred in lying to This American Life.  Essentially, he’s a storyteller who strayed too far from his craft and mislabeled his work.  He’s a less skilled, modern day version of Upton Sinclair who didn’t carefully enough distinguish his love of his subject from his responsibilities when doing genre-bending work.  He’s still saying something that’s essentially true (backed up by NYT reports) and we shouldn’t let his personal failings distract us from the larger goal of labour reform.  In one respect he failed because he lied; but in another sense he succeeded because his lies resonated enough to draw attention to a situation we feel to be true.

Others say that labour reform must be a fact-based endeavour that aims to affect policy.  Thus, storytellers who work in this space (performers and journalists alike) cannot ever play fast and loose with the truth or walk fine lines between genres.  Reform will come only from rigorously researched facts that can cause companies to change their behaviour.  It matters a great deal that Daisey strayed from the theatre and into the press: the theatre is where emotions might resonate, but the press is where facts can convince.  Daisey’s failings make it easier for manufacturers to earn a pass on labour compliance because he’s shown that advocates let their love of storytelling overtake their interest in reform.

There’s a lot here to untangle, but what I want to focus on is this knotty question of “truth”.  This is a huge simplification, but pragmatist philosophers (people like John Dewey, Charles Peirce, William James) essentially believed that truth—social truths, not stuff like 2+2=4—cannot live in the head of any one individual or system of knowledge.  Essentially, the very idea of truth (what people understand to be a fact) is tightly linked to epistemology (how people come to know).  Truth is what we find it impossible not to believe.  It’s what our minds, hearts, friends, families, classes, races, ethics, ideologies, histories, and imagined futures demand that must believe, if we are to be functioning people in society.  Truth is what makes us act, makes us do things in the world to achieve change.  Truth isn’t a mirror of reality, it’s what we can’t doubt.

The pragmatists help us see three levels of truth in the whole Daisey debacle.  The first—a mundane kind of level—is about the details of Daisey’s narrative.  Did he talk to 3 people or 10 people?  Did he talk with someone who had used n-hexane or not?  Was the girl he talked to 12- or 13-years old?  These details matter for sure.  The second type is focused on what different genres have to say about truth.  Is a theatre story that makes us feel something “true” because the emotions are real, regardless of their origin?  Is a journalistic story “true” because we trust news organizations to follow fact-checking conventions that we might not understand first-hand, but that tradition, professional scrutiny and investigative reporting outcomes have convinced us are the gold standard of fact-based public storytelling?  Do we trust Daisey more or less to influence our beliefs if we know which genres and traditions he’s using?

The third type of truth, though, is where pragmatists are the most helpful and where internet-based learning is trickiest: what do we want to do because of the story?  What is it about the mix of emotion, evidence, argument, and narrative compels us to action – to believe something or do something?  What  do we want to be true?  What do our social worlds make it hard for us to doubt?  What makes us act because of—or in spite of—the story?  Would we let ourselves believe that Daisey is telling us about a problem that does or doesn’t exist?

This whole incident is definitely about journalism, storytelling, labour practices, and fact-checking.  But it’s also about how belief, trust, and doubt intersect to make us make things true for ourselves.  On the internet there are countless sources, genres, stories, traditions, networks, and appeals to authority.  The case of Mike Daisey, Apple, and This American Life isn’t about the internet per se; but it does serve as an examplar for thinking about contemporary truth-making.

The Daisey incident can help us understand why we believe and why we act.  (It means, for example, being able to distinguish between the three kinds of truth-making described above the next time an incident like this happens.)  Such beliefs and actions are at the heart of internet-based ways of knowing and the accompanying shifts away from traditional sources of power and truth-making.  Being a good pragmatist means always being open to questioning not only what you believe but how you believe.  It not only means knowing how to work across multiple epistemologies (when to use journalism and when to rely on theatre, when to tell stories and when to use statistics, when to use an example as an exemplar) but understanding the impact that different ways of knowing can have on your openness to believing later what you might doubt now.

(The pragmatist philosophers probably didn’t anticipate being so relevant today, but they’d surely have been open to considering the possibility.)

Putting aside for a moment questions of labour reform, Daisey’s lies, journalistic traditions, and genres of storytelling: what is it that’s impossible for you to doubt in this story?  Where does this impossibility come from?  What needs to change for you to doubt a little more – and thus be a different kind of certain?

Accepting Inefficiencies and Different Scales of Change in Networked Environments

I didn’t know him personally, but I was saddened to read about Ilya Zhitomirskiy’s recent suicide.  I have no personal insight into his situation, the sources of his stress, or what brought him to take his life.  It’s tragic, full stop.

As I was reading Gawker’s story on his death, I was struck by its implicit message that some of Zhitomirskiy’s stress may have derived, in part, from his desire to “change the world.”  As Gawker says, “Did the pressure of running a struggling, much-hyped start-up—not just any start-up, but a Facebook killer—contribute to Zhitomirskiy’s death?”  He and his Diaspora co-founders set themselves the monumental task of competing with Facebook – crafting a brand new social network that challenged one of the internet’s most powerful laws — a difficult, but noble goal.

It’s the scale of this goal that stands out to me, that I want to think through here.

I often explicitly hear from tech entrepreneurs—or even just those who use platforms like Kiva and Kickstarter—that they have an explicit desire to “change the world” through their work.  Why does this seem, to me at least, to be such a dominant scale for change embedded in the projects of internet-based entrepreneurs?  Is it something about the network itself, the people drawn to the network, the rhetoric around online social movements?  Especially at a time when #Occupy protesters are calling for wide-spread societal change, it might seem disingenuous to question the very idea of world-changing work.  This is not my intention.  The world does constantly need to be rethought and reinvented.

This potential is enticing and I have deep sympathy with the promise of networked social action led by articulate, impassioned, talented individuals like Zhitomirskiy.  Who wouldn’t want to have their vision of how they think the world should be adopted by millions of people?  Who wouldn’t want to live their life motivated by a passion to make social change at a scale the internet makes possible?

My concern is about people’s need to be seen and judged publicly in order to do this kind of work, and the absence of understanding what kind of pressures such motivations, predicaments, and cultivated visibility might create.  Most people are not accustomed to making themselves seen and vulnerable in pursuit of large-scale change, embodying the responsibility for achieving that change, and judging and being judged on their ability to lead large numbers of people organized into fuzzy and dynamic networks.

Translating the ideal of large-scale networked social change into a personal goal can be exciting and motivating, but it can also be an ever-present source of self-initiated, socially constructed pressure.

We are at a tricky moment in history where networks and near-constant connectedness make visible fundamental mismatches between the scale of our experience, the scale of our imagined impact, and the scale of our actual agency.  We are victims of complex, distributed systems that are beyond our individual capacities to appreciate or control (the international banking system, environmental change).  And some of us are privileged enough to have time to ponder these systems and share our visions of how we think things should be with those we would likely never have met even 5 years ago.  But all of us are also stuck figuring out how to be the middle space between systems beyond our control and agency that’s seemingly within our grasp.  We’re being forced to figure out, simultaneously, our personal stories and our network stories – without much appreciation for how much emotional work this entails and what kind of support we need to imagine and realize potentials.

It’s often hard to know what to do with such imagined potential.  And it’s even harder to see the shape of the technical, social, economic, cultural, and political systems we inhabit — to understand them well enough to know what’s possible, what we might change at any given moment, what it’s worth investing our bodies and souls.  It’s a new kind of skill to know not just how to use networked media to create social change, but to understand, find peace with, work within, and subtly change the potentials and limits of your network, and to know the merits of working at different scales of change.

Essentially, I think we don’t understand yet the very idea of networked scales of change, how to live in relation to them — and when to shift among scales in ways that take care with our psyches.

I’m not criticizing digital, networked mediated relationships, saying that we should retreat from online networks or reifying physical, face-to-face interactions.  Much excellent work exists on how complex these shifts and distinctions are.  Nor am I talking about the potential cognitive limits on social relationships, or the need to craft new kinds of social science for making sense of big data.  This isn’t a problem of information overload or filter failure, nor is it only a critique of the idea of perfect memory.  This is about negotiating our individual emotional relationships to the lived realities and imagined potentials of big data, fast rhythms, network efficiency, and algorithmic automaticity.

I’m envisioning something more akin to a spiritual understanding of networked scales, knowing how and when to: navigate ourselves among scales, appreciate the value of different impacts at different moments, craft emotional relationships to networked potential that go beyond today’s instincts to confuse measurement with interpretation, efficiency with success, network position with personal satisfaction.

Optimizing your relationship to a search engine, building your list of Twitter followers and keeping them engaged, garnering more YouTube views, managing your Facebook threads and friend lists in a timely fashion, and imagining a future income from all this – these are exciting moves that let us experience and affect change at new and different scales.  But, un-examined, they also look like sources of self-initiated, socially constructed stress that lead to less healthy lives than we might otherwise find in our networks.

At the risk of seeming like I’m simply a curmudgeon complaining about the narcotizing dysfunction of networked media, I think that we need to have new conversations about what these scales and speeds mean to us as humans trying to live within and change a world that has gotten very large, very fast.

I used to volunteer regularly with a peer counseling hotline.  For someone who’s been embedded in cultures of technology and designing for years, it always struck me as an incredibly inefficient service.  We’d wait by the phones for people to call.  If no volunteer was available when someone called, they’d get a message asking them to wait or try again later.  You never knew if a call would take 5 minutes or an hour.  Sometimes we’d get prank phone calls that would tie up staff and prevent people with genuine calls from getting through.  Sometimes the volunteers would joke that if only we could use the downtime to make outgoing peer counseling calls (“Hi, someone said you might need to talk about something?”), our time would be used more efficiently.

I was deeply frustrated by some of the hotline’s inefficiencies (especially those that prevented people from getting help) but, over time, I grew to appreciate other aspects of the hotline’s sporadic pacing.  Specifically, it often takes time for people to open up.  Some details of people’s stories seemed trivial and needlessly time-consuming, but people seemed to interpret my patience with them as evidence that I was willing to wade through the mundane as we searched together for the meaningful.  The calls took time, they had to happen one-on-one, and my tolerance of inefficiency built a particular kind of trust.  Improvements to the system can always be made, but the counseling experience only seemed to “work” at a specific scale and rhythm that was inefficient but somehow human.

Essentially, internet life lets us see and imagine new scales of experience but, unlike previous mass media, it leaves open a question of agency – how can individuality persist and thrive in increasingly social and connected environments?  How can we and should we imagine, realize and be okay with our individual locations within networks?  What are the limits on this agency?  When are these limits inefficiencies whose scale should be embraced, and when are they constraints whose powers should be resisted?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but my hope is that we can make room for many different scales of existence.  I hope that we can know that it’s okay to be silent, to fail, to wait, to listen, to slow down, to be alone, to enjoy success that isn’t rendered in networks or visible millions — to be patient with your mind and heart as we figure out our networks together.