Two Bens and a Mark: a talk at Ben Franklin Hall in Philadelphia

I’m speaking today in Ben Franklin Hall in Philadelphia for a conference of Media Impact Funders. And, at the request of the organizers, I’m cosplaying the great hustler himself. My talk builds on one I gave a couple of years ago at Data & Society, but veers in some different directions as I wonder what Franklin might have told an audience of folks with money and good intentions about how to fix some of the problems of our contemporary media environment.

The event is being livestreamed here, if you’d like to tune in.


This is a talk about two Benjamins and a Mark. The first one should be obvious to you. I’m a Franklin fan, and not only because people have observed a resemblance. (Personally, I don’t see it, but whatever.)

Actually, if you’re going to have a favorite founding father, Ben Franklin is not a bad choice. He wasn’t just an inventor, a scientist, a printer and a diplomat — he was a hustler. Ben was a businessman, an entrepreneur, and he figured out that one of the best ways to have financial and political power in the Colonies was to control the means of communication. The job he held the longest was as postmaster, starting as postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737 and finally getting fired from his position as postmaster general of the Colonies in 1774, when the British finally figured out that he was a revolutionary who could not be trusted.

(You’d think this might have tipped them off — because Ben had franking privileges he could send letters for free by writing Free — B. Franklin, as he did on this note to John Hancock. But more often, he wrote B. Free Franklin, a coded message to show his support for independence.)

But free and subversive letters weren’t the only privileges Ben got from the post office. He had ample opportunities to hand out patronage jobs to his friends. But his real genius was in seeing the synergies between the family business — printing — and the post. Early in his career as a printer, Franklin bumped into one of the major challenges to publishers in the Colonies — if the postmaster didn’t like what you were writing about, you didn’t get to send your paper out to your subscribers. Once Ben had control over the post, he instituted a policy that was both progressive and profitable. Any publisher could distribute his newspaper via the post for a small, predictable, fixed fee.

What resulted from this policy was the emergence of a public sphere in the United States that was very different from the one Habermas describes, born in the coffee houses of the european bourgeoise. It was a distributed public sphere of newspapers and letters, one that was uniquely well suited to the American experiment. For a nation that spanned the distance between Boston and Charleston, a virtual, asynchronous public sphere mediated by print made more sense that one that centered around meeting face to face.

Franklin died in 1790, but physician and revolutionary — and fellow Philadelphian — Benjamin Rush expanded on Franklin’s vision for a post office that would knit the nation together and provide a space for the political discussions necessary for a nation of self-governing citizens to rule themselves. In 1792, Rush authored The Post Office Act, which is one of the subtlest and most surprising pieces of 18th century legislation that you’ve never heard of.

The Post Office Act established the right of the government to control postal routes and gave citizens rights to privacy of their mail — which was deeply undermined by the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, but hey, who’s counting. But what may be most important about the Post Office Act is that it set up a very powerful cross subsidy. Rather than charging based on weight and distance, as they had before Franklin’s reforms, the US postal system offered tiered service based on the purpose of the speech being exchanged. Exchanging private letters was very costly, while sending newspapers was shockingly cheap: it cost a small fraction of the cost of a private letter to send a newspaper. As a result, newspapers represented 95% of the weight of the mails and 15% of the revenue in 1832. This pricing disparity led to the wonderful phenomenon of cheapskates purchasing newspapers, underlining or pricking holes with a pin under selected words and sending encoded letters home for the price of a paper rather than a letter.

The low cost of mailing newspapers as well as the absence of stamp taxes or caution money, which made it incredibly prohibitively expensive to operate a press in England, allowed half of all American households to have a newspaper subscription in 1820, a rate that was orders of magnitude higher than in England or France. But the really crazy subsidy was the “exchange copy”. Newspapers could send copies to each other for free, with carriage costs paid by the post office. By 1840, The average newspaper received 4300 exchange copies a year — they were swimming in content, and thanks to extremely loose enforcement of copyright laws, a huge percentage of what appeared in the average newspaper was cut and pasted from other newspapers. This giant exchange of content was subsidized by high rates on those who used the posts for personal and commercial purposes.

This system worked really well, creating a postal service that was fiscally sustainable, and which aspired to universal service. By 1831, three quarters of US government civilian jobs were with the postal service. In an almost literal sense, the early US state was a postal service with a small representative government and a tiny military attached to it. But the postal system was huge because it needed to be — there were 8700 post offices by 1830, including over 400 in my home state of Massachusetts alone, which is saying something, as there are only 351 towns in Massachusetts.

I should note here that I don’t really know anything about early American history — I’m cribbing all of this from Paul Starr’s brilliant The Creation of the Media. I also recommend Winnifred Gallagher’s How the Post Office Created America, which continues to modern day and looks at how the post office advances technologies like aviation and, indeed, the internet.

But I teach these stories about the 18th century every year to my students because it helps explain the unique evolution of the public sphere in the US. Our founders built and regulated the postal system in such a way that its function as a sphere of public discourse was primary and its role as a tool for commerce and personal communication was secondary. They took on this massive undertaking explicitly because they believed that to have a self-governing nation, we needed not only representation in Congress, but a public sphere, a space for conversation about what the nation would and could be. And because the US was vast, and because the goal was to expand civic participation far beyond the urban bourgeois, it needed to be a distributed, participatory public sphere. To be clear, this was far than a universal public sphere — the founders saw this as a space for propertied white men — but the infrastructures of post and mail created powerful tools for abolitionists, for newspapers that helped free black men connect across vast distances, that helped carry the case for women’s suffrage.

As we look at the challenge we face today — understanding the influence of algorithms over the public sphere — it’s worth understanding what’s truly novel, and what’s actually got a deep historical basis. The notion of a private, commercial public sphere isn’t a new one. America’s early newspapers had an important civic function, but they were also loaded with advertising — 50–90% of the total content, in the late 18th century, which is why so many of them were called The Advertiser. What is new is our distaste for regulating commercial media. Whether through the subsidies I just described or through explicit mandates like the Fairness Doctrine, we’ve not historically been shy in insisting that the press take on civic functions. The anti-regulatory, corporate libertarian stance, built on the questionable assumptions that any press regulation is a violation of the first amendment and that any regulation of tech-centric industries will retard innovation, would likely have been surprising to our founders.

An increase in inclusivity of the public sphere isn’t new — in England, the press was open only to the wealthy and well-connected, while the situation was radically different in the colonies. And this explosion of media led to problems of information overload. Which means that gatekeeping isn’t new either — those newspapers that sorted through 4300 exchange copies a year to select and reprint content were engaged in curation and gatekeeping. Newspapers sought to give readers what an editor thought they wanted, much as social media algorithms promise to help us cope with the information explosion we face from our friends streams of baby photos. The processes editors have used to filter information were never transparent, hence the enthusiasm of the early 2000s for unfiltered media. What may be new is the pervasiveness of the gatekeeping that algorithms make possible, the invisibility of that filtering and the difficulty of choosing which filters you want shaping your conversation.

Ideological isolation isn’t new either. The press of the 1800s was fiercely opinionated and extremely partisan. In many ways, the Federalist and Republican parties emerged from networks of newspapers that shared ideologically consonant information — rather than a party press, the parties actually emerged from the press. But again, what’s novel now is the lack of transparency — when you read the New York Evening Post in 1801, you knew that Alexander Hamilton had founded it, and you knew it was a Federalist paper. Research by Christian Sandvig and Karrie Karahalios suggests that many users of Facebook don’t know that their friend feed is algorithmically curated, and don’t realize the way it may be shaped by the political leanings of their closest friends.

And finally, fake news certainly wasn’t new. It certainly wasn’t new to Ben Franklin — in fact, fake news reached an early peak in the run up to the English civil war in the 1650s, a half century before Franklin’s birth. You remember, of course, that the English civil war broke out when Charles I married a Catholic, decided to rule without convening parliament, which basically tried to starve him out by denying him money to fight a war with Scotland, leading Charles to arrest five members of the House of Commons and the country to split into warring factions of royalists and parliamentarians, with led to a series of civil wars which the parliamentarians eventually won, executing Charles on 1649 and leading to Oliver Cromwell’s ascent as Lord Protector of the Realm and eventually to the restoration of the monarchy in 1661 by Charles’s son, Charles II. You know all that, of course.

What you may not know is that one of the causes of the civil wars was that Charles, broke and profoundly focused on his own survival, basically could no longer control the press. 1642 — the year the war broke out — “More printed material was published in the year 1642 than in the entire preceding 165 years since William Caxton set up the first London printing press in 1476.” What resulted was a fury of “obnoxious and unlicensed” publications which included satire, complaint literature, lots of radical religious texts. But perhaps the most important publications were “newsbooks”, irregular proto-newspapers, whose content was essentially user-generated, poorly sourced, highly partisan and often shockingly inaccurate. You had two rival orbits of newsbooks, with the parliamentarians in London and the Royalists in Oxford. You had reports of military defeats, reports that the king was dead, all of which were more or less impossible to verify in an age of slow travel on bad roads, long before the telegraph. And you had conspiracy theory — especially anti-Catholic conspiracies — ruling the day. Catholics, of course, were a small minority and an easy target for racial and ethnic hatred, convenient scapegoats for all that was wrong with the kingdom.

Basically, fake news was a significant cause of the English civil war. That’s the bad news. The good news is that England found some ways to recover from the avalanche of fake news. Some are methods we probably wouldn’t endorse — there’s amazing stories of pamphleteers being pilloried and having their ears removed — and the biggest factor in combatting fake news was probably the Great Fire of 1661… which would be like solving Facebook with a California earthquake. But there was also the establishment of the Royal Society.

Michael Hunter’s “Establishing the New Science”, makes the case that the Society was established in part to heal the country, to create a body of knowledge that wasn’t designed to promote either the royalists or the parliamentarians. Writing about the Royal Society, Stephen Marche points out that their motto was — and still is — “Nullius in verba” — take no man’s word for it. Marche suggests that we inscribe this motto on all the world’s cellphones.

When I think of a Royal Society for our age, I don’t think of a central body that checks our facts and tells us what’s true and what’s not — that’s absolutely not what the Royal Society was. Instead, it was a group of thinkers who through experimentation and careful study sought to understand the world how it actually was. This is awfully self serving, but when I look for parallels today, I look towards academics who are trying to build the tools and conduct the studies so that it’s not only the researchers inside Facebook and Twitter who understand these companies and can help hold them responsible.

I mentioned that this talk was about two Bens — Franklin and Rush — and a Mark. Much as we understand the decisions made in the founding of our democracy in terms of archetypical figures — Washington the noble warrior, Franklin the hacker entrepreneur — we think of our contemporary moment through similar personifications. Mark Zuckerberg is the techno-utopian geek we don’t quite trust. He’s very smart, and seems to truly believe that what he’s doing will make the world a better place, but he’s either shockingly naive or profoundly deceptive, because nothing else explains how many times he’s screwed up and how surprised he seems to be every single time something utterly predictable goes wrong.

I feel like the Bens have a lesson or two for Mark. Franklin was an entrepreneur, an inventor. a technical genius and a hustler, much like Mark. He was also a civic visionary, founder of libraries and volunteer fire companies, much as Mark seems to see himself becoming. Franklin ran many successful businesses, including those based around his inventions, but he also published widely, and his work was subject to vigorous public debate in Paris and London. Indeed, while Franklin was made one of the very few non-English members of the Royal Society, his work on lightning rods was the subject of a great deal of controversy, which Franklin followed closely. (As it turns out, he was wrong — pointy lightning rods, which he favored, don’t work as well as blunt ones. But it took over 200 years to figure that out.)

I’d like to see Mark — and the other tech pioneers he’s representing in this talk — do a better job of engaging with their critics, with civil society, with academia, with everyone who sincerely wants them to succeed in making the world a better place and worries they are badly off the mark. I’d like to see Mark learn from Parlio, a brilliant experiment from Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim, a social network build around rules that encourage polite, respectful and serious debate. Or from Mastodon, a decentralized social network that allows different nodes with different rulesets. Or even from Gobo, a project from my lab that lets users control aspects of their newsfeeds — how serious or funny it is, how diverse the political viewpoints are, whether you’d like all the men to shut up and let the women talk for a change.

But I also would like to see us learn from Benjamin Rush, who really brought to fruition Franklin’s vision of the public sphere of print, using the superpower of bureaucracy, regulation and government subsidy to build a public sphere that allowed the peculiar genius of American democracy to evolve. It’s not always enough for a single genius to envision the world — sometimes we need pressure from governments, from activists, from civil society to demand that we live up to aspirations of our tools. Sometimes the free market needs a hand from regulators who have a vision of how they want the world to be, a way that’s more consonant with our vision of how democracy works. With projects like Gobo, I’ve argued that we need many social networks, not just one, and that they can have different rulesets, different audiences and different purposes. I’d love for at least one of those networks to focus on helping us prepare to be citizens in a diverse and complicated world. That network probably needs public support, much as children’s television needs public support if we want it to work well.

So I leave you with a Franklin aphorism: “Well done is better than well said.” It’s well and good for folks like you and me to speculate about what social media is doing well and doing poorly. What we need is vastly more doing, more experiments, more attempts to build the worlds we want to see. I’m glad you’re hearing next from Eli Pariser, a friend who’s both a thinker and an experimenter. And I hope he and I can challenge you to make sure we move from saying to doing, from watching to experimenting, from worrying to making the world better. Thanks for listening.


Originally published at … My heart’s in Accra.