Closing the doors

As the Internet industry matures, will the new gatekeepers close the doors on new online social movements before they arise?

This piece is part of my series about how we can move toward humane tech.

I found Ev Williams’ argument about evolving startup economics compelling and convincing. We’ve seen countless industries mature into markets where a few huge incumbents dominate and leave only a little room around the edges for new players. The gatekeepers get control after an initial decade of Wild West innovation starts to wane.

But what leaves me more concerned about the maturation of the Internet industry is the implications for social and political access. If the era of the large-scale independent internet startup is coming to an end, what happens to opportunities for social advancement or social justice that relied on the same fragile cultural underpinnings?

Or, put another way: Will #BlackLivesMatter be the last social movement that’s allowed to arise using social media?

Looking at current technology platforms and social networks, it’s clear that the way we build networks raises the threat of exacerbating social inequities. But despite that danger, we’ve seen communities around the world tapping into social media and social networks to either kickstart or amplify grassroots movements ranging from various Arab Spring demonstrations to #BlackLivesMatter. In many cases, these networked forms of activism have arisen in direct opposition to narratives advanced by traditional media or prevailing political powers.

But if incumbent corporate powers are able to pose a threat to even well-funded and innovative startups, then the danger of institutional capture of nascent social movements is even higher. It doesn’t have to take the form of some deliberate, heavy-handed censorship of a movement, when more well-intentioned, ostensibly neutral choices can be enough to keep a social network from amplifying meaningful activist movements.

How we keep the door open

One of the most pressing goals for any of us who care about the future of tech must be making sure internet technologies and social media are useful and supportive of social movements from marginalized groups. So what meaningful steps could we take to protect this potential?

  • If you work in tech, build for the most vulnerable first. Many contemporary design practices make use of personas to represent various types of users, but they don’t always explicitly include people or communities that are marginalized or excluded by dominant institutions. Simply by stating this requirement out loud, teams creating products and services can begin to raise each others’ expectations for inclusion.
  • Push for legislative and regulatory oversight of the platforms that are most critical. There’s been an effective and broad-based push for some initiatives like net neutrality, where industry and activists alike have come together to protect free expression and unfettered communication. Even tech leaders who have often been skeptical of (or deeply hostile toward) regulation have seen the benefits of good, responsive government in addressing these social needs. There’s no reason this positive pattern can’t repeat, especially if we plan ahead rather than try to react after the fact to regulatory threats..
  • Educate participants in major social movements about the regulatory regimes that helped enable their efforts. We can’t expect people doing the actual work of activism to be literate in arcane technological concerns. But if those of us who care about these issues can package and present policy priorities in a simple, comprehensible set of messages, we can help them help themselves. And doing so can be a valuable forcing function for people working on social responsibility in tech to make their priorities more coherent and understandable.
  • Invest in briefing legislators and elected officials. There are a surprisingly large number of policy makers who care about enabling social movements, typically due to one of their own connection to one or more grassroots organizations. But even when they do care, almost no regulators or legislators have any real familiarity with policy for network access, and these shortcomings are even more egregious at the state and local levels. Explaining to politicians that they have an opportunity to protect free expression, enable grassroots movements, support Internet entrepreneurship, and be seen as an innovative legislator should be a pretty persuasive argument.
  • Reinforce the importance of Internet activism to media. Due to characteristic journalistic skepticism and frequent instiutional distrust of social media at conventional media companies, it’s common to see major media dismiss the use of online platforms by social movements as “slacktivism”. Yet the leaders of nearly every major grassroots movement across the political spectrum identify social networking and social media as a fundamental enabler of their efforts. A consistent, concerted effort to reinforce the centrality and importance of tech platforms in helping to drive meaningful social change can catalyze media to act as a watchdog protecting this vital function.

Making a movement

There’s nothing wrong with using the Internet to goof off or just to talk to friends and family. But we’ve been given tools that, at least for the current brief moment in history, are able to help effect real social change. That possibility won’t remain true forever.

Today’s technology networks have helped some of the most vulnerable or marginalized people in the world to advocate for themselves and for justice. In some ways, it’s the most meaningful and important results of the current wave of tech innovation. Those of us who have the power to do so need to work diligently to ensure that tech is still enabling these movements even after the euphoria of the current startup moment passes.

I’m the cofounder of Makerbase, a community for people who make apps and websites. Join us! (Thanks to opensourceway for the image.)