If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. It’s a basic truth about the Internet we all forget. Facebook doesn’t exist to help you reconnect with friends from high school. It exists so you can “like” McDonald’s instead of Burger King, so your spending habits can be profiled for market research. The ultra-left, “social justice warrior” community on Twitter may often feel a sense of power by blocking, shaming, and “dragging” people they don’t like. But in the end — after Twitter introduces an algorithmic time line and makes it mandatory — the joke will be on them. They’ll realize at long last that all along they’ve been guinea pigs for a giant corporation.
The Daily Kos, a Democratic Party affiliated content portal founded in 2002, doesn’t quite have the same reach as Twitter or Facebook, but its numbers are astonishing. In 2016, it was ranked by Alexa as the 272nd biggest website in the United States. In July of 2014, it received 37,090,980 page views per month. It’s all the more remarkable an achievement when you realize how the site employs only 5 or 6 full-time writers, fewer than a small-town newspaper in the Midwest. The vast majority of its content consists of diaries posted free of charge by users hoping to tap into the site’s vast readership for a large variety of liberal causes.
As of March 15, those liberal causes will no longer include the campaign of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. While publisher Markos Moulitsas has not explicitly banned diaries supporting Sanders – the explicit ban only applies to third party candidates like Jill Stein – he done worse. He has banned words. No longer will Daily Kos users be able to call Hillary Clinton a “war monger” or refer to the United States as an “oligarchy,” a word invented by Aristotle to mean “government by the rich.” Moulitsas has, in effect, instituted a requirement that Sanders supporters use only neutered, corporate friendly language, a rule that makes a left-populist campaign all but impossible.
Mr. Jefferson, while we have no trouble with a little revolution against the British Empire now and then, why must you refer to your sovereign as a “tyrant?” It’s an inflammatory word that will make it much more difficult to win over moderates in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, people you need if you want your little “Declaration” to go down in history as anything more than a scrap of paper. Mr. Marx, while we appreciate the trenchant analysis of capitalism in your pamphlet The Communist Manifesto, we have a problem with the last line. “Workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.” Don’t you think the use of the word “chains” to apply to white proletarians in Western Europe is a form of “erasure” that discounts the experience of black slaves in North America? Mr. Lenin, while the far-left annoys us as much as it annoys annoys anybody else, referring to your political opponents as people suffering from “an infantile disorder” is “abelist” and will not be tolerated. Going forward, let’s all try to be more constructive and less dismissive of people suffering from mental illness.
Liberal Democratic blogs and content portals took off in 2002 and 2003 in the aftermath, not only of the stolen election of 2000, but also of the dotcom crash. Back in the late 1990s, the biggest political website on the Internet was The Drudge Report, a far-right-wing news aggregator that played an important role in the impeachment of President Clinton. In 2001 and 2002, neoconservatives like Andrew Sullivan and Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs pushed hard for George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq. When liberal Democratic sites like The Daily Kos and Media Matters came along, they felt like breath of fresh air, an opportunity for the left to hit back against the people who impeached Clinton, stole the election from Al Gore, and used the traumatic events of 9/11 to stampede the American people into Iraq.
There was only one little problem. Websites like the Daily Kos and Media Matters were not invented to empower the left, but to act as “left gatekeepers,” to channel the anger people felt at George W. Bush safely into corporate wing of Democratic Party. Even during the darkest days of the Bush years, many people noticed. They pointed out, for example, that on the Daily Kos you could write all the diaries you wanted about the invasion of Iraq, but you had better refer to it as a “mistake” and not a “war crime.” Criticism of Israel wasn’t explicitly banned, but it was allowed only after you jumped through enough hoops to prove you weren’t anti-Semitic, and even then, you’d probably get run off the site by a well-organized gang of Zionist trolls if you tried.
Above all, Democratic Party affiliated websites like the Daily Kos allowed a small, and usually elite group of digital entrepreneurs to monetize discontent, to turn people away from the anarchist Indymedia network and from truly open-source platforms like Usenet, and lead them back into the tightly controlled world of the “free market.” For many people it initially seemed like an acceptable trade off. You could build your reputation, polish your “brand,” and eventually move into a paid position, either at a traditional newspaper, or at one of the newer on line journals like Slate or Salon. Reporters and photographers would continue to get paid. Salon, at its height in the late 1990s, for example, employed over 100 people. What many people never quite realized was that once the venture capital dried up, the model for political and cultural expression on line would be not capitalism. It would be neoliberal capitalism. After the dotcom crash of 2000, newly minted college graduates with degrees in English or Political Science would no longer be able to move into $75,000 dollar a year full time jobs at what would be essentially an on line version of the traditional media. Instead, a small, elite group would make a profit, and the rest of us would become their unpaid interns. It would be our content, but their money.
In other words, Markos Moulitsas has been a very successful political grifter, but he’s really only the tip of the iceberg, part of vast system of the digital extraction of intellectual and emotional labor that’s just getting started. What’s the solution? I don’t know. Maybe it’s time just to break the Internet.