Gatekeepers gonna gatekeep

I am digging it.

Hi. This is your host, Can. Today, I’m going to tell you a story.

You know what would be the worst thing about a Zuckerberg presidency? The endless, endless memos and public speeches. Watching him not-run-for-presidency by visiting all 50 states was a traumatizing experience (though probably not as traumatizing for his hosts), but still, can you imagine him having a platform where he can constantly give these long diatribes about, I don’t know, chairs?

Anyway, I am clearly not a fan of Zuck memos (and neither is Ranjan), but reasonable people can disagree on this. Lots of people really liked his Georgetown speech, for example. Ben Thompson was impressed by the Fifth Estate framing and penned a long not-a-defense that touched on a lot of US history. One of the more full-throated (an odd phrase, but whatever) defenses came from the Singapore-based financial analyst and a generally excellent blogger Lyall Taylor. He really likes it (emphasis mine):

However, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently gave a truly excellent speech at Georgetown University, which eloquently outlined a lot of the core principles I fundamentally believe in that underpin a lot of the analysis I wished to present. I was highly impressed, and recommend people view it. He has made my job a lot easier, as he has already summarised a lot of the foundational principles in an eloquent and concise manner, so I thought I would merely content myself to add just a few supplementary thoughts in this post. As I noted in a recent Tweet, the world is lucky to have such an enlightened moderate at the helm of such a powerful enterprise.

Anyway, my reasonable people comment still stands. Lyall’s blog is excellent, and I’ve been following it (while disagreeing with a good half) for a while. You should too.

I personally think Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri had the best take on Zuck’s utterly shameful retconning of Facebook history, but then I read this piece by the Politico Editor-in-Chief, and it’s really brought home some of the problems I had with Zuckerberg’s view of the world, where there are no gatekeepers and journalist’s role is a historical aberration that we should do away with it:

If there was any doubt that those resentments linger, Zuckerberg laced his speech with encomiums to the fresh, clean air of direct democracy and backhanded swipes at the mildewed professional media. “People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world—a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society,” he declared. “People no longer have to rely on traditional gatekeepers in politics or media to make their voices heard, and that has important consequences.”

And obviously he’s not a fan:

It’s a sad development. Gaining a vehicle to challenge prevailing wisdom—whether from the government or the mainstream media—was certainly an advancement for society. The days of a few news outlets controlling the national dialogue don’t look entirely sunny, even in the rearview mirror. But the notion that spreading the news virally through Facebook pages and groups—even if scrubbed of the 3,500 different ads posted millions of times by Russian agents in 2016—provides a healthier source of information than the old-fashioned press is harder to sustain.

I am quoting extensively from it here, not because I want to fill up your inbox (although that’s part of it), but it’s a well-argued, and dare I say, balanced?

Look, you could, of course, say that EiC of a major journalistic organization would not be happy with the critical role of his industry being reduced to zilch by a bunch of hoodie-wearing 30 year-olds. But, aside from the fact that few like to apply that self-defense logic to big tech companies’ actions, it’s a simplistic view of the world. Canellos hits on an interesting point in his essay that goes undiscussed often.

When in a hole, stop Digging

The very first job I had out of college was at Digg. For those too young to remember, Digg was about “democratizing the news” before it was cool. It technically started out around the same time as Reddit. Digg, by some luck and skill, however, took off like a rocketship, created a bunch of internet celebrities, and it blew itself to pieces in one the most spectacular pieces of self-destruction that spanned over a few months. I wrote about it, and so did my friend Will Larson extensively. Reddit seems to be doing well, though.

The thing that’s less known about Digg is while the idea was to democratize the news and give power over headlines back to the people from editors, the reality was much messier.

Digg had characters, and yours truly in a questionable t-shirt during the V4 launch 9 years ago

Obviously, there was a lot of porn, and a whole lot of (not always mutually exclusively) spam. There were tons of manual and automated tooling to weed those out from ever reaching the front page. The list of items that showed up on the front was * mainly* determined by votes (there wasn’t much of a complicated algorithm), but the Digg editors still had final veto power. They had 15 minutes if I am remembering correctly before the next batch of stories would go live, so they’d visit all those 20 or so links in that 15 minutes to make sure nothing too salacious made it there.

However, the real mess wasn’t that Digg was not, in fact, some front-page made by the crowds, but rather, it was a bunch of groups fighting over it. There was definitely a considerable number of users (obviously not really a diverse crowd by any measure), but the real power generally rested with a small amount of people. There were, for example, conservative bury-brigades (digg, bury, get it?) that convened over Yahoo Groups (R.I.P.) and constituted what we now call Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior. Besides, however, the vintage alt-rights, we also had less weird people like the MrBabyman, who, with his weird but affable charm, commanded a ton of votes.

One of the many untold things that happened with Digg’s V4 launch was that our traffic and, more importantly, reputation took such a hit that we sort of had to wave the white flag to those folks. For years, Digg fought a silent battle for its front page with those influential groups; we needed them for the views, but we also did not like that they exerted as much control over the “democratic” front page as they did.

I bring all this up partly because it seems like Ranjan and I are on a reminiscing thing lately, but also, if you’ve been following anything online for the past 20 years or so like I have, none of this is really new.

Any and all online medium, any give-users-power-back website, any attempt at idealized direct democracy attempt online has deteriorated to a dynamic of couple powerful entities figuring out the rules of the game and then playing the rest of people for the mindless lemmings as they are. Millions of people acted like their votes, their likes, their shares, their diggs and buries mattered. The gatekeeper was more often just replaced by another one, except much worse, but they weren’t even aware that they were being played.

Look, this is not a defense of gatekeepers in the “we should have bottlenecks that control the flow of information” sense. Instead, I think it’s crucial that we realize the dynamics that govern these kinds of interactions online. We can either decide to be intentional about it, realize that we will always need some cooler heads to not prevail over but provide a feedback loop against the cacophony of the masses, or look the other way while the masses play the so-called neutral gatekeeper.

Sometimes I wonder if this desire to massively decentralize entire information flows is all driven by a weird obsession with mathematical purity, a desire to stretch the messy reality until it resembles the logical conclusions of any maxim. One of the oft-cited fallacies in the open-source movement is the Linus’ Law where “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” You can see the same line of thinking in this flawed notion of The Fifth Estate, a group of free-speech loving, self-correcting mass replacing the whiny journalists of the East Coast. I mean, millions of eyes failed to notice Heartbleed for years, failing to secure a gaping hole on the entire internet basically, but sure, it will work this time!

Digg’s spiritual successor Reddit holds a good lesson here too. When the bombing at the Boston Marathon happened, a bunch of people on Reddit took it upon themselves to wade through all the available imagery to figure out who the culprits could be. It seemed like, for a moment, a celebration of how a bunch of loosely organized, individually incapable, but collectively qualified groups could uncover a deadly terrorist attack. Needless to say, it didn’t go well.

It’s one thing to celebrate more people given a voice. But maybe, throwing out the baby with the bathwater isn’t what we want to do.


😄Some Very Good News…

There aren’t many pieces that I am particularly proud of in the Margins archives. I write to think. If I had to pick one, though, it’d be Secret Liabilities of Data. It’s one of those that struck a chord with a lot of people, but most importantly, with me. I believe data is valuable. But I also believe it is a liability. For most companies, what they want is not the data, but what they can do with the data.

It’s not often you find a company that aligns so well with your vision. And even rarer to find such a company full of wonderful people you'd want to work with. So, allow me to share my joy with you all Margins readers. Starting this Monday, I'll be joining the fine folks at Very Good Security as a product manager. I know the “I’m incredibly excited” trope is overdone now, but yes, I am incredibly excited. Even Ranjan remains incredulous this is even real because it’s so Margins-relevant.

I mean look at what they say! It’s like they read our mind:

Three years ago, Very Good Security (VGS) embarked on a mission to prove a novel concept in the data security landscape: the best way to protect sensitive data is to not possess it in the first place. Since 2016, we have enabled our customers to adopt a “Zero Data” approach to de-scope their systems from interacting with sensitive data, while allowing them to maximize data utility and quickly achieve compliance certifications.

Looking forward to sharing more of what we working on over at VGS, helping secure the world’s information. If your company deals with such critical data, we can probably help. And of course, we are hiring!