"Internet" by transkamp on flickr

"Internet" by transkamp on flickr

When the opposition to the radical Republican agenda in Wisconsin exploded over the winter, Russia Today highlighted a stark contrast in mainstream outlets: Attention and praise lavished on Arab Spring uprisings compared to an all-but-formally-declared news blackout in Madison.

Of course, inconvenient stories have always been politely ignored by big media; how many large circulation dailies have a labor section as a counterpart to business? How many news divisions with modest (or no) profitability exist at the indulgence of their corporate employers? Such operations inevitably have a nervous, business-friendly approach. Anyone there with a crusading Working Class Hero mentality is pretty much guaranteed to find the door pretty quickly.

Internet technologies threatened to give ordinary people a way around those obstructions, and when they work as expected they do. The problem is that Internet communication has already started a process of consolidation similar to what happened with print and electronic media, and even in this embryonic stage it seems fairly clear what the hazards will be.

What they will not be – at least in America – is the kind of heavy handed, obvious, hard censorship tried in Egypt and Lybia. Instead it will be the kind of soft censorship where things just seem to go wonky. We have seen exactly that with the Wall Street protests. Yahoo was caught red handed censoring emails that referenced the dreaded site OccupyWallStreet.org, then bleated out a couple of “it really would have been better to just keep your mouth shut” excuses.

Google looked like it was suppressing page view totals for one of the protest videos, with (if the screen shot can be believed) the combined likes and dislikes exceeding the ostensible number of views. There were reports of Twitter screwing with its application, and it has already admitted to suppressing content it considers obscene. But, as pointed out at the link, that is a mighty slippery slope – and raises the question of what else might suppressed too.

There were rumors about Facebook as well, but here we start getting into one of the problems with using the Internet for organizing: If the tool you are using starts to behave unusually, it is very difficult to confirm suspicions. These companies have opaque policies, which makes it basically impossible to tell if the problem is user error, buggy code or censorship. While you can’t just immediately leap to conspiracy theories, in the cases above it seems more likely than not that Yahoo and Google were trying to tamp down efforts to spread the word. Nailing something like that down for certain is tricky, though.

In addition to no transparency, do you know what all those sites above – Yahoo, Google/You Tube, Facebook and Twitter – all have in common? They are free. For the vast majority of people in the vast majority of cases that is a very good thing. Folks get fun and useful things without having to pay, and as a result have flocked to them. Which is good, because social media in particular requires a large user base. Facebook is worthless if only a few people are on it. The more that jump in, the more useful it becomes.

The problem is, once it reaches a certain critical mass it tends to obscure alternatives. This dynamic was summed up beautifully here:

metapunditedgy: Time to create a new twitter? 

LeoPanthera: Be realistic. Twitter’s best feature is that it has 200 million users. You can’t “create” that.

That’s the conundrum for activists. All that great technology is useless if it ends up crippled when used for the “wrong” kind of activism. And they cannot complain if that happens – they are not the customers, but the products being sold. Which leads seemingly to a series of dead ends: What we need is a technology where we are the customers. Which means paying for it. Which means it will not achieve the critical mass needed to be useful.

Or maybe we set up an alternative channel – some free service not run by shareholders. But how do you get 200 million people to sign up for an emergency backup social network? Or maybe you use the existing services but keep changing it up – new URLs, new hash tags and so on. But that turns into a cat-and-mouse game, makes it harder to follow, and draws resources away from the main effort.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that it has been frustrating to see the Wall Street protesters come up against such unexpected obstacles. Figuring out alternative online plans and effectively propagating them well in advance seems like a conversation that needs to start in earnest.

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.