BlackPlanet’s Founder on Building Impactful Platforms and Communities
“Let the people see what I have seen.”
This is what Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till, said when she insisted on an open casket funeral for her brutally murdered son in 1955. Photos of Emmett’s disfigured body circulated and encouraged many to join the civil rights movement.
Darnella Frazier is the teenager that caught George Floyd’s murder on camera and posted it to Facebook. She later stated “that could’ve been one of your loved ones, and you would want to see the truth as well.” As the video circulated, it inspired protests across the country, and George Floyd’s name, image, and story, became a rallying cry against police brutality and systemic racism.
Our guest this week, Prof. Omar Wasow, breaks down the thread between the power of these images even further: “What some of these videos do, what some of these images do, is they allow people who are outside to have a window in, to have a moment of empathy, to walk a few steps in the feet of somebody who might have suffered in some profound way.”
These images clearly have the power to create understanding and power movements. These victims of brutal and heartless crimes become our symbols for change, though we must not forget that they were people, that they were just trying to exist. For example, the protests that erupted after George Floyd’s murder have been twisted into a completely unrelated conspiracy theory by QAnon.
Wasow, the founder of BlackPlanet and a professor whose research focuses on race, politics, and statistical methods, discusses how the internet gives a platform to those who might otherwise not have one, like Darnella Frazier, but also serves as fertile ground for dangerous groups like QAnon.
Patrick and Omar also discuss:
- The principles that made BlackPlanet a popular community for Black people of all generations and backgrounds
- How BlackPlanet and other early social platforms inspired creativity amongst their users
- The power and importance of documenting and sharing injustice
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Wasow optimized BlackPlanet for the creativity of the community (5:38): “[The] transformation from player to programmer was really powerful and changed the arc of my life. When we were designing BlackPlanet, that was something we really wanted to offer our users as well: The experience of going from being people who are just consumers of the web, to being creators and really having it be, at core, a site where your creativity could flourish.” –@owasow
BlackPlanet brought the Black communities online (12:53): “[There were] all of these institutions that involved the Black community having deep ties to each other, [sororities, historically Black colleges and universities, Black churches], that didn’t have a home on the internet and that was something [BlackPlanet] could provide. … It’s partly about making a site that was accessible, that was easy to use, that gave people lots of ways to express themselves. It also was a site that could be used in different ways by different people.” –@owasow
What communities and dance floors have in common (31:22): “There’s a seeding function, which is getting people into the community and getting a critical mass. I used to think of it as a dance floor. You’re running a social site; if it’s an empty dance floor, that’s not a place that’s going to thrive, but if you can get a packed dance floor, that’s awesome.” –@owasow
Will social media platforms give users tools to craft their own experiences? (31:57): “If you give people more tools to manage the experience, you can take off some of the responsibility of being the moderator.” –@owasow
How videos like the one showing the murder of George Floyd can ignite a movement and lead to social change (35:00): “If we have these siloed identities, it can mean that we don’t actually have a lot of understanding of people who live in different worlds. What some of these videos do, what some of these images do, is they allow people who are outside to have a window in, to have a moment of empathy, to walk a few steps in the feet of somebody who might have suffered in some profound way.” –@owasow
Why documentation of protests and injustice is important (35:25): “If I’m a protester, if I’m an activist, [I think] like a camera. What is the moment that will be documented, that could be shared more widely, that allows people outside of this particular moment to have some sense of the larger injustice we’re trying to draw attention to?” –@owasow
How the internet provides fertile ground for dangerous groups like QAnon (44:49): “[The] capacity for outsiders to gain voice and win is a really valuable part of the internet. At the same time, what we’ve seen both in politics and media is that the absence of gatekeepers has this real downside.” –@owasow
About Omar Wasow
Omar Wasow is an assistant professor in Princeton’s department of politics. His research focuses on race, politics, and statistical methods. His paper on the political consequences of the 1960s civil rights movement was published in the American Political Science Review. His co-authored work on estimating causal effects of race was published in the Annual Review of Political Science. Before joining the Academy, Professor Wasow served as a regular on-air technology analyst and was the co-founder of BlackPlanet, a social network he helped grow to over three million active users.
In 2003, he helped found a high performing K-8 charter school in Brooklyn. He is a recipient of the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship in the Aspen Institute’s Henry Crowne fellowship. He received a PhD in African American Studies, a master’s in government, and a master’s in statistics from Harvard University.
- Sponsor: Vanilla, a one-stop-shop for online community
- Sponsor: Localist, plan, promote, and measure events for your community
- Omar Wasow’s website
- Omar Wasow on Twitter
- Omar Wasow’s paper on the political consequences of the 1960s civil rights movement
- An Ode to BlackPlanet
- BlackPlanet’s Founder Talks Myspace, Why He was Skeptical of Twitter, And If Facebook May Have Peaked (via Complex)
- Community Signal’s editorial lead, Carol Benovic-Bradley
- Gail Ann Williams, founder of The Well, on Community Signal
- Stacy Horn, founder of Echo, on Community Signal
- Jenna Woodul on Community Signal
- Bruce Ableson, founder of OpenDiary, on Community Signal
- Compute! Magazine
- Ethel’s Club
- Where are the Black designers?
- Barack Obama jokes about his finsta account
- Agenda Seeding: How 1960s Black Protests Moved Elites, Public Opinion and Voting
- Darnella Frazier, the young lady that documented George Floyd’s murder
- The story of Emmett Till and the Freedom Summer murders
- George Floyd protests: Misleading footage and conspiracy theories spread online (via BBC)
- How conspiracy theorists have latched on to the US protests as evidence of the ‘Great Awakening’ (via SBSNews)
- Kansas City protest is billed as a Save Our Children event, but will QAnon show up? (via The Kansas City Star)
- How Democracies Die
[00:00:04] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Vanilla, a one-stop-shop for online community and Localist, plan, promote, and measure events for your community. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:25] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and welcome to the show. Our guest is Princeton assistant professor Omar Wasow, who researches race, politics, and statistical methods. He co-founded BlackPlanet, an early social network that under his leadership became the most popular website among African-Americans.
Thank you to our supporters on Patreon including Rachel Medanic, Jules Standen, and Serena Snoad. We’re grateful for the continual vote of confidence that you provide our program. To join this group, please visit communitysignal.com/innercircle.
Omar Wasow is an assistant professor in Princeton’s department of politics. His research focuses on race, politics, and statistical methods. His paper on the political consequences of the 1960’s civil rights movement was published in the American Political Science Review. His co-authored work on estimating causal effects of race was published in the Annual Review of Political Science. Before joining the Academy, Professor Wasow served as a regular on-air technology analyst and was the co-founder of BlackPlanet, a social network he helped grow to over three million active users.
In 2003, he helped found a high performing K-8 charter school in Brooklyn. He is a recipient of the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship and the Aspen Institute’s Henry Crowne Fellowship. He received a PhD in African American Studies, a master’s in government, and a master’s in statistics from Harvard University.
Professor Wasow, welcome to the show.
[00:01:44] Omar Wasow: Thank you for having me.
[00:01:46] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s a pleasure. BlackPlanet launched in ’99, and in preparing for this episode, I read a Standard Magazine article from 2004 that described this site as a “relative latecomer.” I think most people doing this work today would count you as a pioneer but did you feel like a latecomer at the time?
[00:02:06] Omar Wasow: Well, there’s a sequence of social media sites at the time, we called them online communities that go back before the web. The web starts around 1996, I got my start using things like bulletin board services. These were to go way into the vault, dial-up where you would call into the hobbyists, one or two phone lines, and do some of the same things we still do, exchange messages, have a profile, engage in conversation and debate, and sometimes live chat.
That goes back to when I was in high school in the ’80s. In some ways, we were at the end of a long tradition of bringing social to online. As you note, in the history of bringing social to the web, we were really early. I think people often forget that in the early days of the web, it was celebrated as essentially like a giant library. It was going to be the information superhighway. What is it that we go to? We go to a web page. It was not fundamentally a social medium. We really had to hack the web to make it social. Yes, in 1999, we felt like pioneers, and I think you’re right, we can claim to have been early to having brought social to the web.
[00:03:18] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, we’ve had folks from The Well on the show, Echo, which was a New York City group. I know you did New York Online. Apple had a really good dial in service back in the ’80s. I’ve heard from Jenna Woodul. Yes, it’s funny. I got an Apple Centris 610 in ’93 and we got online in ’95. By then I never used AOL. I think I had IDT and then Prodigy. I was dialing up right from the start but in ’95.
[00:03:41] Omar Wasow: Yes. That’s a critical moment because that’s just the tail end of that era of services. If you were somebody who came online, even a few years later, you might never even heard of Prodigy or CompuServe, or this other era of services that were really a vibrant place where people connected online in that era. Then the web just really transformed that world such that it became AOL and the web, and ultimately AOL couldn’t keep up either.
He said that BlackPlanet really deliberately showed you that you could embed actual HTML tools in the editing page and made that part easier for users and was one of the sites that took editing to the next level at that time. I’ve also read about how BlackPlanet taught a lot of people how to use HTML. Was that a conscious thing? Was there a digital literacy piece to this?
[00:04:55] Omar Wasow: Yes, it very much was conscious. Let me just to give a little bit of my story with relation to technology, as it sets up the BlackPlanet story. Both my parents were educators. They saw that I loved computers, loved video games in particular, but where most of my friends got Atari game machines where you pop in a cartridge and then could play Pac Man for hours, my parents got me a computer that was called the VIC-20. This was a Commodore computer that was the low-end machine plugged into a TV, but every month I got a magazine called Compute! that had programs I could type in myself. Really, through a combination of some pretty simple intro programming classes in a public school in New York, and then doing a lot of self-teaching by typing in these programs and learning by doing, I became a programmer.
That transformation from player to programmer was really powerful and changed the arc of my life and when we were designing BlackPlanet, that was something we really wanted to offer our users as well, the experience of going from being people who are just consumers of the web, to being creators and really having it be at core, a site where your creativity could really flourish.
To put it in one other way, my mother, as I mentioned, was an educator and the kinds of games that she really liked for us to play with me and my sister, were games like LEGO, where you got these building blocks and then your creativity made the building or the spaceship or whatever it was. It wasn’t just a prefab plastic game.
That was what we were trying to do with BlackPlanet is give our members LEGO, let them build, let them create and allow them to develop skills in HTML and other kinds of things, graphic design, to make the language of the site HTML so that you would gain status and friends and build your profile by learning these technical skills. That was very much in the design and very much a part of how I came to my own love of technology.
[00:06:47] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s really interesting because I think some people would say that maybe we’ve taken a step back when it comes to digital literacy, not just in misinformation and propaganda, but also the language of the web. My early experience with HTML was probably in an AngelFire page builder, like ’95, ’96, when I made Patrick’s Miami Dolphins Website, and then I did the same thing in GeoCities with Patrick’s New Miami Dolphins Website, great name.
MySpace took inspiration from BlackPlanet and MySpace, you could customize the code as well, there was a lot of variance in how the pages looked. We made fun of that looking back, I think a lot of people made fun of the tickers and those things and the sparkles, but you look at what we have now and the platform is, we’re not opted into them, but the platforms that you gravitate towards, whether that be a Facebook, a Twitter, hey, even a TikTok, Instagram, you’re really posting a piece of content and it displays as the platform decides to display it.
The new Facebook design, I don’t terribly love and that’s a cliché is complaining about the new Facebook, but you really don’t have the same reason to learn those things as much. People do get creative and they build their own websites, but even that is such a Squarespace, WordPress.com, on such a controlled handheld experience where, I don’t know, I feel like less people that join the web now on a percentage basis, not a volume basis, are being forced to learn those things.
[00:08:06] Omar Wasow: I think that’s right. I’ve come to think of technology as having, in simple terms, two phases. There’s a tinkerers phase where if we think about something like a car, in order to be somebody who drove one of the earliest cars, you also need to be an auto mechanic, you needed to be able to get in the engine and make it work and crank something and if it broke, you needed to be able to fix it. Then as cars got better, it becomes more and more hermetically sealed and I don’t know even a 10th of what’s going on under the hood of my car.
On the plus side, the second phase in which it’s more sealed and more accessible to a broad audience means that you’re able to invite a lot more people on who are not the tinkerers, but I think it has this real disadvantage that people essentially remain passive consumers of the technology. One of the things I’m proudest of in the legacies of BlackPlanet is the number of people who’ve told me over the years, “Oh, I learned HTML, I learned graphic design and then I started doing for contract web design and now I work at a large consumer packaged goods company in their IT department, but that got started because I was pushing myself technically on BlackPlanet.”
You aren’t going to have that from Facebook because as you note, it’s so templatized, it makes it a very accessible mass platform, but it also means you’re very unlikely to learn any of the underlying technology. That I think, is a loss.
[00:09:31] Patrick O’Keefe: BlackPlanet brought a lot of people together, a lot of marriages, a lot of babies and also [laughs] a lot of coding skills apparently, too. That’s pretty funny.
[00:09:40] Omar Wasow: The way I think about it a little is that, if you’re trying to learn a language, Spanish, you can go take Spanish and do your high school and you’ll learn intermediate Spanish maybe, but it’s really hard to be motivated to learn the language when it’s just something you have to do in school. If you go and visit Mexico or Spain, you’re way more motivated to learn the language because suddenly there are all these people you want to talk to and things you want to do.
[00:10:31] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s take a pause to talk about our great sponsor, Vanilla.
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I was talking with the editorial lead here on our show, Carol Benovic-Bradley, beforehand, and she was telling me how she has these vivid memories of both her mom and her sister with 20 years between them, being on BlackPlanet. That led to the question of what were the principles that guided you towards making an online space that could appeal to multiple generations of Black people?
[00:11:23] Omar Wasow: It’s a great question and it’s interesting in that moment because there’s a piece that came out a little bit before BlackPlanet, talking about what this one author called the rap gap. The idea was that historically, radio could play, basically a range of music that appealed to both young and older African Americans.
There was the emergence of hip hop, suddenly, there was this bifurcation of radio where there were like, younger blazing hip hop stations and older like smooth R&B stations and that spoke to a generation gap in the Black community that hadn’t really been there in media historically. A part of what was powerful about BlackPlanet was that it was something where, because it was a profoundly social experience, and you could pick who you are interacting with, it meant that that deep grapevine in the Black community could be replicated online without there needing to be that generation gap.
In terms of your question around design principles, I think the core of it is, are there people that you want to interact with, is a key part of it. Early on, people were somewhat skeptical, are we moving into an era where maybe race doesn’t matter online, or at the other end of the continuum, maybe the digital divide is so severe that there won’t be enough African Americans online?
We were really clear that what we saw in the data was this massive wave of Black folk coming online, and that the kinds of historical institutions, whether it was sororities, or historically Black colleges and universities, Black church. There’s all of these institutions that involved the Black community having deep ties to each other, and that that didn’t have a home on the internet and that was something we could provide. I think, at some level, it’s partly about making a site that was accessible, that was easy to use, that gave people lots of ways to express themselves. It also was a site that could be used in different ways by different people.
As you mentioned, some people were dating and flirting and finding jobs. Other people were doing HTML. Other people were just hanging out making friends. Depending on where you were, you could find your niche. I think that it really was about offering a range of tools that were broadly accessible so that different people could kind of build their own experience and that worked across generations of the black community.
[00:13:36] Patrick O’Keefe: Ethel’s Club and Where are the Black Designers? are two examples of communities that exist to uplift and connect Black people. There’s Techqueria, which is a community that serves Latinx people in tech. There are many more of these communities, but we’re seeing more and more communities and spaces being started to empower people of specific backgrounds. What advice would you have for those people, if any, that are starting those communities today?
[00:13:57] Omar Wasow: Also a really important question. I think one of the things that is hard about this moment is we started when there were no dominant social sites. Again, when we started, people weren’t sure, you could really do social on the web. Even something like an instant messaging or a chat interface was something we hacked together where you’re pushing live webpages and that was remarkable.
This me as an old-timer, we bought what was at the time an inconceivably large industrial strength storage unit, that was one terabyte. We spent, if memory serves, $250,000 on that drive. That’s now, whatever it is, $99 at Costco. There were just all of these things that were incredibly hard for us in that era. One big advantage, we had is that we weren’t competing with Facebook. Facebook has really, I think, taken a lot of the air out of social media on the internet.
It’s taking the air out of a lot of media in that for a lot of people, in some ways, it’s their online experience. If you were a niche site now, you’ve really got to figure out how do you define some value that’s just very clearly giving people something distinct from what they get on Facebook. That’s the first thing. In the old days, we used to say you get big, you get niche, or you get out and there’s not really an option to get big in social, I think anymore, at least in the US. There are opportunities to get niche and you really need to be clear about what your value proposition is.
A couple of other things that I think are true just always are some of the small things that made a big difference for us was that we built our own tech. I wouldn’t say that’s what you have to do now. The key is that there were things that may describe a user experience. If you log into a page, you click on a profile, you then wanted to message that person, that might have been three clicks on our site. On some of the other sites we were competing with, that was like 10 clicks because they were gluing together three or four different products and it just was a Frankenstein of a user experience.
For us, our internal joke is we declared war on clicks. We were trying to make everything really tightly integrated, very easy to use. For the person who’s launching an online community now, I think that law of making it really simple to find other people who share your interests and to communicate with them would be essential. Maybe we can come back to this later but that’s sort of the top-line of what I would emphasize.
[00:16:23] Patrick O’Keefe: Do you find having perspective over a long period of time is something that I think serves people very well in any field, but in online communities, social networking, I’ve been moderating content since ’98. I have this 22-year perspective on community and what that work looks like and the platforms that have come and gone. Going from something like BlackPlanet, which was a large popular website, one of the most trafficked websites on the web, very busy site.
It was not like it was even a niche site in the way people think of a niche site now, where they think of like someone’s blog that focuses on grill recipes or something. This was a big popular site. There’s this pendulum swing that we talk about in the community space and have been talking about for years where there was this push to go to these all-for-one platform like a Facebook. Now if you find someone who says they love Facebook, you’ve found a rare person. People complain about Facebook, non-stop in all ways, election interference, misinformation, safety, their in-laws, whatever it is. Now we’re seeing this swing back to more niche services and more focused platforms, or even in some ways, I would say, a swing back to not having your face on everything. Not having your picture on every piece of content you post online. I’m just curious, your perspective on that just having been around to watch a lot of it.
[00:17:38] Omar Wasow: I think it’s a great point. There are a couple of things that I hear you touching on that were true in the BlackPlanet era, too. One is that they’re very different experiences, having your formal name and face on an account versus not. There are lots of people who want to have an experience that is a little more escapist. I can pretend to be not even necessarily misinformation, but it’s an opportunity to just be anonymous, or to be pseudonymous, or to play a character and that that’s an important part of the human experience, too.
Or it might be that I really want to talk about black and white photography, and I just don’t want to be all the other parts of my identity in that moment. I think those are all really important parts of the online experience that are, in some cases, not well suited to Facebook because it’s got such an emphasis on your real identity and, importantly, this idea that is become more I think, true now but was studied in the early days of the internet of context collapse. Part of what you’re commenting on is in a pre-social media era, I might have had friends who are at work, and friends who were from college and family and each of these circles were slightly different. I could wear a slightly different identity, and it’s not again that I’m in any way false, but that these classic stories of somebody’s on vacation in Europe, and they post a photo of themselves drinking wine, and then they come home, and they’ve been fired from the religious school that they teach at.
Unlike, in a pre-social media era, that photo on Instagram would never have somehow made its way to your employer. That context collapses, so suddenly your work and your parents and all these people in one place. That’s, I agree, a real challenge for Facebook. It’s become uncool, in part as it’s become so mass. I think some sites like Snapchat initially were able to capitalize on that, that that’s where young people went to avoid their parents.
There are these opportunities that in a way Facebook success creates for alternatives. I think in a way, you’re exactly right the BlackPlanet was, in some ways thought of as niche, but also was to your point quite large. There were these sites where siblings of ours, and by siblings, I mean like they are founded around the same time. There’s a site that long since passed, called theGlobe that was a big general market offering.
[00:19:52] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, theGlobe.com.
[00:19:53] Omar Wasow: In the moment when those that internet meltdown or the dot-com bubble, a bunch of these general market offerings that didn’t have anything really distinctive, they just got wiped out. We, by contrast, had a distinctive offering and we were able to make it across that desert of the dot-com era, dot-com wipeout era.
All of which is to say, I think there are real advantages to being niche and there are advantages to being niche in an era where Facebook is all things to all people that often means it’s kind of a place that has real risks, like context collapse, or it’s just toolset may not be well suited to the particular things you want to do.
For a lot of people, the gravitational pull even if people are down on Facebook, that’s going to be the first place they’re going to look for a group that is discussing topic X. You’ve got to be able to have enough gravitational pull in the other direction, do your offering that you can build a thriving community outside of the — I hesitate. I’m not sure. Let’s call it the Facebook forest.
[00:20:51] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, for sure. They did try so hard to lock you in. Funny that theGlobe.com era was an era where I was picking stocks, not necessarily buying them but picking stocks. I remember that well, I had stock in PSINet, I should have sold. I don’t know if you remember that. It’s like an old internet infrastructure company. Man, I rode it up, but I held on and I should have dumped it.
It’s funny, you mentioned identity too, because just the other day, a couple of days ago, former President Obama joked that he had a finsta, which is a fake Instagram account.
Now people are trying to find it and learning about like– this is the first time a lot of people– including honestly, I don’t know if I knew that term, but finsta, like all these kids in school have fake Instagram accounts and now the former president has one. That’s a pretty good buy-in on the idea of “I need some pseudonymity.”
[00:21:35] Omar Wasow: Yes, that’s right. In a world where so much of our lives is recorded and documented and bought and sold, it really is critical to have some capacity to enjoy these technologies without becoming as explicitly a product to be monetized to advertisers. Every time I go shopping, I know that the transaction I’m doing is when I use my supermarket card, all that data is being passed to some information broker, and I still do it because like getting $2 off of ice cream or whatever it is.
We just have this pervasive sense of being monitored and permission to use, not against us, but in ways that we’re not entirely comfortable with. I think what is alienating about Facebook is the sense that you’re the product, and for a lot of people a service that allows some pseudonymity, or a service that allows at least there’s tighter connection to the other people in a sense of maybe mission about the service, I think does have the possibility of being a counterweight to that in social.
[00:22:41] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s take a pause to talk about our great sponsor, Localist.
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While I have you, I do want to talk some about protests, because that’s a lot of the focus of your work right now. You’ve obviously studied them in such great detail and also built a successful online platform.
In your paper Agenda Setting, you talk about how the media covers protests, how politicians respond to them, how protest leaders can choose their protest patterns to influence those two groups, and just in summary, how those factors came together to influence public opinion and voting in the 1960s. Now in the 2020s, the choice for outlets is overwhelming, and more often than not, people are choosing to broadcast their movement on their own profile on a social media site.
There are a lot of sticky areas for platforms and what they should and can host no matter how they portray a movement, whether positive or negative, like in the case of maybe violence, or property damage, or shaming or doxxing, and so on. It’s a big wide-open question. Sorry about that.
What, if any, do you feel are the responsibilities that big platforms have when it comes to disseminating protests?
[00:24:13] Omar Wasow: Let me step back for a second. I’m going to take the invitation of a big question to key in on something you said at the beginning. Let’s start with the very big picture, like why do people protest? What I find in the ’60s, and I think it’s true now is there’s some wrong or injustice people observe and they’ve decided normal politics is no longer enough and often they’re going to do something like take to the streets. Even before that, people have to be aware of this wrong.
I think part of what’s interesting in this moment, is that part of how there’s been this incredible wave of protests in the last few months is that a teenager, 17-year-old named Darnella Frazier had the presence of mind to document George Floyd being pinned down by Officer Chauvin and to document, to bear witness, to the moment he’s killed, and then she posts that to Facebook.
She doesn’t realize as a young person that how could anybody with that act to transform American politics for the next few months. They’re kind of a couple of things coming together there that braid together protests and social media and social movements. One is this act of bearing witness. Another is the– In the past, in the 1960s, in the era I study, the media, you would’ve needed ABC or NBC to be there with a big, heavy camera to document that moment.
In this moment, she can put it on Facebook, and it can go viral. She doesn’t need a traditional media organization to get that to the world. In that way, there’s something that’s very similar, which is people observe some moment that is a wrong, that mobilizes them, but now it can be one person, not a media company. It can be distributed through social media, not through a newspaper network or TV network.
Then there’s this other interesting dimension, which is how are people going to organize to take to the street, and in the 1960s, and really up through even the ’80s, if you were trying to build a mass movement, coordinating a lot of people to meet somewhere at some time was not trivial. Now, one person, again, with a phone is in a position to say, “Everybody converge at this street corner this time,” and suddenly, you might have tens of thousands of people.
Social media is enabling social movements around the world, in part because the cost of coordination has been brought down so much. There are multiple ways in which documentation with things like a video camera, and everybody’s smartphone, the distribution on social media, and the coordination through social media have really transformed how social movements happen.
[00:26:45] Patrick O’Keefe: When the platforms have to view this content, there are so many things that enter that are different, in my view from the past. Things like applying policy to this video, making an exception. Also the abuse that person receives on their platform as a result of sharing that content, and the strain that might put on moderation or trust and safety teams, and the investment it requires for that piece of content.
I think what people are afraid of, in some ways we talk about like big platforms having all of the influence, so to speak online, is the possibility that they could use that in a bad way or silence something that is meaningful, but moderation is such a hard job, also to apply standards consistently on this scale is such a challenge. I don’t even know there’s a question here.
I’m just speaking freely; like it’s not a new issue. Moderating content is not a new issue. These things have gone on for a long time. We are in a very specific time, where platforms are faced with those tough choices of allowing things and also protecting the people who disclose those things in some ways.
[00:27:46] Omar Wasow: I think there are two or three really important parts of the question. The one is, what kinds of moderation policies should a site like Facebook have. I often don’t watch the videos of somebody who’s a victim of state violence, because it’s just not stuff I want to watch unless it’s really important to understand what’s going on in the current moment. I don’t say that because they’re unimportant but it’s just emotionally hard. It is important to allow people to opt into some of that content.
There are other things like these moments that are vigilante violence, where, for example, really terrorism, the shooting in New Zealand, where a person is live-streaming his mass murder, not only do you not want that to be broadcast, but you don’t want to encourage copycat crimes. These are exceedingly difficult issues. I’m also sympathetic to some of the concerns that some of the companies have for we want to try and be a platform that allows marginal voices to be heard and it’s a wide-open space. That in the US might feel less urgent but in much of the world, the government’s are much more repressive. The content moderation there is, for example, there’s the social science that shows that one of the things that China seems to be very attentive to in social media is filtering content about people organizing things like protests. What does it look like if there’s too much moderation?
Yes, these are exceedingly hard questions and at the same time, I think what we see happening that feels like progress to me is that the position that Facebook has had for a long time and Twitter had for a while, which was it’s just going to be a free for all, that’s not sustainable. It’s not sustainable from a user experience perspective if you allow angry mobs to chase well-intentioned people off. That’s bad if you have your site being a really profound anti-democratic institution, fostering all kinds of disinformation about COVID. Those are dangerous things. I think a lot of this is actually about tools. Clearly, you need human intelligence, but there are things like, it shouldn’t be so hard to manage muting people on Twitter, for example. In politics, you can get a newsletter from the Democratic club of such and such, or the Republican such and such.
Here’s what we recommend. There ought to be some way in which you could subscribe to a mute list and that would take some of the work of managing that off of you. There are ways in which I think the tools could be better and I’m surprised at how long it’s taken, but it’s like Twitter and Facebook to get more aggressive about some of those things, empowering users to filter the experience more on their own.
[00:30:26] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, shared muting lists would be interesting. I love if they just– on Twitter, I don’t block anyone because I’m not interested in telling someone that I blocked them when they visit my profile, that’s a signal I don’t want to spend, so I use mute but when you mute what they do is in your feed, it says this is hidden because you muted it, I don’t want to see that, I don’t want to have the temptation to hit view and know that exists, just take it out quietly, don’t tell them. I’m okay. I decided I didn’t need that in my life and yet, here it is.
[00:30:54] Omar Wasow: Yes. A lot of what social is coming back to the earlier questions you were asking is creating effective tools that are essentially matchmaking, help me find people who are interesting to me, or sometimes one degree removed, it’s like help me find the content that people are creating that’s interesting or the opportunities that people are creating. That’s kind of a search function or a matchmaking function and then there’s another dimension which is kind of predicted when you were really about these niche sites. There’s a seeding function, which is getting people into the community and getting a critical mass. I used to think of it as like a dance floor. You’re running a social site like if it’s an empty dance floor, that’s not a place that’s going to thrive, but if you can get a packed dance floor, that’s awesome. You’re trying to get people on the dance floor, and they’re trying to get people with partners they like. And just again, and again, I’m surprised at how often the experience seems quite clunky on Facebook or Twitter for finding things very interesting and also, in some ways, not encountering things that I find hostile in a way that’s repeated.
If you give people more tools to manage the experience, you can take off some of the responsibility of being the moderator.
[00:32:03] Patrick O’Keefe: You mentioned something a moment ago about how you don’t force yourself to watch essentially traumatic videos unless you feel there’s a need, or I guess if you’re going to go on TV and talk about it or something you feel like you have to watch it. That really relates to something I wanted to get your perspective on, which is sort of turning the last question, which is what the platform should do around on to the users of the platforms.
How can people effectively use the internet to protest or as a form protest that isn’t self-serving, like “Slacktivism,” and doesn’t continuously traumatize the oppressed?
[00:32:33] Omar Wasow: Another really critical question. I think one of the lessons that we see going from the ’50s through today is that there’s enormous power in images and short video. It’s the sort of… let me tell a story and explain what I mean.
Emmett Till is a young man sent from Chicago down south to visit family in 1955. There’s an incident that is still to this day contested, but a young woman who works at a grocery store alleges that he has whistled at her.
She later recants but in the controversy, she’s white and Emmett Till’s Black, the young woman’s husband comes in the night and ultimately lynches Emmett Till.
His brutalized body, Mamie Till his mother fights to get his body out of the South, up to Chicago. Undertakers in the south don’t want to let his body out because it so disfigured.
She ultimately gets him to Chicago, she fights to get an open casket funeral, which was also something she wasn’t supposed to do and in the end, has this massive open casket funeral with photographs where thousands of people come and see her brutalized son and she says in that era, “Let the world see what I have seen.”
That really is one of the major turning points in the launch of the civil rights movement, that’s in the mid-’50s, and help set the stage for what becomes a very strategic set of actions that people engage in to bring the media in to reveal things like the brutality of Jim Crow and segregation. I think your question was thoughtful in that it said how do we not traumatize people?
I’m going to say, well, I don’t want to have to watch all those videos, but I think it is really important that people do document these kinds of injustices, and then they do share them and that part of what Mamie Till understood is that there are certain kinds of actions, let the world I can see that might shock the conscience of the nation.
You’re absolutely right, there’s a risk of a certain kind of trauma, but in that shocking the conscience can also really transform politics, and that that kind of activism which is many ways about doing what Darnell Frazier did, documenting with your phone. One of the things I love about online community is you get to experience different worlds. I can be again, somebody who’s a photography enthusiast, and one moment a runner and another and wear these different aspects of my identity.
If we have these siloed identities, it can mean that we don’t actually have a lot of understanding of people who live in different worlds. What some of these videos do, what some of these images do, is they allow people who are outside to have a window in, to have a moment of empathy, to walk a few steps in the feet of somebody who might have suffered in some profound way.
The end of this riff is that I think there is real power in what I think of is essentially, if I’m a protester, if I’m an activist, thinking like a camera. What is the moment that will be documented, that could be shared more widely, that allows people outside of this particular moment, to have some sense of the larger injustice we’re trying to draw attention to? That was true in 1955. It was true, I think, in 1992, when somebody picked up what was then head of state of the art home video camera and documented the beating of Rodney King.
It’s true in 2020, with Darnella Frazier and her smartphone, and those acts of documentation and to your point, potentially traumatic documentation, nevertheless, do a lot of work to allow people who may not have ever seen that moment, to have some sense of empathy, some sense of, “Oh,” to shock their conscience and to have them be mobilized to care about that issue and potentially, to act.
[00:36:19] Patrick O’Keefe: You mentioned Emmett Till, when I was in my junior high and high school ages, I lived in Mississippi, and not getting into it, I wouldn’t go back. I was homeschooled. When we did state history, I’ll credit my mom and say like, she didn’t pull any punches. I learned in very specific graphic detail about the history of Mississippi, Emmett Till, the Freedom Summer murders, which happened literally miles from where we lived, it was eye-opening.
I always start to look back at that moment and say, like, yes, as a kid, I feel like I was blissfully, not ignorant, but doing state history in Mississippi was like, “Ah, man, I get it.” I get more of it now, I really understand that I always think back to those state history classes and those books I read because it really educated me in a massive way.
[00:37:00] Omar Wasow: That’s, I think, in some ways, the core of it is a kind of education, and that whether you’re talking about a movement, like Me Too, where my version of that is I have female friends. I thought of myself as fairly aware of what’s going on in the lives of my female friends, and then they started sharing stories about the sexual predation they’d experienced sometimes in work, sometimes in business. I was shocked. Again, these are people I’d known for many years.
I was the person who was the ignorant outsider who had to update my sense of how different the world was than I understood. That’s what I think, a certain kind of documentation, bearing witness, can do when it’s possible to then have to share that either in traditional media or social media, so that people who aren’t there can have some sense of, “Oh, wow. No, this feels wrong.”
Broadly, what you said, I think, is exactly right. It’s a kind of education. It’s a kind of helping people travel across time, across lines of difference to have a sense of, “Oh, this was something that happened. This is something that we should take seriously,” and that we can be moved by those narratives to want to make the world a better place.
[00:38:11] Patrick O’Keefe: The last thing I wanted to bring up with you today is QAnon because QAnon intersects over, I think, all the topics we’ve discussed. In my view, QAnon is simply a repackaging of antisemitic tropes. They used the George Floyd protests as a means to push those tropes. They’re hijacking protests, not only social justice but also obviously the child sex trafficking protests and that whole group. They’re using online platforms to spread.
In researching this episode, I’ve read a lot about your background and how you come from an African American mother and a Jewish German father and your grandparents had to flee Germany. I’ve heard a similar story about my great grandmother, and I have a good bit of Jewish blood in me too, and I’m about to marry a Jew. Antisemitism, protests, online platforms, I think it’s all sort of encapsulated within QAnon. I was curious, just what’s your perspective on how platforms are responding to QAnon.
[00:39:00] Omar Wasow: You in some ways touched on so much that, you’ve encapsulated it really well. I look at QAnon, first and foremost, as a kind of what’s the problem it’s solving. In some ways, I think we’re in a moment where for a lot of people, the world is a strange place. They’re having a hard time making sense of everything from a Black president in Obama, to people advocating for same-sex marriage, or transgender equality in bathrooms.
Those changes are unsettling for somebody who might have grown up in a world where none of those things seemed even in the realm of possibility. You’re trying to make sense of the world and looking for a community that helps you feel like the world makes sense. For some people, they update. It’s like, “Oh, I was a little unsettled by the idea of two men marrying, but it turns out that’s like totally fine.” Other people, it’s so discordant that they have to invent an alternate reality, which denies what we see changing in society.
It’s not that the Democratic party is a party advocating for the rights of sexual minorities, it’s a party that’s consumed with pedophiles or something and you are looking, I think, in some ways, everybody’s looking to be a hero in their own story. If you’re part of a community of people hunting down sex traffickers, well, then you’re part of a righteous cause, rather than being somebody who’s a retrograde opponent of rights for people who love somebody differently than you do, or who have a different gender identity than you think is even possible.
That’s a very broad way of thinking about what’s going on is that when people encounter really discordant facts, sometimes they change their minds, and sometimes they invent alternate realities that allow them- You can think about something like climate change denial, as operating this way too or for that matter, COVID denial. It’s like there are people who Herman Cain risks his life to go attend a rally and then ends up dying of COVID, his Twitter account is still tweeting, “Why are people worrying about masks?”
In the face of discordant facts, people often can– I think we all live with a certain amount of fictions that help us make sense of the world. QAnon to me is an example of an extreme form of inventing the reality you want, because the reality as it is, is somehow uncomfortable for you. That’s one part of it.
Then to your question, you asked, what can platforms do? I think it’s a really hard question how to manage something like what BuzzFeed is now calling a collective illusion.
I think that’s a good way of putting it because on the one hand, if people are just talking about rumors and conspiracies, that isn’t necessarily any different from talking about celebrity rumors, or stock market rumors. Where it crosses a line is where people start to promote ideas that advocate for potentially acts of violence. We’ve seen a number of these incidents now going back to Pizzagate where somebody shows up going to rescue these kids at a pizza parlor when it’s bizarre fantasy that this person has, but it all ends up posing a risk.
There’s that boundary but what we’re seeing even in the last days is that with QAnon, people are being encouraged to essentially now downplay the explicitness of the language they use. Don’t reveal that you’re a part of this insiders cabal, because that’s potentially going to both alienate the people who are like, “Oh, you’re a crackpot,” but also trigger moderation. This is, in some ways, a deep problem in America, and likely to become worse, not just in America, in the world. Because if you were the crackpot in your neighborhood, 20 years ago, you might have been a flat earther, but you didn’t have a lot of other people you could connect to who are flat earthers.
Now, you can be a community of millions of flat earthers that’s in some ways, that’s freedom of assembly, it just becomes dangerous when it spills from some alternate idea of the world to something where people feel like they have to take arms or engage in a mobilization that puts other people at risk. I don’t know the answer is the short response but it does ask of Facebook, more active moderation, particularly, where we see people being encouraged to engage in illegal action.
[00:43:34] Patrick O’Keefe: What’s made harder by it is a time for principals on this, some of these things, and a lot of these platforms aren’t good at having principles. It’s made worse when say the President has people with Q signs om his crowd that are allowed to be there if you behind him or when there’s major party candidates who are talking about QAnon, then it gets into, are we interfering with this or that. For my money, step up, take a view point here that this is a harmful thing and make it happen.
It’s been done in smaller communities, as you’ll know since we’ve been running small communities, it’s just at this scale, they’re struggling with their own influence and don’t want to anger the wrong people. I think on some level.
[00:44:14] Omar Wasow: I think there’s a really fundamental tension, though. You alluded to this a number of times, which is that on the one hand, part of what’s wonderful about the internet can be the absence of gatekeepers. It’s possible for anyone to build their page, you don’t have to get approval from New York Times to write your personal page or build your blog and even with BlackPlanet, people thought initially that we weren’t going to survive because if anybody was going to win at building an online community for African Americans, it was going to be like Black Entertainment Television or some big company.
We were able to out-engineer them and build a better mousetrap that grew massively as compared with our competitors. That capacity for outsiders to gain voice and win is a really valuable part of the internet. At the same time, what we’ve seen both in politics and media is that the absence of gatekeepers has this real downside.
There’s a great book called How Democracies Die, which gets at how historically what political parties did was to keep fringe candidates off of the ballot. That meant the center could hold because more mainstream candidates were dominated by the parties. In the age of the internet, in the age of a reality television star being able to build a huge audience on things like Twitter, it becomes possible for a fringe candidate, somebody who is from the beginning is a birther, somebody who traffics in conspiracy theories to bust through the gatekeeping of the GOP, of the Republican party and become the nominee, right.
That gatekeeping function is no longer quite as effective in our politics, and the gatekeeping function is no longer as present in our media. Again, I value the people who bust the gates as I was one of them at one point, with BlackPlanet. At the same time, I also think it poses a really fundamental threat, as outlined in this book, How Democracies Die, because when that gatekeeping function is lost, it becomes possible for there to be democratic erosion.
I think that’s some of what we are seeing in the United States right now. That’s the risk that losing gatekeeping can mean. It can mean that there isn’t a traditional media to say, “QAnon is bunk, we’re not going to put that on the evening news.” It can mean that the center doesn’t hold. That’s, I think, a big long-term risk for our country and social media is very much at the center of that. I don’t know that there are good answers. I mean, that’s going to be a big, hard thorny problem for decades to come.
[00:46:35] Patrick O’Keefe: Professor Wasow, thank you so much for your time today. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation.
[00:46:38] Omar Wasow: Thank you. These were great questions, and it’s a real pleasure for me, Patrick.
[00:46:42] Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking with Omar Wasow, Assistant Professor of Politics at Princeton University. To read Professor Wasow’s work, visit omarwasow.com and follow him on Twitter @owasow. That’s O-W-A-S-O-W.
For the transcript from this episode, plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad, and Carol Benovic-Bradley is our editorial lead and was a special contributor to this episode. Until next time.
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