by Micah Sifry, Salon
Ten years ago, many political activists had high hopes for the Internet. Political strategist Joe Trippi, who managed Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign for president, imagined “huge, involved communities around political issues and candidates … these people would be an army, ready to mobilize at the first sign that the government was doing that top-down, trust-us-we-know-what’s-best-for-you crap that people were so sick of … The American people are going to learn how to organize themselves and then watch out.”
From the world of academia, Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler argued that the Internet had enabled the rise of a new “networked public sphere” that was more open to diverse voices and less driven by big money, and that this new media system would nurture a politics that was more small-d democratic. Over the years, Benkler has pointed to a series of Net-driven successes, including the 2004 blogger-led boycott of Sinclair Broadcasting, the Diebold voting machine scandal, the many revelations published by WikiLeaks, and the grass-roots defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) as proof of this power shift.
But it hasn’t happened. Ten years since the Internet first emerged as a mass platform for political engagement, power and wealth are incontrovertibly more concentrated than they were a decade ago.
Here’s why. Trippi and Benkler’s optimism (which I once shared) was built on a model of Internet-based power with one fatal weakness: In each case, a dispersed network came together to say no to a more concentrated and powerful institution’s yes. That is, successful collective action happens on the Internet when an external stimulus propels sufficient numbers of independent actors to coalesce in opposition — not because those independent actors first bring themselves together in concert. The Internet is good at no; it’s not good at yes.