Modernism’s problem with social media

In an article about the conundrum facing DIGG, the online news community, Staci Kramer over at PaidContent shines a light on the core conflict between media and the masses in today’s world. I left a comment, but I want to expand on it, because this issue is the sweet spot of everything about which I write — the conflict between a mature modernist culture and an upstart postmodern culture.

Just as the printing press heralded the birth of modernism, so is the internet bringing the postmodern culture to fruition. If we’re going to do business in this evolving culture, we’re going to have to view things a little differently.

In the DIGG case this week, stories about a Linux hack for HD-DVD encryption began showing up on the “front page” of the user-determined DIGG. The hack allows people to copy content from HD-DVDs, something the entertainment industry doesn’t want. So a cease and desist order arrived at DIGG, with which managers tried to comply by removing stories and banning certain members.

This created a fury with the masses at DIGG, which then found itself swamped with links to story after story revealing the hack. So DIGG gave up, and founder Kevin Rose wrote:

“…after seeing hundreds of stories and reading thousands of comments, you’ve made it clear. You’d rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company. We hear you, and effective immediately we won’t delete stories or comments containing the code and will deal with whatever the consequences might be. If we lose, then what the hell, at least we died trying.”

Staci points out that some are calling this “mob rule,” and she waves a very real warning flag for businesses who MUST have user loyalty to survive.

In other words, community first–even when it breaks your own rules, business second. This time. No clue as to what Digg will do the next time it’s faced with a take-down request on another topic but it’s clear who actually holds the power in this equation. What that means for business–not so clear.

I tried to point out in the comments that this is much bigger than anybody realizes, because the very concept of mob rule is a modernist invention. It’s not that mobs haven’t had their way historically, but it’s the attachment of the word “rule” that modernists find intolerable.

What I find most fascinating here is the automatic assumption that chaos is evil. This is a purely modernist perspective, but life itself proves it to be false. Moreover…with any form of internal governor–especially if it is dedicated to self-preservation–people will generally obey cultural rules.

The essential problem with all modernist dogma is the insistence that without a strong external governor (usually belonging to the haves), we’ll sink to Lord of the Flies level. The revolution that’s underway in the communications world is arming the mob with the power of information, so I just don’t buy the argument that we’re all hell bound without external “control.”

And you also have to consider the significance of what was driving the mob at DIGG. Was it the HD-DVD hack or being told they couldn’t share the hack?

There is much that can be said about the copyright cartel and how it has stifled creativity in the name of the almighty dollar–and the slight-of-hand evident in publicly stating “it’s about the artist” when it’s really about stuffing the profit pockets of those who control what you and I watch and listen to.

But I’ll leave that to others.

So what’s happening with DIGG and the other examples that Staci uses is the front line in a cultural struggle that has profound ramifications for the future. With every day that goes by, the machine we know as the World Wide Web — a communications network without a central control — gets stronger and smarter. As we teach it, it informs us, and so it’s pretty hard to argue with the theme of Kevin Kelly’s seminal Wired essay, “We Are The Web.”

The real cultural question for tomorrow is will we find the culturally acceptable internal governor that will keep totalitarianism’s bayonets away? On this hangs much, including tomorrow’s business models.

We have faith in capitalism, and so it works; will we ever have enough faith in each other to make that work? Stay tuned, because that is the essential question of life circa 2007.


  1. Terry,

    Digg is a very bad measure of anything for the future. It’s base is a very limited group of geeks who are self-referrential. Systems like Digg might acutally bring to fruition totalitarian states if they are given far too much authority before they are allowed to develop into more than just selective little niche‑y realms for the rebellious.


  1. […] But maybe, just maybe, mobs aren’t that bad. Terry Heaton had an insightful observation: “What I find most fascinating here is the automatic assumption that chaos is evil. This is a purely modernist perspective, but life itself proves it to be false.” He argues that the so-called Mob was more like the site at its finest…that a Mob is nothing more than democracy at high speed. I tend to agree with this. […]

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