Nobody has thought more about the intersection of media, technology, and politics than Zeynep Tufekci. Her new book Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, is about the incredible promise and the real weaknesses of these new social media movements that have been central to the news cycle and the way news is made over the last five to ten years.
But Tufekci dates that back much further—in this interview, recorded live in front of an audience of BuzzFeed reporters, she talks about her roots, and what she sees as these movements' roots, in the Zapatista revolution in the 1990s in Mexico. And with the explosion of social movements around the world on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms, there's been backlash and crackdowns that a lot of people, other than Tufekci, did not see coming.
Listen to the conversation:
BEN SMITH: I'm so thrilled that Zeynep Tufekci could join us. I guess I was slightly concerned that I was like the only one here obsessed with your work, but obviously not. For those who don't know, Zeynep was a computer programmer by trade at some point, has a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin. Really I feel like over the last few years if you follow the rise of these social movements on social media, on Twitter, there are utopians and then there's sort of been a backlash against utopians who say that nothing on the internet is real, and you've been this sort of very sophisticated voice actually trying to understand what's happening in a very complex and real way.
She's the author of Twitter and Tear Gas, which is really great, I finished it last night.
Zeynep Tufekci: That's the end of the interview. Thank you, bye, bye.
There's a metaphor in there that actually I just wanted to share, because I feel like it is at the heart of the book, which is about how recently technological advances have made climbing Mount Everest a lot easier. And so inexperienced climbers can get to the top, and then when any of the technological support fail, they die. And that these new social movements, which have been able to achieve the summit so quickly, are also so fragile. That's sort of at the heart of the book, and why you should read it.
But I guess I wanted to start with something I didn't know, that I was surprised to see in the book, which is that you trace kind of this social media moment or the social movements around it, as well as your own personal history, to the Zapatistas in Chiapas.
TUFEKCI: I do!
So can you tell us how you personally wound up in Chiapas?
TUFEKCI: Okay. I can. So I grew up in Istanbul, right? And I grew up in Turkey under a pretty heavy censorship regime. We had one TV channel. They showed us US shows like Little House On The Prairie, that's the kind of stuff we got to see.
So when the internet came I was like, "This is so exciting!" And because I was a programmer, I had some insight into it because I worked for IBM, which had this global Intranet, so at home you have one TV channel, you go to work, you can talk to colleagues in Japan. So when the internet came I was like so excited, I got on, and at the time—I didn't catch the beginning—but this is like couple years after NAFTA had taken hold. And NAFTA had this movement against it, right? They tried to stop it, they tried to put some labor and environmental protections, it didn't really happen, but they had started using the internet because social movement people, they're really early adapters. They see some technology, they're on it.
So they were using e-mail networks to organize anti-NAFTA stuff. So, just the day NAFTA goes into effect—we're talking 1994—the Zapatistas in Chiapas, who are this little insurgency movement—which happens in Latin America, that's kind of what you do for breakfast and lunch, you have these little insurgency movements back then—they launched their attack or their insurgency on the day NAFTA went into effect. So there was this movement that had just failed to stop NAFTA.
And these indigenous communities were worried, some of NAFTA's provisions would put the communal ownership of their land under threat. So, the network that had organized globally sprung up to protect these people. And it was really helped by the fact, they had this guy Marcos who was like, the probably the first social media star before we had social media.
TUFEKCI: Yes, Subcomandante Marcos. He's probably an ex-academic, to be kind of funny, but he's just lived there for so long. So he was also sort of this bridge voice, he was interesting, he wore a mask, he smoked pipes, the New York Times profiled him.
So this global movement sprung up, kind of them as their symbol. And everybody was talking about how they're using the internet. And around then I got on the internet, and the first thing I see is everybody's talking about Zapatistas and how they're using the internet. And I'm like, "How are they using the internet?"
At the late 90's at this point, I ended up in Austin, Texas for grad school because I knew some people and I just applied there, I didn't know anything about grad school. And there's a huge movement there. And I'm like: I have to see this. I don't really believe everything that's said, so I went to Chiapas to check it out. It was eye-opening. It was fascinating.
One, they didn't even have electricity, let alone internet, in the villages. It was just an insurgent movement, it looked very traditional in every other way. But because of the global solidarity movement that sprung up in their defense, they were fairly protected compared to—so if you went to Oaxaca, there was a similar movement, it didn't have the global solidarity movement, it looked very similar. But the Mexican army was crushing it, whereas the Zapatistas were getting all this protection.
I remember feeling really conflicted because there was a lot of hype around their use of the internet which actually was the solidarity network. I was like: this hype is helping protect these people who, you know, they're not on the internet. The thing that's really striking to me is that this happened in my lifetime as an adult. I am not even near retirement. And when I went to those villages, one of my memories is a woman, a young woman, who came and said, "Can you take a picture of me and my kids?"
Usually nobody wants you to take their pictures, right? When you go there especially. And I'm like "Okay, I will but can you please tell me why?" And this conversation is actually happening from Turkish to English to Spanish to Tojolabal. This kid is translating. And she said, "I don't have a single picture of my kids and they're growing up." And she wanted to have a photograph, that if I could just take a picture and somehow managed to print and get it to her.
So I had the 30-second or maybe three-second thing, "Oh, wait I'm introducing photography, what is the prime directive?" And I'm like, "What am I saying? She wants it, she's got it." Right now I don't think I could go to the North Pole and find people without cell phone cameras, right? This has all happened in my lifetime, and I wasn't a kid when that happened and I'm not near retirement, so this is kind of what my book is trying to trace: We started with the Zapatistas, here we are, but so much has changed, and how do we grapple with and how do we understand all of this?"
So it was great. It's a beautiful place, but you learn not to romanticize stuff because it looks beautiful in the pictures. It's these misty mountains, but that mist is cold, wet clouds. You're constantly shivering, so you're like: this isn't so romantic.
And how do you sort of draw a line from from that movement to the anti-IMF protests to Occupy to Tahrir Square?
TUFEKCI: I think there's a real line, because the Zapatista solidarity networks were also very linked to—they call it corporate globalization, right? There's this globalization going on. And all of a sudden people can also meet. The powerful could always meet, they could fly to Davos and talk. They always had their own networks. And so in the 90's, the globalization from below starts. People are like, "Whoa, we can organize, too."
So the same networks helped organize the Seattle protests. So it was organized—there's a lot of traditional unions in that, too, but there's also these email networks that people around the world, and in the US, they're like: We are gonna go to Seattle, this is '99, and we're going to demand transparency and accountability from the WTO.
Not only is there some continuity there, by the time you get to Occupy I could recognize people who had started. There's this generation that cut their teeth on, in the media, the e-mail networks, that are still around, that are now like maybe 30's, 40's depending on how you got started. I think that's really interesting because they've learned a lot. We've been through the Zapatistas, Seattle, the anti-war movement, the Arab Spring. So there's been ups and downs and ups and downs, and I think there's really this veteran people group, and they're still around, and I think that is going to be really interesting to watch.
I wanted to focus a little on your observation of how fragile these movements are. We've all seen, you know, from Black Lives Matter to Tahrir Square, the sort of ignition of these huge social movements that seem kind of unstoppable. And then, in some cases, they're very much stopped.
One of the things that I think you were really the first person I saw writing about was how censorship works now. And you describe it as the "denial of attention through multiple means." I wonder if you'll talk a little about how you think censorship has changed, and government response has changed.
TUFEKCI: So 2011, right? Tahrir Square, the uprising, and what does Mubarak very clumsily do? He shuts down the internet. Also cell phones. What does that mean? Two things. The activists like within a couple days, they had smuggled in satellite phones. They had found one working ISP. And they were able to circumvent very quickly. So they were able to get their voice out. And all the parents who'd been checking on their kids like, "Are you okay? Are you okay? Are you okay?" All of a sudden they couldn't check on them.
And what do you do if you're worried about your kids, your loved ones? You know where they are. People showed up. It was a complete backfire. It was the clumsiest thing you could do. The whole world was like, "They shut down the internet!" All the parents are like, "Where are my kids?" And activists are like, "Here's our video from our satellite uplink." It's like coolest story ever. So they've managed to capture the world's attention through this very—they were good, they were smart, and the thing was clumsy.
So fast-forward, let's talk about how China does it. A lot of people think of China, I think, as this crude censorship and Great Wall firewall. I mean, after BuzzFeed, I think they understand attention best. Good competition. I don't think there's an institution in the world that understands attention better than the Chinese Communist Party.
We see them as our main rival, the Chinese Communist Party. I'm actually stealing that line. People always ask me, "Who do you compete with?" I'm going to say, "The Chinese Communist Party."
TUFEKCI: They're really good at it. Let's give another example. The Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, 2014. A very basic demand: They want to be able to have a fair and open vote. You've got the French Revolution-level legitimacy. This is a very basic thing, it's a popular thing, the kids get together there's a bunch of pepper spraying at first and they're using yellow umbrella, so they got their symbol. There's all this talk of: Will Beijing cut down the internet?
So what does China do? It does what it would do if I was their evil advisor. If I was like, "Here's how you cut down social movements." They start ignoring it as much as they can. They pull back the police, no visuals, like the striking pepper spray visuals, they pull it back. It's in this commercial area so it's like really screwing with the commerce, the commercial people are pissed off, they get their sort of mafioso connections, and try to beat up the students. Somehow those people are pulled back. I will bet you folding money, the government's involved in pulling those people back. They're like "No, no, no—no visuals."
There's this really great research by Gary King and Jennifer Pan—Gary's at Harvard, Jennifer Pan was a grad student there—on the so-called 50 Cent Army. So what does the 50 Cent Army, which is started as the Chinese troll Army, what do they do? When there's something going on, they don't go argue with you. They don't even try to censor you. What they do is they go over there and create a distraction. If it's the anniversary of Tiananmen, they're like, "Here, there is some scandal about a movie star, or even corruption about a government thing”—anything, but. So they create a spectacle there. They also question credibility and veracity, like if you see something, they're like, "It's not true, it's false, it's something like that."
So what they're doing is denying the movement the attention it needs. Because politics is basically the ability to focus attention on a given thing. Right? There are thirty million issues at any one point. Black Lives Matter, right? Before the movement came along the rate of police killings of black men especially is not higher than before. What the movement did is took something that was a chronic problem and said, "Look here." If you can deny that ability to look someplace and focus someplace, you can smother the public sphere and the counter-publics that emerge.
I think the old style censorship as: cut the access to information. Doesn't work. Circumvention is widespread. If you want to circumvent almost anywhere, maybe not China as easily, but almost anywhere, if you want to circumvent, you can circumvent in networks by yourself. You get the information if you're motivated enough. What the current censorship tries to cut is the link between getting the information, and acting. Denying attention to the issue. Questioning the credibility, creating a distraction, claiming that things are not true, claiming stuff is fake news.
So that I think is the modern network form of censorship. And it's really insidious. And this is why I worry about this so much—and this is not really in my book yet, because it will be hopefully in my next book—is that this mode of censorship by denial of attention is very, very compatible with the current Silicon Valley business model, which is capturing your attention through persuasion architectures, and surveilling you.
There is this denial of attention and censorship and all this focus that's coming from authoritarian governments, and, oh look! We've got a business model that fits very well with it, that's very compatible with it! And history tells us these things are going to merge, or they're going to try to merge.
They have not merged yet. One is at the commercial sphere and one is at the sort of power and control thing. So that's kind of what I'm thinking through right now is you know this book was more about these challenger movements. And now I'm thinking through: Whoa, the governments and the powerful have caught on. And then we've got this commercial maturing sphere with billions of dollars and huge companies, and at what point does the compatibility become an actualization in practice?
Twitter has, I think, its numbers are back up, it's presenting itself as healthier. In part because the timeline has become more algorithmic.
TUFEKCI: Yes, correct.
I would say that you're the least annoying tweet stormer—that's high praise. As somebody who spends a lot of time on Twitter, does that worry you?
TUFEKCI: Yes. This is what it makes me think of: we evolved as humans very naturally in a food-scarce environment. Right? So if you crave sugar and salts, thank your ancestors, because if they were like on a diet all the time, you probably wouldn't be here. Because you didn't get food from a vending machine, it was like if you didn't like food, you weren't going to survive, right?
So that's a very good thing that you have these cravings, but now we shift in twentieth century all of a sudden to a food abundant environment. If somebody served you sugar and salt and high fat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you'd eat it because that's the conditions under which it made sense four hundred thousand years in the Pleistocene. It does not make sense now. You have to go reverse it.
It's the same thing with the persuasion architectures that capture your attention, they do that by appealing to our fairly sort of human stuff, right? If you go to an algorithmic regime—YouTube, Facebook, increasingly Twitter—what I find is that if you say, watch some video vegetarianism on YouTube, all of a sudden, it's like, "Would you like to learn about veganism? Are you hardcore enough? Here!"
If you watch veganism, you can get recommended a video on, "Does eating honey count or not? Are bees exploited?" Like, it just keeps pulling you harder and harder-core. You watch a Trump rally, you get suggested white supremacist stuff.
You watch something on the Democrat stuff, you get conspiracy left suggested to you. What is the algorithm doing here? It has figured out, and probably not by programming, probably just by machine learning stuff, has figured out that if I can pull you to the edge and make you go down a rabbit hole, it is going to be engaging. Engagement is like sugar and salt for you.
So the salt is the polarization and pulling you to the edge, and the other side of the thing that I think really works well, which you guys know well, is the cuddly stuff, right? We are—by biology, by socialization, by culture—we raise little things to become adults. They're cute and cuddly to us because otherwise we probably wouldn't put up with them. Kittens, cats, babies, stuff like that.
So when you seek out an algorithmic regime, you see the outrageous stuff, the anger arousing stuff—it's arousing in the very biological sense—it's attractive to you. The kid cuddly triumph of the human spirit is very attractive to you. This is not a healthy public sphere!
But does that detract from social movements, or does that feed them? A lot of the social movements are living on the edges.
TUFEKCI: It feeds them, but not in a healthy way. I think it definitely feeds social movements because you've got all this sort of outrage that's fueling, but the outrage is a fire. You see their internal bickering, and the outrage sort of starts bickering, bickering, bickering.
You're now seeing in the alt-right. The alt-right was very good at these sort of cycles of attention and outrage, but the same dynamic means they've gotta kind of keep on doing it. So when they get close to power, they start doing it internally. This happens to social movements on the left, too.
So what I see now with Instagram, what I see is when you have an algorithmic regime, it's going to give you sugar and salt. And the numbers are going to go up. And the Wall Street people are like, "Yes, your numbers are up! Your monthly user engagement is great." But what you've done is you've degraded the quality of the communication and you put it in these very narrow channels, the "keep the spectacle" channels. And I don't think, on the political spectrum, they're not left versus right biased, they're outrage and cuddly biased. You see this a lot, and I bet you, if you ran your own numbers, if anybody runs their own numbers, that's, it's the sort of the algorithm feeding you what the humans kind of already like, and it starts a cycle in which the social media platform can't get rid of this because Wall Street wants its monthly user numbers.
But this is why people have fled from Facebook to Instagram. And now Instagram is going to go there. And I already read the, "Will Snapchat need to go algorithmic thing?" So the push, because the extension requires that sugar and salt.
How do you sort of fit this into what's now a sort of unusual conversation in this country about free speech? Which is obviously this very core American value, but I think is often, you know I think the companies believe they control these platforms, they can do whatever they want on them. Speakers on the platforms also would say like, they're allowed to say these things, who are you to stop them? Does your logic lead ultimately to some form of official censorship?
TUFEKCI: Well what I think we're seeing is that free speech—the core idea isn't that you get to speak to yourself, right? The core idea is you have some healthy way in which ideas can disseminate. I think like, in terms of, you can say it. I don't think we've ever been freer, right? You can say it, you put it on your blog.
The question is can your ideas disseminate and what are the channels through which your ideas can disseminate? There we have these very commercially driven regimes right now on capturing your attention. And I think it violates the spirit of the First Amendment in that we don't have some healthy dissemination of ideas, because the idea of free speech comes from a time where the ability to speak was difficult, so you want to encourage it. Right now the ability to speak is almost unlimited for most people so the question is, what are the dissemination channels, who are the filter channels?
And the fact that they are very centralized is very worrying to me. Because right now if you're social movement in the world, if you don't fit on Facebook, good luck! What are you going to do? Right you cannot really disseminate your ideas. But if you want to be on Facebook you have to please its terms of service, you have to please it's algorithm. I mean it's not just that thing, indeed they're very narrow, like, there's this huge design space of things we could use and they're all converging on the very, very same thing which is the monthly active users, and that number. You become what you measure, kind of thing, so that's what I see.
I don't really see old-style official censorship working very well, but I definitely see this new style, undermining of the dissemination of ideas in a diverse way. Instead we're just sort of getting stuck in narrow things.
Jane had a question about Facebook Live and whether this kind of live video will, she put it, "change engagement with the state?"
TUFEKCI: Yeah. Absolutely. Well the thing is, it's so surprising to me that these things aren't so obvious. When you have a platform like Facebook, and you want to push live, and if you go live, you get a notification—you basically give it an algorithmic boost. What do you think people are going to do going? Going to be like, right, whatever I want attention for, I'm going to use this.
So what have we in the past 10, 20 years, who wants attention? Lots of people who have, in their distorted mind, they want infamy after death, and they are going to go out in a suicide-murder fashion. We see this across the political spectrum, we see this in sort of the sort of ISIS-inspired terrorism. We see this in the school shootings, right? This is across the political spectrum. So very quickly they were like, "Oh, there's Facebook Live."
This was so obviously coming. Will this get governments in on the action? I don't really know, but I suspect that Facebook is going to find that on list it dampens the algorithmic push it gives to Facebook Live, this is going to catch on like wildfire. There's going to be a lot of unpleasant things going on there.
Yeah I think they've already started to dampen it.
We have time for a couple of audience questions. If you have a really good question, stick up on your hand...The question was about the impact of Mark Zuckerberg potentially running for president, something he's denied he's doing.
TUFEKCI: Well, yes, he's just going around shaking hands with people.
TUFEKCI: And Iowa, because fine. (laughs) That's what I do on weekends too. So basically the one big question is: Can you really control the key information dissemination platform in the country and run for president?
In one election they did this control, an experiment, where they showed sixty million people—because you're Facebook, you're going to experiment on sixty million people—they showed people go vote messages. And one type of go vote message was, "Go vote! Your friends voted." And you saw little, little thumbprint faces of your friends. It wasn't a huge thing. The other people got just a "Go vote!" So the only difference is slight thumbprints, once. Okay?
Then because Facebook has a real names policy, it can go trace people. They went to the voter rolls and they checked turnout. And since not everybody really uses legally traceable names, this is the minimum, they probably missed lots of people. At a minimum it appears, with one intervention, they turned out 300,000 more people.
The last US election turned on 100,000 people. So with one intervention to a little tweaky algorithm, they swung three times the number of people—you know we would have had President Clinton had it gone 100,000 the other way. This wasn't even done targeting people. It was random. But in reality, at the time they did the experiment, Facebook's user base tended a little more Democratic. Not really any more. So they almost certainly edged the Democratic candidate by doing that one experiment.
Now we have a lot of research, and social science research that shows that for example if you are a certain kind of personality type, if you get scared, you tend to vote conservative. It's completely plausible. I'm not saying Facebook will do this, but it's absolutely plausible and not even incompatible with the business model, that it could say, "Let's just tweak this a little bit." And we know from their own experiment it has these actual voter turnout things, and you could target this, especially in close elections.
There's an enormous power that is one-way surveillance, you've got a profile of basically the whole adult population, almost. You can match it to voter files because it's mostly a real name thing. You can stealthily target them. We know from their experiments even a little tweak affects moods. Yes, a little tweak affects moods a little bit, but you know you can tweak the algorithm a little bit. And you're going to be running all this and running for President?
This is an issue, right? And even if Zuck was like, "I am off the company," it's his people! And if they did this—let's take the other way, if it was a Facebook engineer, it was like, "I didn't get my promotion." Does he or she have access to turn the dial the other way? It's a very centralized mechanism and I don't really see how he gets to run for high office attached to Facebook.
Also my suggestion would be, I know the US likes presidential candidates to be celebrities, and it may even work, but you know, one can run for school board, city council! East Palo Alto really needs some attention.
You think he should work his way up?
TUFEKCI: That would probably be a healthier, he would have some time to distance himself.
That's your advice. Well, he's still young.
TUFEKCI: He's still young! And he seems to have interest. Yeah.
That's interesting advice. I have a couple more questions before we run out of time. This book traces the kind of genealogy of left-wing movements.
TUFEKCI: Mostly, yeah.
And you mention the Tea Party in passing, but you know if you look at the last couple years there's been a very successful conservative movement.
TUFEKCI: It is one of the most successful conservative movements yeah.
But do you write that way just basically because your heart beats on the left or do you think that these movements are fundamentally different?
TUFEKCI: My politics are undefinable at the moment, but if you put it somewhere, it would be left, so I have more experience, more observations, more participation.
But I think right-wing movements don't get studied enough and it's kind of a problem with my book, too, because academia tends to sort of lean left, so we don't study [them]. The Tea Party movement, it gets dismissed, a lot it's like, "Oh, it's Koch Brothers," and I'm like, it's not at all that simple. It's a real movement.
I put two big movements in the US that are very successful. One is the gay rights movement—amazingly successful considering where it came from. The other is the Tea Party movement. It blocked Obama's second term, it's got a president elected. It was a very interesting movement. It started as a movement, it started as a protest, and yes they got quickly some cash and advice infusion, but they took it. They took the advice, they took the cash, the left-wing movements are like, "Oh you're trying to join us, go away! You're not pure enough." That's a very common left-wing approach to this, and they became, like the groups that met at protests, became laser focused on wielding both legislative and disruptive power. And there's a couple of great books about them, and I think they got their President elected.
Can you tell that story about the weather?
TUFEKCI: Oh yeah, it's amazing. The rain is a natural experiment because you don't control where it rains in the world, right? Nobody does. So, in 2009 when the Tea Party was first getting together, on April, I believe, yeah, it was the fifteenth that year, the exact Tax Day.
Some places got rained out and some places got to hold their protests. They were supposed to hold protests everywhere in the country; they couldn't hold it everywhere. The sunny locales could and the rained out places could not.
So this amazing paper traces what happened a couple years down the line. The places that had sunshine so that the movements could meet, the people could meet and meet each other, they had measurably higher Tea Party influence. They had more incumbents retiring, getting replaced by Tea Party people, the policy people shifted. Because what had happened is they used that protest to meet each other and then get to real work.
Now part of what you said in the beginning is that I think the left-wing movements haven't really adjusted to this. They're using hashtags and they're using technology to basically parachute to the top of Mount Everest. The sherpas are carrying your oxygen, your everything, you're not really developing those muscles.
So in the past what used to be the culmination of enormous amount of effort by the movement to be able to hold a march on Washington, right? You just starting there. It makes you feel powerful. Because I've been in protests my whole life, they're amazing. The Women's March, it starts with a couple of Facebook posts, right? And everybody's like, "Oh, great, look what we can do with a couple of Facebook posts!"
I'm like, "That's not great!" That means that you're just getting started. You can pull a million people, but you don't actually have the infrastructure to move forward with those million people unless you start building it. In the past you couldn't hold a march before building the infrastructure.
Now thanks to technology you can hold the march but you don't have the infrastructure to do anything else tactical. So the Tea Party movement, they did start with the big protests, but they wisely stumbled into this model in which the protest is your first step, and then you're kind of like, you know what? We're in step one.
Whereas, what I see in a lot of left movements is that there's this, I call it like asphalt fetishization. As soon as we're large numbers in the street, we think we have a lot of power. We don't. Because the streets are not magic. They can completely be ignored if they don't actually imply some other political threat to the powerful and the powerful have figured this out. And then the question becomes: what's the next step?
And when I write this people are like, "Are you belittling people's efforts in marches?" No I'm not. I'm just sort of saying if you compare it to the past and get this idea that it's actually your power, you'll make false steps because it's your hashtag, and social media just got you from 0 to 100.
The problem is sort of that everyone knows how much easier it is now to get the people out, and so people are less afraid?
TUFEKCI: And they don't really take it as a threat. It doesn't have the same teeth that a harder thing had, and right now you see with sort of the US is finally shifting, you have like things like Indivisible and Swing Left zone that are starting to do the retail politics. And this is not saying, don't use online stuff. Of course use online stuff! Right? I mean what's the point of not using all the shortcuts?
Just kind of be aware that you're running with springs in your feet, and that means your muscles aren't really doing the jumping. And eventually you're going to have a government come at you, and you're going to need those muscles. So the question is how do we build the muscles to do other stuff, too?
Because in 2011, the government saw you and they were like, "Oh my god, this is scary!" And we thought we were so powerful. It's 2017, they see your hashtag march, and they were like, "Eh, not really a threat," and they go on and it can happen, so we'll see.
There's one more question. Are we doomed, Zeynep?
TUFEKCI: Are we doomed or not?
You've got thirty seconds for that one.
TUFEKCI: So here's the thing is, this is why I do what I do, besides being personally an optimist, I feel like we've never been better connected. We have all the tools, and hopefully we have enough of a scare about where the world is going to kind of start taking how we allocate our attention, what's the business model, what's the distribution channel? I hope we can start taking it seriously, because at the moment things have not calcified or ossified. Silicon Valley is young, the founders are young, the tech employees have a lot of leverage, there's a couple of companies where there's a lot that can be done. If people go like, wait, we're building this future and the question is: do you really want to be the Leni Riefenstahl of 2017, that they write about you in 50 years, saying, "They were really talented and they helped bring this horrible authoritarianism through their talent."? This is I think where things are going with a lot of companies.
So the reason I'm writing and talking so much is that I don't think it's too late. I think there's a huge design space that's completely under-explored. I mean all our affordances are in this tiny little sliver, they're all on this new MAU, monthly active user, I mean it's so short-sighted. There's a huge design space we could be exploring. We have pocket supercomputers and hopefully with what's happening in the world in 2016, 2017, we have enough people saying, "Wait, let's do an intervention.” So I'm actually very hopeful that something can be done.
But if we don't do anything, history says the insurgent phase is over, the management will comply. I mean the idea that the management of these companies will forever resist, that is deluded: will never happen. Eventually, right? In some 10- to 20-year horizon, either through government pressure or legal pressure or people will retire, the stuff will merge. Whatever we put in institutionally, structurally, whatever sort of other paths we can take right now I think are really viable, but if we don't take them, it will ossify, it will be very hard.
It'll be kind of the way radios, right now, this one-way thing? It didn't start that way and then World War I happened and the Navy was like, "It's ours!" And then corporations came along and I was like, it's ours, and now it's theirs, right?
So can we not let them make the internet into the corporate radio signal and what that became. I think the answer is: Yes, we can, but it has to be taken seriously. It's not going to be done on the cheap, it's not going to be done without effort. And it's not going to be done by, you know, just occasionally big platforms changing their front page to some cuddly feel good political message. Right? That's not how it's going to happen.
I have one last question. I think that kind of summed up a lot of a lot of what I what I wanted to ask, but when I read this book, it is among other things a catalog of cafes and of you sitting down in a great cafe in Istanbul and Cairo and Hong Kong which kind of made me a bit jealous, I just wondered if you could leave us with a recommendation. What is the best, like, cool activist cafe in the world?
TUFEKCI: Well this is going to sound really horrible. Around the world activists always go to Starbucks, because it has free WIFI. And you know what's the other place they all go to? MCDonald's. I know, Golden Arches. You remember in Ferguson where the whole thing blew up after Ryan [Reilly] from Huffington Post and Wesley [Lowery] the from Washington Post got arrested, because they were charging at McDonald's? Activists are very practical people.
So if you want the coolest cafe, there's really cool ones by the shore in Istanbul, where the cats will come and like take the money from your pocket, and go buy themselves food, and put your wallet back in without you noticing. And I will tell you where they are after the talk is over. But if you want to find the activists, this is why they're also on Facebook. You see what I'm saying, they're very practical. They're going to go where the people are. They're going to go where the WIFI is, so you're constantly meeting them—I rarely go to Starbucks in this country, but when I'm abroad, I'm like, “I know your menu in like three different languages by heart.” That's how it goes.
Well, thank you for coming in.
TUFEKCI: Thank you for inviting me.
BuzzFeed Editor-In-Chief Ben Smith hosts conversations on the intersection of politics, media, and technology — and all of 2017's insanity.
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