Regarding Twitter

I have another, much more interesting and important thing to talk about—e.g. the witching cats of New Jersey—but enough people have asked me for my hot take on the acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk that I’ll take a stab at it. I will get back to my regularly scheduled programming in the very near future, but for now, I am going to celebrate the fact that moving this site to kinsta earlier this week has made a rapid response like this one much easier.

In the 2005-2006 academic year, I led a team of scholars at the Annenberg Center for Communication in researching the topic of “Networked Publics.” This project led to a book of the same name, published by the MIT Press in 2008 and an aborted project on the broader topic of network culture that faced too much opposition from entrenched interests in the academy to see the light of day. Our little group didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but if there was anything we could agree with, it was the grim conclusion of the brilliant politics chapter written by Merlyna Lim and the late Mark E. Kann: although the Internet is a powerful resource for mobilization, it is a poor venue for democratic deliberation.

To this day, we have absolutely no evidence otherwise. The dramatic rise of algorithmically-produced content feeds in the nearly twenty years since our research year has made matters much worse. As algorithms respond to user engagement and reaction, they deliver the content that users want to see, creating a spiral of ever-increasing polarization (for a series of links to studies on this matter, see this piece from the Brookings Institution). Making matters worse are the social media “cops” on both sides who thrive on attacking viewpoints divergent from accepted consensus. If you say that vaccines are important and that the 2020 election was legitimate but your social media “friends” are right-wingers, you’ll get called out by an army of Trumpenproles if you say so. If you say that magic monetary theory is insane or that defunding the police will hurt African Americans more than anybody, you’ll get publicly shamed by the Internet cops on the Left. Then there are things that we know very well not to talk about with our peers. To take one example, virtually no academic would publicly say that doctoral programs are in crisis and universities are producing vastly more PhD.s than there will ever be jobs for just so that doctoral chairs can gain status in the academy and professors can get free research assistants, even though most academics I have spoken to about this agree wholeheartedly off the record. I am outside the academy so I can freely say this. But nobody in the academy can. The cops there have the power to destroy unorthodox thinkers so nobody will say it. Even outside academia, there are positions so politically dangerous that I won’t dare utter them out loud even here, notwithstanding that the vast majority of my peers agree with them privately (you’ll just have to guess, so sorry). Internet cops gain symbolic capital by dismissing ideas that don’t conform to the orthodoxy and it’s been interesting to observe as a few cops have, coincidentally or not, attained positions of minor leadership in the academy (probably because no sane person wants them). Cops tend not to think for themselves, but rather they are guided by what Venkatesh Rao calls beef-only thinkers, who demand unqualified support, folks like Glenn Greenwald, Michael Tracey, or Marjorie Taylor-Greene.

If, on the one hand, we have a social media landscape actively patrolled by cops, we also have a steady-state of outrage from the woke and the trumpenproles: everything is burning, right now/there has never been a more consequent election/there has never been a greater threat to democracy/etc. The news media—particularly TV news, but also online personalities—amp up the rhetoric in order to profit from the clicks. Outrage makes money, even as it makes us stupider. But after years and years of outrage, people are exhausted. It’s very much like pornography, searching for ever-greater stimulus, things got more and more extreme and eventually it wasn’t that people got scandalized, it’s that they got bored. Only the most politically active and the most insane want to the outrage to continue. After the nightmarish calamity following the 2016 election, COVID, the January 6 insurrection, and then the invasion of Ukraine, high levels of cortisol and adrenaline have literally taken their toll on our bodies, creating inflammatory reactions that leave us with no way to absorb more bad news. It may have been funny when a demented old grifter demanded to see Obama’s birth certificate, it was hilarious to see “America’s Mayor” stand up in front of the garage of a landscaping firm, burbling nonsense, his false teeth nearly falling out of his head, but nobody wants to see it again. In an economy sustained by growth, Facebook’s aging user group is down by significant numbers, and analysts are talking about a “death spiral.” Well, thank goodness. Nor is the subject of today’s diatribe, Twitter, immune, its active users are also fleeing, just in time for Musk’s ill-timed purchase. The only solution people are finding to this anxiety is disconnection, leaving all this crap behind. It will likely cause a rout for the Democrats in the 2022 election (I am not, however, entirely convinced of this), but if it does, it will be the far Left’s relentless barrage of alarmist news that will be, in large part, to blame.

What are the options? Clearly not Twitter. Elon probably should fire most of Twitter’s staff. Around 5,000 employees work at Twitter and, judging from the evidence, none of them save the people who make sure the servers don’t go down, do anything. The site has had virtually no innovation since its launch, the code is a notorious mess, and, well what do they actually do all day long?

Journalists like to promote TikTok as an alternative, but TikTok’s growth is limited to a high school and college age demographic in search of diversion. What political content exists there—a Johns Hopkins study suggests— is hardly any better than what can be found at Facebook and, in any event, like YouTube, TikTok is oriented less toward people producing their own content and more toward passive consumption and commenting. Instagram is not dissimilar, although there, the content-production tends to be aspirational and imitative in nature, contributing to body dysphoria and leading young women to seek to surgically reshape themselves into the “Instagram face” look pioneered by Jocelyn Wildenstein. The one healthy (for now) antidote for this is BeReal, an anti-Instagram that values immediacy and promotes looking real, or at least, candid and terrible, it’s only drawback is that virtually nobody except for college-age kids uses it (I know, you can visit mine, I have one follower). TIkTok and Instagram are terrible platforms for political messaging—although some will try—and BeReal is virtually useless for it. This, of course, is their charm.

If there are genuine alternative social media spaces right now, they are Discord and Substack. Both are flawed, but it’s Substack—not Twitter—that holds the only potential for a future social media platform right now.

Discord is a set of “servers” (not really servers, but they are called that, they are virtual spaces for micropublics) dedicated to a given topic, e.g. Minecraft gaming, Roblox, GTA, (Discord started as a space for emergent gaming communities), online generative art generators, techwear, eurorack synthesizers, alt-space, AI generative art, Arduino programming, white supremacism (this has since been banned) or whatever excites you. Discord is growing rapidly, but it has two major limiting factors. The first is that because of the conversation-like organization, unless one is actively engaged with a server, one rapidly loses track of what is being talked about. Catching up is neither intuitive nor, well, interesting. The second is that there is no broader link between these micropublics. Each server is a walled silo and there is no communication between them.

Substack is a platform for content-creators—mainly writers but also some podcasters— in which subscribers pay subscriptions for content and content-creators are promised income directly from their subscribers. Unlike the similar Patreon, however, it is more oriented around discovery and community. Log into the Substack site and you will be shown a sidebar with recommendations for other Substacks that are, shades of Facebook and Twitter, algorithmically recommended for you. Subscribe to a right-wing Substack, you’ll definitely be offered more. So, basically, another Facebook or Twitter. The up side is that Substack allows comments (depending on settings), and also has recently allowed users to incorporate RSS feeds from outside of Substack into their feed. If—and it’s a big if, one that likely won’t take place since it’s only my idea, not Substack’s—the platform can find a way to create glue between Substacks and users—such as making it easier for users to follow each other and talk directly to each other— it has some hope. The reason I hold any hope for Substack is that unlike Facebook or Twitter, it promotes long-form writing. This post makes no sense on Facebook or Twitter, but it will easily work on Substack. The second hitch is that Substack is heavily tied to a subscription economy. Most newsletters, it seems, cost about $10 a month. That’s great but can rapidly become unaffordable in an era where we are already paying for one or two newspapers, a couple of magazines, Netflix, Spotify, Hulu, and you get the idea… People are getting tired of subscriptions, very tired.

This leaves us with with WordPress. WordPress is not only the dominant worldwide blogging platform, it has a reader that allows readers to follow blogs and participate in dialogues in the comments. Again, it’s a long shot, but users are also implicitly encouraged to become bloggers and, well, why not? In the 1970s and early 1980s mass media seemed to be all-powerful, but then we had the Zine revolution and the explosion of the Internet, back when it was still fun and potential seemed everywhere. Substack and WordPress may not be the future, but I still think a platform with some future in it (I am no longer comfortable thinking it will be any lasting solution, let alone a utopian space of deliberative democracy) is coming if we have any hope of talking to each other online.

A final reflection on all this is how deeply sad this is for Elon Musk. Although he has recently shifted from being an icon of the Left to being an icon of the Right, he is the Steve Jobs of this age, having made both electric cars a reality and creating the first successful reusable rocket system. Ten years ago, even five years ago, owning two electric cars by 2022 would have seemed entirely implausible to me and yet, we replaced both our cars with Teslas in 2020. These cars require less maintenance than any other vehicles we have ever owned (thus far, our total repairs involve a heat pump valve on the Model Y and some issues with the rear gate on our Model S, plus some cabin air filter replacements oh, and new tires), have excellent performance (I’m a car guy, but my wife loves driving hers as well), and it is delightful to skip the weekly trips to the gas station. SpaceX’s phenomenal success speaks for itself (not only am I car guy, I’m a space nut) and Starship promises to revolutionize the space industry, and even though I am concerned about Starlink’s impact on astronomy, it has the ability to deliver secure Internet communications at broadband speeds virtually everywhere and has made a big, positive impact in military operations in the Ukraine. That, for whatever reason, Musk is spending his time and money on Twitter is very sad. If he wanted to have fun, wouldn’t it make better sense to just book a flight on a crew Dragon? I would. It’s not like he doesn’t won the only company that ever regularly sent people into outer space; eat your own dog food, Elon. Running Twitter seems incredibly boring. Moreover, Elon has a long list of failures to go along with the successes—Tesla Solar (I just put a new roof on my house, why wasn’t it from Tesla Solar?), Tesla’s Full Self-Driving has been around for almost two years and hasn’t gone anywhere (remember when Elon said we’d have self-driving Tesla taxis by 2020), and Tesla not only hasn’t released a single new vehicle since 2020, it has raised prices on existing vehicles while cutting out features such as front-facing radar and rear-facing ultrasonic sensors but hasn’t found ways to compensate. I own Tesla stock but I think they are in trouble unless Elon spends some time there soon and Twitter is a distraction he hardly needs.

Finally, as far as the future of Twitter. Who cares? It is a dying platform. I have met some great friends on it—many more than on Facebook—but if it dies and Facebook dies, it will be better for everyone. If Captain Dementia joins back up over the weekend, or Monday, or whenever, what does it matter. It’s not like anybody listened to him on Truth Social anyway.

On Drupal, or Wither Web 2.0?

With the end of the year approaching, I might as well begin my reflections with yet another rote lament for why I don't post enough anymore. Blogging is dead for many and has been dead now for about as long as it thrived. Somehow, I resolve, I'll turn back to blogging one day, but other things come first, like my kids, my project at MoMA, various projects at the Netlab, teaching, articles that I have neglected too long, writing my book, working on the restoration of my house and so on.

But every now and then it turn back to the Web, if not to blogging then to working on the infrastructure beneath my stable of Web sites. In this case, this morning I took the Networked Publics site and converted it to from a live Drupal installation to a static site. Networked Publics ceased to be live years ago as it was the record of a year-long workshop that took place from fall 2005 to fall 2006 and the book that came out of the workshop was published in 2008. Besides me the last log at Networked Publics comes from my late colleague and friend Anne Friedberg some six years, twenty-four weeks ago. I find it sad that the group we formed doesn't stay together virtually, but such, I suppose, is the nature of scholarly collaborations involving individuals from radically disparate fields. Still, as a historian, the record of a year spent by a team of scholars investigating a topic seems worth paying a few dollars to keep registered so I spent a couple of hours to ensure the site wouldn't be tied to an aging Drupal 6 infrastructure.  

Looking back at the low-fi Web 2.0 site and the low-fi videos on it, it already seems like ancient history. But this was the state of the art not 15 or 20 years ago but rather a mere eight years ago. The trends that the Networked Publics group identified—the rise of DIY media in particular—are now not the province of nerds and geeks but rather part of our everyday lives. It's stunning to think back and remember showing the group the first video iPod that I had purchased soon after its release that year. Such, I suppose is the process of aging in the technological future. One gauges oneself as much by the personal milestones one experiences as by the tech one leaves behind.  

For me, development on Drupal has become something to leave behind as well. Last year I concluded my development of, which I had transitioned from outdated custom cgi code to Drupal back in 2006, by having Jochen Hartmann take over as web developer and earlier this year I replaced the Drupal sites for both AUDC and the Netlab with sites driven by Indexhibit. This process of steadily whittling down my Drupal sites means that this remains the only one I have left (minus the seriously neglected Lair of the Chrome Peacock). 

But this isn't a mere status update regard the infrastructure of these sites. Changes in infrastructure, as my readers should know, are never innocent, but rather embody ideological and social changes. When I first came to Drupal back in 2005, I was encouraged by the ease of extending the system and its Open Source development. For a time I was active in the community at Drupal. Not being much of a coder anymore, I asked questions, gave suggestions, and helped out with some problems people had on the forums, but it became clear to me that most people on Drupal's communty site fell into three categories. Those just starting out, those trying to help out as they could (and usually fleeing when they felt overwhelmed… this typically happened after they had submitted a new module or theme), and those who were either dedicated hobbyists or worked with Drupal for a living. Not being part of the latter two, I wound up retreating.

As a designer, I had this foolish idea that my site should look the way I want it to look so I spent a ridiculous amount of time tweaking these sites by building themes for them and outfitting them with extensions called "modules." Unfortunately in an effort to optimize its code base, the developers of Drupal have adopted a mantra which states that "the drop is always moving" which simply means that Drupal will actively break any themes and modules during each major point release. The result is that I found myself needing a month of down time to upgrade my sites from Drupal 5 to Drupal 6. For a scholar to do this is preposterously difficult. For a scholar with kids to do this is virtually impossible. 

Drupal 7 came out a while back, but lacking any compelling features, I chose not to upgrade. After all, a month of down time just to get back to where I was is hardly attractive. Now Drupal 8 promises adaptive themes that will appropriately react to the mobile platforms that increasingly drive Web traffic so I am likely to go to it, but even though new development was frozen in the system a year ago, it seems far from prime time. I spent more than half an hour today looking for a release date for the first beta and couldn't find anything but long-outdated information. If this site is to be believed, there are more critical bugs in Drupal 8 today than a year ago. 

Therein lies the trouble with Drupal and modern coding: immense complexity (see my comments on complexity at Triple Canopy). Projects of this size become impossible to manage, impossible to code, and impossible for users to work with. My front page is aging, an artifact from an era in which laptops commonly had screens with a resolution of 1024 X 768 not 1920 X 1200 (as my current one does) but to redo when it will only break again soon seems ludicrous. Perhaps I'll use another system like WordPress to run this site or maybe I'll pickle it and fork off to another platform. Any of this is possible, but I'll hardly recommend Drupal to anyone again or do anything but build the most minimal theme I can for it.  

Beyond a stern caution about the complexity that Open Source projects can generate and that can choke them, as Drupal has been choked, for all of the technological maturation that we've seen over the years since Networked Publics, the one thing that we've drifted away from is Web presence. If the static Web marked the 1990s, Web 2.0's dynamic Web sites dominated the time in which we wrote Networked Publics. Bringing back to life with Drupal in 2005, I envisioned it as part of an interlinked ecology of sites, both local (AUDC, DoCoMoMo-US, the Netlab, etc.) but also global, interlinking to other sites through RSS feeds and commenting systems. This hasn't happened, to this site or any other. Web 2.0's strongest links such as social bookmarking (repeated problems with Delicious at the hands of Yahoo! and AVOS and the meltdown at ma.gnolia) and RSS suffered a similar fate after Google Reader shut down this summer. As Open Source withers when it becomes over-complex, struggling corporations like Yahoo! and Google undo matters in their binge and purge cycles, buying up whatever they can in hopes of monetizing the Web and then wiping out communities when they turn out to be too hard to profit from.    

Instead of the open Web then, we have apps and the privatized, Balkanized world they promise. It's hard not to be gloomy about this, hard to find a happy face to put on all this. Perhaps that is my wont, but sometimes there isn't one. The problems of cooperation, collaboration, and democratic decision-making remain the thorniest of problems for Networked Publics. 

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Networked Publics, or Pareto’s Revenge

I recently had the opportunity to speak at the Penn Humanities Forum in a symposium on cores ande peripheries. I enjoyed myself tremendously. It was a welcome opportunity to have an opportunity to expand my work on networked publics and network culture, especially with such a great synergy between speakers, responders, and audience. I gave two talks, first a position statement and second, a talk on how power configures itself in networked publics.

I've uploaded the second talk to Vimeo and am including the text here. I don't have video for the first talk, but I will upload the text soon.


Networked Publics or Pareto's Revenge from Kazys Varnelis on Vimeo.


In this talk I want to explore how core and periphery might appear in networks and how they are networks reconfigure their structural conditions. 

During the last two decades, networks have become our dominant cultural logic. The Internet and mobile telecommunications devices have revolutionized our lives by connecting us in new ways, but more than that, in a book length study of network culture that I am slowly picking away at, I want to suggest that there has also been a mutation that produces this condition and that this condition is no longer simply postmodernity. 

Now I’m not suggesting technological determinism. On the contrary, it is the widespread technological determinism in society today that serves as evidence of network culture as a distinct period. Contrast the widely held techno-utopianism today with the technological pessimism of postmodernism. As late as the early 1990s, historian of science Leo Marx would declare “‘Technological pessimism’ may be a novel term, but most of us seem to understand what it means. It surely refers to that sense of disappointment, anxiety, even menace, that the idea of ‘technology’ arouses in many people these days.”

Even with the addled sense of overload that too much e-mail, too many SMS messages, too much Twitter, and too much of everything gives us, these voices are fewer and farther between than they were in the 1980s. We see Jaron Lanier and Nicholas Carr as Cassandras, not as leaders of some kind of neo-luddite movement. In contrast, oppositional movements like Occupy and the Arab Spring not only rely on the familiar technology of smart phones, Web sites, and Twitter but also use distributed networks as models for organization. RAND researchers John Arquila and David Ronfeldt refer to new insurgency movements as “Netwars.” They write that “Strong netwar actors will have not only organizational, but also doctrinal, technological, and social layers that emphasize network designs. Netwar actors may make heavy use of cyberspace, but that is not their defining characteristic—they subsist and operate in areas beyond it.”

So, too, commonplace menaces like Peak Oil and Global Warming are commonly shrugged off as being solvable with technological fixes. 

The network, meanwhile, seems everywhere, spreading far beyond technology, “everting,” turning inside out, as William Gibson suggests in Spook Country. Whether we take neoliberal affirmations of globalization, post-Marxist network collectives, educational institutions, or analytical models of organization in sociology, the network has replaced both the formless mass and the hierarchical tree as our model of collectivity. It has been two decades since Manuel Castells dubbed our social order “the network society.”

The network is the cultural dominant of our time, much as the machine was for the modern era. Like the machine, the network is a technology, and in this, our time shares a return to the modern obsession with technological change. 

In this talk, I want to focus on “networked publics,” a term that I wound up working with as a Senior Fellow at the Annenberg Center for Communication in the 2005-2006 academic year after a semester here at Penn. I want to pose the question of what sort of logics of hierarchy emerge within networks and how do these give form to the public, that meeting ground in which we come together to observe and discuss culture, politics, and other matters of common concern? 

Let’s start with culture since it is key to the public. In Ancients and Moderns Joan DeJean shows  that those debates on cultural matters in the seventeenth century were the theater in which a modern idea of the public first emerged.

 The cultural, of course, is the political; the stakes were high for Boileau and Perrault, no question And what of the decline of the public sphere or rather its metamorphosis into mass media and the development of the mass? Habermas descries the mass media as commodified, “a public sphere in appearance only,” its mission being to encourage consumption.

 But we should remember another meaning to the mass, which is that of a certain Utopic strain of modernity, that strain that can’t help but call forth an absolutist argument, be it Lissitzky, Corbusier, or Eisenstein. There is no alternate viewpoint to be entertained, no debate to be had, only Agitprop for the avant-garde that advocated a universalizing instrumental rationality. 

Postmodernity not only did not return a public sphere, it broke up the mass. After all, postmodernity and postmodernism were defined by the thorough triumph of the culture industry, with postmodernism in Jameson’s words, “the cultural logic of late capitalism.” But with this too, came the fragmenting of mass media in response to the shift from manufacturing to the service industry in postmodernity and the culture industry’s need to expand its market by directly targeting consumer groups.  

But if the rise of the culture industry is a constituent of postmodernity, during the last decade we have witnessed a stunning reversal. Culture has had tricks up its sleeve to foil the market, networked tricks. Just as its triumph seemed complete, the culture industry faced an unprecedented crisis of value. During the last decade, the free availability of information on the Internet has undone entire media ecologies. Just when it seemed to be defeated by commodification, culture decided to fight back and shrug it off. In part, consumers—particularly young consumers—have proven that they have little allegiance to the culture industry’s ideas of ownership, and are glad to pirate what they can. But even when the means are legal, consumers seek to optimize their spending on culture, throwing the media into crisis. That new media corporations such as Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google, and Mog are eager to help in the “creative destruction” only makes this more so. 

More than this though, relationships of producers to consumers have changed fundamentally, even from postmodernism. If Habermas described the privatization of the salon from public to private, now matters are reversed. No longer is the individual’s opinion restricted to the living room, rather they can give vent to their reactions across the Internet

Network culture, then is the age of networked publics. Networked publics are groups of individuals who congregate around issues and media that they share an interest in, regardless of their location. Networked publics do not merely receive information, they communicate bottom-to-top-and side-to-side, sharing opinions, reworking, and redistributing information. In this, networked publics have not only utilized but also greatly shaped the technological platforms that constitute media culture today. Think not of comments on newspaper articles, forums about television shows, YouTube, academic listservs and on and on. 

Networked publics do not, however, coalesce. There is no place in which we come together, no new public sphere. I’d like to point out that Habermas talks a great deal about architecture in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and in that respect, I’d like to draw an analogy with physical space. In his book The Big Sort, journalist Bill Bishop tries to account for how we have seemingly given up any notion of the public sphere for and wound up with a paradoxical country that is remarkably divided. Bishop argues that politics has become subject to a consumption mentality and we choose the places we want to live based on the presence of individuals who think like we do. Bishop: “For companies, there weren't mass markets any longer, only individual consumers to be targeted and then supplied with just the product they wanted. The country sorted into separate groupings of lifestyle and belief. We left behind a country that was striving to be whole in 1965, with the passage of civil rights laws and universal health care coverage for the elderly, and we began to sequester ourselves into tribes of like beliefs, images, neighborhoods, and markets.”

 We can see this sort of segmentation in, for example, the clusters that geodemographic marketing firm Claritas produces. Utilizing data like this, politicians tune their messages to generate the most votes. Now networked publics do link individuals across political boundaries, but the basic problem remains, you dig yourself deeper. 

So networked publics seem to be a set of peripheries that can’t coalesce. But there’s more to it than that and the rest of my talk will address networks themselves. We’ve seen the diagram of distributed networks, but if the nodes in a network are allowed to make their own link, something curious happens. Some nodes will connected more to others. Some of those highly-connected nodes will get even more connections. The result is the emergence of “hubs” that will have vastly more connections than other nodes. Take for example the Web site for this conference and compare it to Google.

Media theorist Clay Shirky has suggested observed that in the case of blogs, what is called a “scale-free” network developed naturally, leading to the disproportionate favoring of certain sites. Shirky: “This has nothing to do with moral weakness, selling out, or any other psychological explanation. The very act of choosing, spread widely enough and freely enough, creates a power law distribution.”

 As network theory shows, Shirky argues, this is absolutely natural: “Freedom of Choice Makes Stars Inevitable.” Shirky suggests that although this might one day be a problem, for now we can content ourselves with knowing that this is a natural property of the network. Fair enough, I suppose but if we see the network as a model for society, then we know that this is going to lead straight into neoliberalism and into the creation of a new set of cores and peripheries, network style. 

More than that, former Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson suggests that if we look at media consumption as a scale-free network, then the low section of the graph, or the Long Tail, is particularly rich. Anderson observes that aggregators such as Amazon or iTunes make as much money or more from the Long Tail in their libraries as they do from the hits oat the top. Artists in the Long Tail, Anderson suggests, can make decent livings from a dedicated community of fans, a networked public that revolving around them.

 Curiously, what happens is an evisceration of the middle. We all share knowledge of the big hits, but the middle is now obscured. We have networked publics—our love of Kung Fu movies or noise music or shoegaze—but will we ever meet except at the most basic big hit level?

But ultimately my point, to get back to what I was speaking about this morning is this. There is a power rippling through networked publics and that power is neoliberalism. For the network naturalizes its propensity toward creating ever-greater GINI coefficients. I want to finish by pointing to one particular origin of network theory that also gives rise to my talk’s title. The scale-free network in which 80% of the hits are taken by 20% of the nodes was first formulated by sociologist and economist Vilfredo Pareto, active in Italy in the first part of the last century. He came to this insight when he sought to explain the development of power in societies. Pareto himself believed that such scale-free networks were just. A ruling class, he argued, would always emerge. In writings that appealed to Mussolini and the fascists, he suggested that since this was the natural order of things, the state should simply get out of the way, allowing the natural social law to maintain itself. 

If recent apologists for Pareto have suggested that had he not died within a year of the Fascist assumption of power, he would have turned against it, it seems to me that our network culture might have been more acceptable to him. For networks may not seem to have cores and peripheries, but make no mistake, they give rise to power structures no less intractable. 

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Toward Publishing

A short time ago, we issued our first call for the Networked Publics: Publish project. Last Thursday a group of panelists from the Networked Publics panels met together with Netlab staff to discuss the abstracts.

The result is as follows: 

Everyone who submitted to the publication should finish their piece and post it online, tagging it #netdomus and sending an e-mail to me (use the contact form on the left) to let me know that they’ve done so. Anyone interested in submitting who hasn’t submitted yet should do the same. We’re facing a number of deadlines right now, the call for very specific things to write about isn’t yet out, but the general consensus here (or at least, the one I am most inclined to follow) seems to be that we are going to think of this as a newspaper or news magazine and conceive of appropriate sections, for example, sports, business, domestic, national, and international news, business, politics, weather, interviews, op-ed, entertainment, literature, society, tourism, automobiles, style, cooking, health, home decoration, real estate, family, and so on (I cribbed this list from here and you might find further ideas there). All the while, keep in mind the original context of networked publics, which is outlined here. 

One thing everyone should keep in mind is to write for a general readership. In other words, if you’re going to employ theory, don’t assume that anybody knows it. Explain it! 

Let’s say that the pieces are due on the 18th of July. That’s two and a half weeks from now, which is a long way away in newspaper or magazine time. After that, we will select from this list for work to publish on the Domus site and… well, we’ll see about what the next step (or media) after that will be.

Oh and if you don’t have a blog, don’t worry about it. We’ll find a means by which you can get your material posted! Just give us another week or so.  



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Networked Publics: Publish

I have announced this over at the Netlab site, but I wanted to make sure that the readers of this blog had a chance to see it as well. I’ll be blogging about the topic a bit throughout the summer and into next year, so stayed tuned for more. 


The Network Architecture Lab and Domus announce Networked Publics: Publish, an open call for submissions to a new collaborative publication. 

During the last fifteen years architecture and the media have been turned on their head as technologies of production and communication integrated into our daily lives. But instead of the delirious optimism of the last decade, we now also face panic and crisis. The media industry is in flux: as new media rise, old ones are victims of creative destruction. The tools of architectural production, meanwhile, have been thoroughly transformed; yet thanks to technological and legal innovations that made possible the securitization of buildings, architecture faces its greatest economic crisis since the Depression. If we can be certain of anything, it’s that as Karl Marx wrote, "all that is solid melts into air."
We invite brief submissions (under 1,500 words) addressing the consequences of these changes for the architectural community. What are the transformations taking place in the architectural profession, in architectural media, in criticism? How are these transformations interconnected? What do these mean to you? What do they mean to the future of architecture and cities?
We are keenly aware that it is the engagement with precisely these epochal transformations that will define the critical output of our generation, and that the legacy of the previous generation of critics and theorists is no longer able to deliver the kind of thinking necessary to help us address and catalyze these conditions. This publication is intended as forum for debate through which the accepted understanding of the word ‘publication’ itself can be challenged, redefined, dismantled and rebuilt.  It will polemically frame our context, but it will also constitute a toolbox of ideas that outlines an agenda for criticism in network culture.
Domus, one of the earliest and historically most influential architecture magazines, sets itself as a case study for debate around the role of printed magazines in the contemporary era. If the magazine is no longer spontaneously embraced as a locus for debate, should the permanence of printed matter induce it to serve as a historical register for ideas developed elsewhere, e.g. on the Web (the magazine understood as an archive-in-progress of excellence)? Or, conversely, should it pursue agility, hybridizing across platforms? Does the notion of architectural criticism, understood in conventional terms, bear any relevance today? What forces designate the formal and conceptual frameworks of contemporary built architecture?
There are three ways to submit.
The first way is to send in an abstract by 12 noon, EST June 24 pitching an article on the topic. This should be one brief paragraph on what you would like to write about although if you are inspired enough to submit your entry in full, you may also do so at this time.
An editorial team will meet to review submissions and send feedback to contributors on the 24th. At this meeting we will also discuss the gaps in the publication and post a call for submissions that specifically address such topics. A second way to submit an article is to respond to this call. Abstracts for projects responding to the call for submissions are due on July 2.
Final work for both submission tracks will be due on July 15. 
A third way to submit is to join a conversation over the Internet by tagging a blog or twitter post #netdomus. 
The publication will be available for free download at Domus’s Web site. A launch event will be held at Columbia’s Studio-X at the end of the summer but this conversation—and publication—will continue for some time to come.  
Contributors may find potential references in Networked Publics, a book published by MIT Press in 2008 and produced in collaboration with the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center for Communication to examine how the social and cultural shifts centering around new technologies have transformed our relationships to (and definitions of) place, culture, politics, and infrastructure. This spring, the Netlab hosted “Discussions on Networked Publics” at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation’s Studio-X Soho facility, exploring the ramifications of these changes to architecture and cities through a set of four panels—culture, place, politics, and infrastructure. Discussions were recorded and are available here.
Please submit your proposals here.   

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2/9/10 Discussions in Networked Publics

The Network Architecture Lab announces a series of evening panels entitled “Discussions on Networked Publics “at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation’s Studio-X Soho Facility to investigate the changing conditions of the media, architecture, and urbanism today.
The mass audience and mass media analyzed by the Frankfurt School are long gone. As digital media and network technologies are increasingly integral with everyday life, the public is transforming. Today we inhabit multiple, overlapping and global networks such as user forums, Facebook, Flickr, blogs, and wikis. In lieu of watching TV, listening to the radio, or playing records, we text each other, upload images to social networking sites, remix videos, write on blogs and make snarky online comments. The media industry, which just a decade ago seemed well established, is in flux, facing its greatest challenge ever. If we can be certain of anything, it’s that as Karl Marx wrote, "all that is solid melts into air."

In 2008, we published Networked Publics (MIT Press), a book produced in collaboration with the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center for Communication examining how the social and cultural shifts centering around new technologies have transformed our relationships to (and definitions of) place, culture, politics, and infrastructure.

“Discussions on Networked Publics” seeks to explore the ramifications of these changes, giving particular attention to architecture and cities. In a set of five panels—culture, place, politics, infrastructure, and network society—we will explore the consequences of networked publics in detail. Our goal will be to come to an understanding of the changes in culture and society and how architects, designers, historians, and critics might work through this milieu.

The first panel is on culture. Our panelists will address the question of how media, architecture, and architectural media are changing in the context of networked publics.

Panel 1. Culture
9 February, 6.30
featuring: Michael Kubo, Michael Meredith, Will Prince, Enrique Ramirez, David Reinfurt, and Mimi Zeiger

Panel 2. Place
25 March, 6.30

Panel 3. Politics
13 April, 6.30
featuring special guest Stephen Graham

Panel 4. Infrastructure
4 May, 6.30

Free and open to the public
RSVP: [email protected]
Events begin at 6:30 unless otherwise noted.
Studio-X New York
180 Varick Street, Suite 1610
1 train to Houston Street
[Studio-X is a downtown studio for experimental design and research run by the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation of Columbia University.]




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Networked Publics 2010

Two phrases occupy my thoughts at the moment:

"All that is solid melts into air," Karl Marx’s adage suggesting that under capitalism all existing order will be swept away to be remade for the purposes of profit and efficiency has never been more true than today, when capitalism’s creative destruction is viciously turned on itself, causing a global economy crisis.

"The more things change the more they stay the same," or as written by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in the original French, "Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose." Not only is Karr’s statement a way of looking at what Marx said, but it also seems true of what I’ve been doing for the last few years. As I finished Networked Publics and the Infrastructural City, I thought I had put those projects behind me, but now it’s clear that they are not so much books as categories that the Netlab will pursue for the foreseeable future, even as the other categories of network culture and the network city get added.

This spring, the Netlab is launching an ambitious series of panels, Discussions on Networked Publics, at Columbia’s Studio-X Soho. These will be framed along the categories that framed the chapters of  the Networked Publics book, e.g. culture, place, politics, and infrastructure.

The first panel, "culture" will be held at 6.30 on February 9 and will include as panelists Michael Kubo, Michael Meredith, Will Prince, Enrique Ramirez, David Reinfurt and Mimi Zeiger. These are among the sharpest minds in the field today and I am excited to have them participate in this discussion with me. There are more plans afoot in this project and I’ll keep you alerted as they develop.

In the meantime, I’ve spent a few days rebuilding various aspects of the Networked Publics site that broke during the past few years. The front page has been fixed after an update to a Drupal module killed the last version. I’ve also gone in and fixed a number of the links to videos, both the curated gallery of videos for the DIY video conference and also the videos for the three future scenarios that accompany the chapter on infrastructure and bring up consequences of policy decisions regarding network access. Throughout, the material hasn’t so much dated as demonstrated the importance of what we were talking about from 2005 to 2008. Seriously though, this isn’t a plug for me but rather for the other members of the team, who did such a great job identifying the critical issues.

Get the book, come to the discussions, and stay tuned to this blog to see how you can get involved (or if you’re really interested, drop me a line).

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On Death

I’m usually late in sending out holiday greetings and this year is no exception. We had planned to make a physical version of our annual family photo but didn’t manage to do it in time for the holidays, so we wound up sending out virtual versions. At least there was snow. I sent out the photo to perhaps 150 friends and colleagues and received the usual 20 bounces. One bittersweet surprise was finding out that my friend Daniel Beunza has moved to the London School of Economics. I’m sure it’ll be a great place for him—and he’s closer to his home country of Spain—but I’ll miss discussions about finance with this remarkable colleague. Much sadder was receiving an automated e-mail from Anne Friedman, another friend with whom I co-wrote the Place chapter of Networked Publics saying that she was on indefinite medical leave. I had received this same message a while back and was concerned, but I didn’t get in touch. This time, I looked her up in Google news—just in case—and was saddened to hear that she died this October.

I remember Anne and I talking about how I had discovered that Derek Gross, a college friend who died on 1996 via his Web page. This was before the age of blogs, but Derek updated his Web page regularly and when I visited it to see when his band was next playing, I found he had died, together with a record of his experience. Certainly it’s something I had never wished to see again, but just as surely discovering Anne’s death via the net is not going to be the final time.   

Anne was a brilliant scholar, as evidenced by her books Window Shopping and the Virtual Window, as well as a great friend. She was crucial for not only my chapter, but also for the Networked Publics group and our book, articulating issues that were fundamental to the project, asking and giving me sage advice throughout. I could not have written the chapter of the book without her. Together we sat in our offices, she in her Lautner House, I in the AUDC studio on Wilshire Boulevard, and wrote the chapter simultaneously on Writely (now Google Docs). In so doing, we experienced the phenomenon of our voices becoming co-mingled, producing a third entity that was neither Anne nor myself. I am heartbroken that there will never be a sequel.

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Properties of Networked Publics

I have uploaded the lecture on network culture, intellectual property, and subjective that I gave at Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies to Vimeo.

Properties of Networked Publics from kazys Varnelis on Vimeo.

I was invited by Marysia Lewandowska, a visiting critic at the CCS this year. Her “Museum Futures” project sets the context and is well worth watching. See here.

Networked Publics and the iPhone

I’ve been delighted by the reception that the Infrastructural City has received. The entire press run sold out in 3 1/2 months. A less expensive paperback edition is on the boat from Europe and we hope that it’ll be in bookstores by the start of fall semester.*

Still, I’ve been a bit surprised that the Infrastructural City has overshadowed Networked Publics. And, since the latter is in the bookstores now, maybe its a good time to take a look? Networked Publics, which we produced as a research project at the Annenberg Center for Communication is composed of four chapters—place, culture, politics, and infrastructure—as well as an introduction by Mizuko Ito and my conclusion which lays the foundation for further work  on network culture. The book content is complimented by a Web site that we developed during the Networked Publics research year. You can visit it at

Just as the issues we brought up in the Infrastructural City have proved topical this year, so have the issues in Networked Publics. This week, I’m struck by the importance of the chapter on Infrastructure written by François Bar, Walter Baer, Shahram Ghandeharizadeh, and Fernando Ordonez. The authors raised the question of network neutrality as a major infrastructural challenge and indeed, even with all the diversion about OMA-designed windmills and Zaha Hadid-designed sewers, I have to agree. The question at stake in network neutrality is whether we legislate networks to be open so that they allow any applications to be run over them. Or will we let Internet Service Providers make that decision for us? When we were drafting Networked Publics, this discussion took place around the provision of broadband cable, dsl, and fiber. Today, however, the debate has reached wireless or rather, the iPhone.

Congress is currently discussing whether carrier lock in of phones (read: the iPhone) is desirable on a national level (is there anyone out there who likes AT&T?) while the Copyright Office is examining whether it should be legal to jailbreak devices like iPhones to circumvent the monopoly that Apple holds on the distribution of iPhone applications. In the meantime, after Google submitted an application to allow for the use of its new Google Voice technology on the iPhone, Apple not only rejected the application but retroactively banned third-party applications that gave Google Voice users an interface to the iPhone. Now its worth mentioning that all Google Voice does is let you forward calls to your iPhone or dial out via the Google Voice interface. You still talk over AT&T’s wireless network, although if you are dialing long distance you avoid their astronomical fees and you can also bypass AT&T’s maniacal SMS charges, although without the background notification that normal SMS messages deliver.   

Concerned that Apple’s actions were capricious and damaging to free trade, the FCC just sent letters to Apple and AT&T. You can read about these here. The stakes are high. If Apple wins any of these battles, and I certainly hope they do not, it will be a disappointing blow to network neutrality and to future innovation, particularly on the iPhone. 

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