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What’s the IDW and why do you care?

Well, depending on where you sit on the political/ideological spectrum, “IDW” could stand for “I’m Definitely Wrong,” or “Intellectual Dark Web.” Read that left to right. Literally.

Warning: long drive into the IDW through the historic route.

Not too long ago, there was a stirring in the Twitterverse: people were being put on notice, or their accounts were being put in lockdown (temporary banishment) or
“shadowbanning” them (which Twitter denies, though it does admit making it “more
difficult” to view Tweets from some persons, as you may have to actually go to their profile, and already have been following them, in order to see their Tweets. What was somewhat more suspicious about this was that from the standpoint of the Twitter user, there was no indication that the Tweets were not going out to all and sundry as usual.

Soon there was talk of being put in “Facebook jail.” That was where bad boys and girls were sent after having been reported for naughty behavior. The problem with that was, the naughty behavior wasn’t pictures under the bathroom stall divider, but political opinions that were deemed too scandalous for public consumption. Or so the story went. Generally speaking, you were put into a Facebook “time out” before your account was actually locked – or Facebook simply removed the unpopular comment. You may recall the discussion about whether or not Facebook was using an algorithm (AI: if you see this term, remove the post) or a human (Human: hey! I don’t agree with that – hide it!) to decide which posts were ok and which were not. While people wanted the AI to be making such decisions, as presumably the algorithm wasn’t biased, it is of course programmed by humans and the words still have to be chosen that are seen as
“dangerous” or unwelcome.

Finally came “deplatforming.” This was when a person or group was tossed off social media completely. A couple of notable people, like Alex Jones, were thrown off all social media platforms at once – so, no street corner on which to stand shouting your particular ideas because your ideas are found to be undesirable or unpopular.

This is an interesting challenge, given that “free speech” is a bedrock principle of our form of social and governmental order. While it may be ugly, I can talk negatively, even half-way obscenely, about a group or idea. (Not quite so an individual, as I can be held liable for slander or libel in some cases by referring to a living person.)

But – a social media “platform” doesn’t have to give me support to do this, went the reasoning. Therefore, if what I said, or how I said it, broke the rules of their terms of
service, I could be excluded. And of course we’ve been arguing for some time over whether my right to say something —or not say it— overcomes your right not to hear it (or to insist that you say it).

However, the real problem wasn’t necessarily the deplatforming. It was that by
removing an individual’s feed from a given platform, you might also be removing their source of income.

Over the last couple of years, a new “job” has sprung up: YouTuber. It’s actually one of many “monetized” platforms; in this case, the person creates “content,” or YouTube videos in this specific instance, and based on how many people follow and like your channel, ads are inserted into the content, and the YouTuber gets a portion of that revenue. Money. Many people were making a living —and a very good one in some cases— making YouTube content. YouTube was happy – it was getting content created at no cost to them. Advertisers were happy – they were getting eyeballs for their ads. YouTubers were happy – they could spend their time researching, recording, and uploading video. In the most harmless case, say, a makeup expert, this was a good deal all around. A person who enjoyed showing you how to apply makeup could record a makeup session, edit it, upload it, thousands or even tens or hundreds of thousands of people subscribed to the channel, and YouTube sold ads.

But the problem wasn’t these types of videos, and while there were a few content
providers who created relatively harmless content like makeup, the “problem children” were usually the political, philosophical, or even psychological shows.  How do you
provide a platform for politically, racially or sexually slanted content?

And what if your corporate values differ from those of the person making you lots of money?

The social media universe is self-referential: I Tweet, people enjoy my Tweets and thus I get liked on Facebook, my Facebook refers them to my YouTube channel and one supports the other refers to the latest of my content elsewhere and on and on. And of course, Google has to enter the mix to refer users to the sources of the content as it agreed to: by relevance. If my name was really popular because of my Tweets, then my YouTube channel would pop up early in a search and people would find it and subscribe, and I would become more and more influential – and make all of my references more money via advertising. It’s really not that strange a system, if you think back to the old days of TV: the most popular shows got the greatest number of advertisers vying for ad space in the commercial breaks, and made the most money. Ideally, the ads converted the most viewers by association, and everyone was happy.

But entertainment shows, of course, are not opinions (or they didn’t used to be). And as content became more and more opinion driven, both advertisers, and the channels that offered the content, became leery of opinions considered too edgy. The obvious next move was to a directly underwritten platform, such as Patreon (where you could subscribe to content for a fee) or directly via the individual’s website.

The IDW is, I would argue, where this is all headed: the “Intellectual Dark Web.” A mathematician and public intellectual, Eric Weinstein, created the term soon after his brother, Bret, another public intellectual and Evergreen State College academic (for some reason, ground zero in the speech tolerance controversy) resigned in a campus controversy. The term referred to a group of academics, podcast/webcast hosts and public intellectuals who were controversial, and included such figures as Sam Harris, Douglas Murray, Joe Rogan, Ben Shapiro, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Jordan Peterson, among others. None of these falls into quite the same camp, for quite the same reason – but all of them are among those who are facing a similar problem: is their work too controversial for the “regular” web? One thing they all seem to have faced was being “too hot to handle” at some level, whether in a live speaking venue, or on a social media platform.

Already, alternatives to the big social media platforms are springing up, though their eventual success is iffy (we have become so used to Facebook and Twitter, do we really want to learn something new? And worse: with so many people using the old standbys, why migrate?). But direct access is actually a swing back to the old subscription method of getting podcast material, going to the movies, buying a record, or tuning your TV to the channel you liked best: you had to seek it out, go to it, and pay for it with your attention and/or direct payment in order to be rewarded with what you wanted to see and hear.

It goes around.

Nancy Roberts
Writer, voice over artist, information achitect, very curious person.