One way to fix social media? Look at how the US, UK, and USSR dealt with radio in the early 20th-century

Ethan Zuckerman is the head of the Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure at the UMass–Amherst and the author of such books as Digital Cosmopolitans: Why We Think the Internet Connects Us, Why It Doesn't, and How to Rewire It and the brand-new Mistrust: Why Losing Faith in Institutions Provides the Tools to Transform Them. At last month's New_Public Festival, Zuckerman gave a presentation building on his 2020 essay "The Case for Digital Public Infrastructure" (which he had also expanded into an FAQ in November) that proposes a PBS-like system for internet infrastructure.

Stephen Gossett summed up the latest iteration of this theory on Built In:

By 1912, the Soviet Union, United States and Great Britain had each taken divergent approaches to the fledgling technology. The Soviets used it to broadcast propaganda, while the U.S. system began to settle into an advertising-based commercial model. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, charted a third path: a civic-minded media built upon the public interest, "independent both of the government that was in power and of the commercial sphere," Zuckerman told the audience.

The parallel was clear, but worth driving home.

"When a new technology comes to town, we have choices about how to use it," he said. "It doesn't necessarily need to broadcast propaganda, [and] it doesn't have to become a commercial free-for-all. Instead, we can look at a new technology and invent something new."

This is what lead me to Zuckerman's original essay, which has too many brilliant passages to succinctly quote here. But suffice to say: it's worth it to read the whole thing, just to consider the ways that the differing public broadcast systems in the UK, US, and USSR could potentially shape the future of the internet.

The Case for Digital Public Infrastructure [Ethan Zuckerman / Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University]

Could tax dollars fund smaller, better social media? [Stephen Gossett / Built In]

Image: Archives New Zealand / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)