3 min read

Disrupting discovery disrupts democracy

Several years ago I was hanging out with a friend who runs a popular podcast talking excitedly, as nerds like us do, about the amazing possibilities podcasts were creating for diverse creatives and leaders to build influential platforms. As a public media alum, I considered independent podcasting such a great disruption to business as usual to a system very bizarrely resistant to innovation. Podcasting felt to me like a clearing for new voices to drive important conversations in so many arenas: politics, arts, comedy. How cool!

My friend was not as optimistic. They had come up as a political blogger and seen a similar seismic shift in public political thought leadership. Yes, it created opportunities for some but it also created a formula, a template and like it or not— hierarchies.

This type of voice became considered the “right” kind of voice for political blogging, which then became the “right” kind of voice to be prestiged on the television news pundit circuit, the “right” type of voice ready for agents/book deals, the “right” type of voice that appeared on op-ed pages, cited in textbooks, on speaker circuits, got television shows and launched new media companies. These “right” kind of voices that were once outliers slowly became surround sound. The disruptive innovative thinkers challenging and critiquing power, slowly evolved into establishment with something worth losing— the vanguards became the new gatekeepers.

That is all not necessarily bad— in fact, any healthy public information ecosystem should reflect more of a greenhouse state like this, where many elements coexist at many different stages of life and death. But it is interesting what was happening on the Internet at the same time as the guard took hold: the slow, painful, violent death of RSS (real simple syndication) or what most of us simply called: Google Reader.

RSS and Google Reader were beautifully imperfect portals to discovery and reflected a purer, more genuine essence of social media: communities and audiences slowly grew through friends and friends of friends, where social currency was fostered through passing on the best new voices to vibe. This is mixtape culture. RSS itself was an iteration of community building driven by thinkers and creators and reflects the spirit of James Baldwin, “The place in which I'll fit will not exist until I make it.” In essence, mixtape culture reflects the best of all of us, where the most generous thing one can do is share and let yourself be seen.

Thanks to Big Tech and an innovation economy underwritten through advertising, these authentic portals eventually gave way to the toxic timelines that are social media norms today. My friend was correct in their analysis but the problem is not just vanguards becoming the new gatekeepers— the injustice is in how we, the public, are slowly stripped of options to even discover different voices in the first place.

Entrenched power is entrenched for a reason and this can be seen most clearly in Apple Podcasts recent application update. The Big Tech player removed personal curation to control individual user discoverability. Our podcast playlists got removed for trash timelines that no one asked for but big advertising needs. And there are only more plays like this in store: Facebook will be launching podcast publication feed service soon. Big Tech needs your attention, your data, your wasted minutes and has created systemic echo chambers to surround sound you with their kingmakers.

Podcasts are RSS readers for audio. In this update, Apple deranked personal portals for discovery, the mixtape culture of podcasts in favor of mainstream advertising revenue, corporate manipulated timelines and biased algorithmic automation. Podcasts are vehicle for power and new tools for misinformation. These technical choices make discovering and engaging in new content burdensome for the everyday users and places hurdles on individuals to consume diverse information. This is the exact same strategy deployed by Republicans to suppress voting rights. Undermining a healthy and diverse information ecosystem directly undermines democracy.

Entrenched power is entrenched for a reason.

Like every good systems thinkers, when these patterns and overlays clicked into place for me I thought, “I cannot believe this is happening all over again,” and also, “Of course this is happening all over again.” The kind of innovation Big Tech tries to trick us into believing in looks a lot  like Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes.

Please join me congratulating the excellent Lina Khan in her confirmation as the new chair of the Federal Trade Commission.

Sabrina Hersi Issa is a human rights technologist. She is committed to leveraging innovation as a tool to unlock opportunity and dignity for all. She does this through her work in technology, media and investments. This is her personal newsletter.