You’ve probably never heard of Robert B. Strassler. That’s OK, you’re not alone.
Early in his career, Strassler worked in oil fields, but he always had an interest in the classics (the formal designation for the studies of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations). Eventually, Strassler’s hobby became an obsession. He went so far as to author his own translation of Thucydides, the Athenian historian of the Peloponnesian War.
The problem was nobody wanted to read Strassler’s book. This was in the 1990s. It was more difficult to publish to the web and there was no social media. Strassler approached every Ivy League institution he could find. Nobody was interested in reading a manuscript about Thucydides penned by an oilman with no formal credentials. That was the situation until Strassler contacted Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist professor in Fresno, California. Hanson agreed to look at the manuscript and was astounded by Strassler’s work: a brilliant, highly readable translation of Thucydides including maps, diagrams, and charts. Hanson helped the disconnected oilman get in touch with a literary agent. Strassler’s landmark edition became the standard translation of Thucydides. Still read today, The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War is as successful as any book on the classics can be—in the age of Twitter.
Those of us who take the idea of democratic publishing seriously rejoice at how the field has opened to include anyone who has something to say and is willing to write it down. That’s why we should be more alarmed when we see social media companies crowd the spaces once occupied by blogs and do-it-yourself content creators. We see a decline in diverse opinions as the web quickly becomes less free and more autocratic.
How many Robert B. Strasslers are being stifled today by biased algorithms and arbitrary “community guidelines”?
In March, as COVID-19 exploded into a worldwide panic, the web gatekeepers we’ve come to rely on quickly massed around a singular interpretation of events and stifled dissenting voices—even mild ones.
YouTube, the second largest search engine in the world, demonetized all videos that mentioned “COVID-19,” “Coronavirus,” or any term related to the pandemic, and herded viewers away from content creators and toward the Center for Disease Control (CDC) — the same CDC that first advised against wearing masks. Even medical practitioners who deviated slightly from the prevailing vision were removed from the platform after gaining millions of views.
Experienced journalists who questioned official decrees (surely, the role journalists are expected to perform) were targeted with hit pieces and character assassination by their own peers.
As author/professor Cal Newport noted in an op-ed for Wired, much of the dissenting viewpoints and on-the-ground data have become part of the mainstream conversation even after being suppressed by a small group of decision-makers:
We don’t necessarily want to trust engineers at one company to make the decisions about what topics the public should and should not be able to read about.
How many times have you clicked on a link in a tweet and received a message as shown in the following screenshot?
Adults should be trusted to determine what kind of content is harmful (if such a thing exists) without the assistance of Twitter employees and their “partners.” And, are these warnings actually meant to protect people or simply to shield Twitter from corporate liability? I think we can guess what the answer is.
It’s not only those without official-sounding credentials who are being barred from sharing content. Creators who clearly have experience in their fields of study are also facing arbitrary censorship.
The Great Courses Plus, a streaming service that produces college-level video courses taught by actual professors, was threatened with a ban from Google if they did not remove COVID-19-related content from their app. In an email to subscribers, the team wrote:
Google informed us they would ban The Great Courses apps if we continued to make [Covid-19] in-app content available. We are working with Google to ensure that they understand our content is factual, expert-led, and thoroughly vetted, so that we can remedy this misunderstanding as soon as possible.
The videos in question included content from Dr. Roy Benaroch, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine; Dr. David Kung, Professor of Mathematics at St. Mary’s College of Maryland; and Dr. Kevin Ahern, Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at Oregon State University. How or why these scholars were found unworthy of Google’s imprimatur is a mystery. As the public does not presume to give Google programming advice, perhaps Google could return the favor by not pretending to be experts on epidemiology, immunology, and virology.
The only way to see these offending videos is on the Great Courses website, where Google’s authority is not absolute. It happens to be a WordPress-powered site. For intellectuals and laymen who value free expression, having your own website is becoming the only way to make sure you can keep it.
The problem of pitting credentials against experience in a zero-sum conflict is fixable, and WordPress is a big part of the solution.
WordPress allows capable scientists, economists, and medical professionals in other fields to write at length about their ideas without fear of being blocked by arbitrary restrictions. Also, the five-minute install (which does take a little more than five minutes for many people) imposes enough of a barrier to entry to discourage cranks.
We like to think of the internet as a true egalitarian system, where every voice is given equal consideration, but deep down we know that’s not exactly how it works. Network effects tend to form hubs of concentrated influence around a handful of websites. This isn’t always a bad thing. A recipe blog with poor taste and no pictures deserves fewer readers than a blog with great-tasting recipes and high-resolution images.
There is still room enough in the network for certain nodes to grow in size and influence based on the quality of their content. A node with enough backlinks, good organic search rankings, and high-quality content will gain an audience, and be able to keep it, without fear of corporate reprisals or aggressive algorithm updates.
If we really care about democratizing publishing, we won’t always like what we read. There will be disagreements, but democracy requires a literate population eager for debate. We can challenge, discuss, and learn.
There are a lot of Robert B. Strasslers out there in the network, waiting patiently to be heard.