In his classic short story The North London Book of the Dead, Will Self finally answers the question of where the departed go.
Crouch End. They live in Crouch End, where they just sort of… get on with life, while being dead. It’s when visiting the anonymous suburb while on business, that the hero of Self’s story runs into his own dead mother. It comes as quite a shock.
I imagine you might get a similar sensation when you sign up to Parler, a new social network. It’s Crouch End for the online Right. So, hello Milo Yiannopoulos (terrible infant; removed from Twitter July 2016), hello Carl ‘Sargon of Akkad’ Benjamin (vlogger; banned August 2017). G’day Gavin McInnes (edgelord comedian, Proud Boys founder and ex-VICE editor; went to meet our digital Lord, August 2018). Wotcha Tommy Robinson (just a regular geezer; May 2018). Oh, and hello darkness my old friend: it’s Katie Hopkins (obverse churnalist; finally deleted from this life June 2020).
Parler is where the dead live — and right now, many of the living are weighing-up joining them there. The site has had a sharp spike in traffic since Hopkins’ one million follower account was banned by Twitter last month and she took her shtick there. Some are no doubt signing up simply because they cling on to Hopkins’ every word. For many more, though, the Hopkins defenestration has presented a place where they can escape the vast gravity of the progressive-run social media giants. We’re a community town square,” Parler co-founder John Matze told CNBC. “An open town square, with no censorship.” Matze’s heroes include Thomas Sowell and Ayn Rand.
So is this moment the real balkanisation starts? Could Parler be the Fox News of social media, to rival Twitter’s CNBC of social media? I suspect the makers of Parler, despite their claims of non-partisanship, would love it to become the ‘Right-wing Twitter’. The site already has tie-ins with Fox, Breitbart, and various Republican congressmen, including Ron Paul and Ted Cruz.
Parler’s timing is bang-on. Or more accurately, Parler’s time has finally arrived. All culture wars are a battle to frame our understanding of reality. But it’s only lately that the fact that the Left hold the commanding heights of most media has become The Story on the Right.
Since the BLM protests, as they have watched opposing narratives play out between their phones and their TV screens, many have increasingly lost faith in the public square. They no longer believe in the possibility of dialogue. Big corporations back Black Lives Matter; then say they aren’t talking about that Black Lives Matter. Hermetic lockdowns are vital; then they’re not. A mainly peaceful protest injures 27 cops; then a man pissing near a monument is jailed for a fortnight.
All of this cognitive dissonance has all led to a kind of mass demoralisation, a despondency which is well captured in the drift to Parler. It’s the same gust of frustrated energy that has fuelled the recent Defund The BBC campaign. The temptation is to take the toys back. After all, the first rule of any civil war is to build barricades across the major entry roads.
The dream would be to be to own the means of cultural production — and thereby, to reverse the biases of the progressive elite. But the dream is stupid.
There’s an old libertarian saw which says that you just have to “build a better mousetrap”, and the market will do the rest — yet every attempt so far to build an online space for the Right has proven why that isn’t the case. For a start, Parler itself is only the latest in a long line of attempts to create that. Depending on what year it was, the life raft might have been Gab, Telegram, Minds or Discord. None of those has reached critical mass because, first, critical mass is vast. Twitter has 300 million active monthly users. Second, because sitting in a digital room only with people who agree with you is boring, and sitting in a room with people who espouse a condensed, calcified view of your ideology is actively unpleasant.
Gab is the best warning of what happens when you concentrate a tendency. Once, it was billed as ‘free speech Twitter’. Its libertarian founders wished a hundred flowers to bloom. Soon, though, only those who needed the most free speech could stand to hang around in the speech swamp. It’s now better known as ‘Nazi Twitter’.
In the long run, it turned out that the Friendster and MySpace paradigm — the idea that the social networks would be subject to regular waves of Schumpeterian creative destruction — was a blip. The real answer was exactly what economists would have predicted: ‘network effects’, deeply embedded, would entrench a monopoly. The leading social networks at the start of the last decade were leading the race at the end. There is no reason they won’t lead us to the next decade.
Twitter, undoubtedly, has its head rammed up its own San Francisco filter bubble. It undoubtedly applies its ‘terms of service’ with cynical selectivity. But for the online Right to take this personally is to miss how much of the problem is mere economics. The big social media providers understand that certain strands of opinion just don’t prettify the place, and they must prune their garden to make it attractive to advertisers.
The most transparent illustration of this rule was in February 2017, with YouTube’s ‘Adpocalypse’. Then, The New York Times’ in-house offence archeologists dug up a puerile old gag from the world’s biggest vlogger, PewDiePie, Felix Kjellberg. A moral panic in corporate advertising circles ensued, at the end of which, YouTube had limited and demonetised a wide range of commentators, mainly on the Right, effectively ending the livelihoods of many who’d spent years building up an audience.
YouTube had made good ad money off hundreds of accounts for many years, yet they were happy to sacrifice the cash in the name of a broader goal. At heart, these platforms are advertising distributors — that’s their business model — and so, on the whole, they would prefer it if the foul stench of political combat went away altogether, so that the world could be made safe for the sale of Dove Go Fresh Aerosol Body Spray and Doritos Poppin’ Jalapeño.
Over the past couple of years, Facebook has consciously adopted building a low-conflict environment as their goal — deprecating posts about politics, and elevating cosier conversations. That still hasn’t stopped the CEO of Unilever imposing a moratorium on Facebook and Twitter ads until after the November US election, citing the toxicity of the online environment.
Which is why, as the political temperature has yet again risen in recent weeks, there has been both an imperative and an opportunity to send in the bodysnatchers. It’s obvious that certain people have been in the crosshairs for a long time. The present moment simply offers enough covering fire. When Tommy Robinson was disappeared from Facebook, it had been so long-telegraphed that it felt as though it had already happened years before.
Last week, YouTube deleted the channel of Stefan Molyneux, a libertarian and self-styled ‘philosopher’, also patently on their long-term kill list. Molyneux was an early adopter: he had been broadcasting for 13 years, amassing thousands of hours of content. The garden looks a bit brighter now. His livelihood is effectively over.
The naive might quibble at the distinction between Graham Linehan (RIP, last week), and Molyneux. One is the floppy-haired father of Father Ted whose views only skewed Right when it came to transgenderism. The other has a curious fixation on Islam and population replacement rates.
But from a commercial standpoint, the logic is consistent. Both can be answered by the question “What does the marketing director of Procter & Gamble think that public opinion looks like?”. The marketing director of Procter & Gamble thinks that the public thinks that transwomen are women and Islam is a religion of peace, because these are the low-conflict ‘inclusive’ views that cause the minimum of fuss, in the short term at least.
The hard reality is that the progressive Left controls the envelope of our digital public squares, and will do for the forseeable future. And, that’s at least a better option than the full dystopia of each tribe each retreating into their own balkanised echo chamber.
The first part of improving on that reality lies in recognising we’re stuck with it for the foreseeable future. Because the thing we’ve learned over the past few years is that being banned isn’t simply a matter of setting up your stall elsewhere. Banning actually works. Milo Yiannopoulos’ fame died off spectacularly after he was expunged. Tommy Robinson has been reduced to a rump. Heard from Gavin McInnes lately? I suspect the same will happen to Hopkins, who has a broad but not deep fanbase — in that sense she’s a hard-Right version of Buzzfeed: click-farming gone malignant.
The irony is that this weakening of the dream of a digital public square available to all is driven as much by libertarianism’s red lines — the notion that any social media company has total purview over who it lets on — as it is is by the Left’s censoriousness. Parler is a Right-wing answer to a problem that can only involve crossing those red lines: acknowledging that some technically private things also have big public consequences. As such, it might be well a great mausoleum to internets past. But it can never be the internet’s future.