Custodians of the Internet
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018, 296 pp.
In Custodians of the Internet, Tarleton Gillespie examines the governing institutions of the modern internet. Content moderation--the process of setting and enforcing rules concerning what may be published on social media platforms--is a rapidly evolving form of private governance. Though social media is increasingly treated as and resembles a 21st-century public square, it is governed by an ecosystem of profit-maximizing private firms.
As Gillespie notes early in Custodians, "moderation is, in many ways, the commodity that platforms offer." Social media firms provide speech platforms bundled with rules, or community standards, intended to provide a pleasant user experience. It can be difficult to get these rules right, "too little curation, and users may leave to avoid the toxic environment that has taken hold; too much moderation, and users may still go, rejecting the platform as either too intrusive or too antiseptic." Decisions not to moderate are, necessarily, moderation decisions. Platforms are not, and have never been, neutral with respect to content, though this does not imply that they have partisan political biases.
Taking a problem-centric approach, Gillespie works his way through social media governance crises of the past decade, illustrating how controversy attending potentially objectionable content, from pro-anorexia "thinspiration" posts to breastfeeding photos, has driven the promulgation of new rules. He employs these stories to sketch out the web of private regulations governing our online interactions.
After introducing content moderation and its necessity, Custodians comes into its own in chapter four, as Gillespie lays out the sheer scale of the task facing platforms on a daily basis. He quotes Del Harvey of Twitter: "Given the scale that Twitter is at, a one-in-a-million chance happens 500 times a day ... say 99.999 percent of tweets pose no risk to anyone ... that tiny percentage of tweets remaining works out to 150,000 per month." With millions of users posting dozens of times a day (or 2.23 billion users in Facebook's case), the volume of speech on social media defies any traditional editorial comparison. With volume comes diversity. Few platforms draw their users from any single community, and most are international, allowing users with different norms and standards of offense to interact with one another. Prescreening...