Thursday, November 03, 2022

Lucianne Goldberg’s Place in Internet History: Six Lessons for Today

Lucianne Goldberg, who died on October 27 at age 87, lived a great life.  Although she had a long career as a writer, ghostwriter, and literary agent, she will be best remembered for her advisory role in the Monica Lewinsky saga. Here’s one admiring obituary.

Yet there’s still another aspect of her life that’s worth recalling, because it echoes to this day: Her role as a digital activist, followed by her time as a startup entrepreneur.  

For Goldberg as a digital figure, the hinge period was the year 2000, when the internet was still young.  Indeed, if we look back to that formative period, we can see that many of the issues that she, and we, confronted then—toxicity, censorship, cancelling, scaling up, political activism—are still issues now.   As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  

So at a time when the internet is changing yet again—as Elon Musk has taken over Twitter while Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, now Meta, has fallen on its face—it’s worth both recalling this moment in Goldberg’s life and pondering the parallels, then and now. 

In the beginning of the widespread internet, three decades ago, nobody knew what this new thing would be.  In 1993, Howard Rheingold published The Virtual Community, which put forth a sort of liberal Whole Foods-y utopian vision.  In the meantime, others thought that the net would be a series of “walled gardens,” proprietarily managed by corporations such as America Online and Compuserve.  Or perhaps it would be controlled by even larger corporations, such as AT&T and Time-Warner.  And of course, everyone wondered what the dreaded Microsoft would do.  

In 1996, the poet and rancher John Perry Barlow made an early stab at a libertarian vision for the net.  His “Declaration of Independence of Independence of Cyberspace,” includes this ringing preamble

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind.  On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone.  You are not welcome among us.  You have no sovereignty where we gather.

That don’t-tread-on-me spirit seemed especially fitting for one early site, Free Republic.  Launched in 1996 by Jim Robinson in Fresno, CA, it was an unmoderated bulletin board for conservatives—free speech, away from liberal bias, was the goal.  For a while, Free Republic flourished; it had the eager participation of its users, known as Freepers, who felt unconstrained by the rules, taboos, and technological limitations of older media.  Freepers could post articles they had culled from other news sources and then comment on them endlessly, in a new phenomenon called “threads.” 

Then in 1998, the Monica Lewinsky story broke, and Free Republic, feasting on this and other Clinton scandals, took off.  It attracted an avid poster in “Trixie,” the user name of Lucianne Goldberg.  

Yet Free Republic had problems.  It was heavy on “flames,” another new phenomenon, and had some outright hate speech and invitations to violence.  Much of this was curated by an opponent, who published it in in 1999.  

To be sure, flaming, hating, and threatening were hardly unique to Free Republic’s corner of the internet.  As far back as 1990, the American attorney and author Mike Godwin outlined what came to be known as Godwin’s Law, which holds, somewhat jokily, that online chats eventually degenerate into accusations about Hitler and Nazis.  Strictly speaking, that’s not fair or true.  And yet it does seem that online discussions, especially when cloaked in anonymity, have a way of ending up in hostility, nastiness, and yes, what’s been called the Reductio ad Hitlerum.  Like it or not, noxious speech is still—at least most of it—protected free speech.  And yet too much venom makes for an unattractive brew.  It’s especially repellent to advertisers, who are the mother’s milk of non-paywalled websites.  

Moreover, in 1998, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post sued Free Republic for copyright infringement—all those articles being lifted and posted.  The newspapers won.  

Sill, Free Republic had energy.  Indeed, founder Jim Robinson saw the site as a platform for more than just online gathering.  As that same Salon article noted, Robinson and his colleagues had a “desire to turn Free Republic from a mere Web site into a political organization.” 

That idea certainly made sense—if people could gather online, they could gather in person—and yet for Free Republic, the execution proved problematic.  

For instance, in December 2000, during the extended Bush-vs.-Gore recount drama, Freepers staged a protest in front of the New Haven, CT home of Gore’s vice presidential running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman.  And that turned nasty.  The headline in The Hartford Courant on December, 13, 2000 read, “Anti-Semitism Reeks Outside Lieberman Home.” The article noted the presence of Nazi and Confederate flags and a sign that read “Judas Joe.”  The participants denied that they were anti-Semitic, saying that the most offensive material was placed by provocateurs.  

There’s no point, 22 years later, in trying to hash through these claims and counter-claims.  But we can say that the public face of Free Republic now appeared toxic, at least to many.  In fact, the Courant quoted Goldberg as saying that Free Republic had “let all the Y2K, gun-nut, Jew-baiting crazies take over and flame the plain old conservatives.”  The word wasn’t used then, but one might say that Free Republic was cancelled, at least in the minds of many. 

Whereupon Goldberg started her own site,, with many of the same features as her old haunt, including posts, threads, and flames.  For awhile, Goldberg’s site was happening.  But then others began to see that this new thing could be the Next Big Thing.  And so came a rush of new sites, including Silicon Valley-backed newbies such as Friendster and MySpace.  These sites could see that attention was something that could be monetized—and they were infinitely more effective at doing it.  

So “social media” was born, and it was big.  Hardcore techies—-which Robinson and Goldberg were not—realized that the future of the medium would belong more sophisticated sites that allowed for posting pictures and video, as well as peer-to-peer messaging and e-commerce, all arranged by algorithms, supported by advertising, and frictionlessly transferred, as the tech became available to mobile.  So while both Free Republic and Lucianne still exist today, they are just small niche players.  

Needless to say, this sophistication of the new giants—now known as platforms—brought problems, most notably, the loss of privacy, and then, of course, the issue of censorship, or “de-platforming.”  But in their knowingness, even intrusiveness, the new sites—soon to be dominated by Facebook, followed by the smaller Twitter—offered a new kind of political tool, thus realizing at least part of Robinson’s activist vision. 

To a large extent, both Barack Obama and Donald Trump based their presidential campaigns on Facebook.  Why?  Because Facebook knew so much about its users, it could offer the most “granular” of targeted advertising; it was vastly “smarter” than cable TV or dead-tree paper.  To candidates, Facebook offers the features of an old-style political machine in new digital garb: Like the ward-heeler of yore, it knows all about you.   And so, like the machine of old, it could monitor your progress to ballot-casting. 

So what lessons can we draw as we compare the tech transitions of 2000 to the tech transitions of 2022?  Here are six: 

First, if content is king, content-moderation is queen.  How to allow free speech on a site without it becoming a sewer?   First Amendment absolutism doesn’t last long in the face of online cruelty, even depravity and criminality.  This is a problem that bedevils all sites today, from Facebook and Twitter to the newer social sites of the right, such as Caucus Room, Gab, Gettr, Parler, and Truth Social.  For sure, Elon Musk struck a blow for free speech when he fired the wokesters who had de-platformed, say, The Babylon Bee, but on that same day, October 27, he tweeted a statement entitled “Dear Twitter Advertisers,” in which he wrote, 

Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!  In addition to adhering to our laws of the land, our platform must be warm and welcoming to all, where you can choose your desired experience according to your preferences.

Translation: Musk Twitter will be less censorious than Woke Twitter, but it will have plenty of rules.   Indeed, Musk is notably going slowly, consulting widely, as he ponders what changes he might—or might not—be making in Twitter’s content-moderation policies. 

Second, the stubborn vision of the founder can make an organization great, but the same stubbornness can later bring it down.  That was the story of Free Republic’s ill-starred foray into political activism two decades ago in Connecticut, and it’s the story of Mark Zuckerberg’s foray into the metaverse today. Earth to Mark: Nobody wants to wear virtual reality goggles all the time.  Today, Facebook’s—now Meta’s—stock is down by more than 70 percent since the beginning of 2022.

Third, users will always crave interactivity.  And that interactivity can be defined as everything from community to combat.  Does that seem complicated?  Even contradictory?  Welcome to human nature.  

Fourth, the world is still looking for a media that is both participatory and online.  The old model of simply grabbing content online has been suppressed by lawsuits, and yet people, working within the guidelines of “fair use,” will always want to work over the news: upvoting it, forwarding it, commenting on it, and mashing it up with music or special effects.  So any site benefits from what might be called “dimensionality”—that is, it’s not just flat on the screen, but instead reaches out to the viewer, who can then take action, or be called to action.  That’s the problem, for example, with cable news, relying as it does, on pre-internet technology: You can watch cable TV, but you can’t do anything with it.  To do something, you have to go to a different, interactive, screen.  It’s the inertness of cable that will doom it, thus bringing more hope to online news.  

Fifth, the dream of a hybrid political organization, both online and real-world, is still to be realized.  Free Republic and Lucianne never scaled, and Zuckerberg’s Facebook, which more than scaled, is no longer trusted.  For his part, Musk has said that he wants Twitter to be an “everything app,” that will let you do everything, including, one might presume, political things.  We’ll see. 

Sixth, it’s possible that the big sites are, well, too big. This is a diverse country, and an even more diverse world, and it might just be the case that a single site can’t encompass all the different points of view in a harmonious whole.  Just as everything-for-everybody department stores have faded, we might see that the big socials find themselves nibbled away by nimble sites that can better reflect the values and interests of their chunk of users. 

So could that spell a revival for niche legacies such as Free Republic or Lucianne?  Perhaps, but more likely, at least in the U.S, the division will be a duality, red vs. blue.  As we know, red vs. blue isn’t just about politics, it’s also about life and lifestyle.  There’s a Red America now, and a Blue America.  And so the internet successes of today and tomorrow will scaled to one or another half—and that’s hundreds of millions of people.  

Still, the smart players will know their history.  And Lucianne Goldberg provides an instructive case study.  Entertaining, too.