What are “recursive publics” and “social imaginaries”, how have they impacted the development of the modern internet, and what impact do they have on the state of the internet in 2023 with the implosion of Twitter, Reddit, and the rise of the Fediverse? Stay tuned as we take a 50000 foot view of the rise of the public sphere of geeks.
Welcome to the Implausipod, a podcast about the intersection of art, technology, and popular culture. I’m your host, Dr. Implausible, and today we’re gonna follow on from our last episode and stay in the social media sphere and look at the idea of a recursive public, a form of a social imaginary, and see how they’ve impacted the development of the modern internet.
What is a recursive public? Well, if you’re using the internet and if you’re seeing or hearing this, I’m gonna guess you are, you’re impacted by one because recursive publics are the driving force behind a lot of the tools of the internet. And they’re also now driving the future of social media through the ActivityPub protocol.
And I’m also gonna hazard a guess that you’d never even heard of them before, even though the idea has been around for nearly 20 years. So let’s get into it: let’s find out how geeks build communities online and what that means for the future of the internet. Now, when we last spoke, Threads had just come out, Twitter was still called Twitter, and we were worried about Facebook possibly engaging in something called EEE with respect to ActivityPub. Since then, Threads has cut its user base in half, Twitter’s now called X, and Google’s the one engaged in EEE with respect to something called W E I or Web Environment Integrity, which will be D R M on all chromium browsers.
So, we might need to have a look at that sometime in the future, but like Ferris Bueller said: “life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” But that was back in the eighties and life was moving way faster now in the 21st century. So let’s try and get caught up a little bit.
While the goal is to be weekly with this, there’s some challenges with that, so I’ll just work on improving my workflow and iterating through a process of, uh, additive manufacturing, so to speak, and getting better over time. We’ll increase the frequency as things improve, but that brings us back to the topic at hand because that idea of improving through iteration is core to what the recursive public is.
What exactly is it? Well, as Christopher Kelty explained in 2005, a recursive public is a group, or rather a particular form of social imaginary through which this group develops the means of their own association and the material form that this imagination takes the technical and legal conditions required for their association.
So, in other words, it’s a bunch of geeks that get together and say: “Hey, how can we use the internet to talk?” and developed tools and processes by which they can get together and talk. It’s a little circular, and those tools can be things like, you know, a chat room or email, but they can also be the underlying tools like the operating system, Linux or something for sharing things like Napster, and those are the things that Kelty was originally looking at, and that kind of makes sense.
But wait a second. You’re asking. What’s a social imaginary? Well, we’re at the risk of defining things by using other things. So, um, let’s drill down a little bit and see if we can get to a base level of understanding. Social imaginaries are ways in which people imagine their social existence and how they fit together with others.
How things go on between them and their fellows, and the expectations that are normally met. And the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations. Now, that’s a direct quote from Charles Taylor in 2004 who described them as meta topical spaces or topical spaces. The place where a conversation takes place, and not just conversation, but also pre 20th century also where like rituals and practices and assembly takes place.
And as I’m talking here, I realize I need to put a pin in that idea of “where a conversation takes place”, and we’ll circle back to that in a little while. But we’re defining things with other things again. So, topical spaces, if that’s where the conversation’s taking place, then who’s having that conversation?
Well, a public. Not the public mind you, just a public, that’s having that conversation. So I think we’re getting somewhere. If we have multiple conversations taking place, then that must be happening in the public sphere and that is where the public is. And when we’re looking at the difference between these publics, we’re looking at the work of Michael Warner who talked about Publics and Counter-publics in 2002.
The public is the social totality. It is, in other words, the social imaginary and that differs from a specific instantiation, which would be a public. Publics are happening all the time. They form, they’re swirling together, they achieve a specific mass and through discursive address, and performed attention in quotes, guilty before dissipating, and either achieving critical mass to become a movement or, you know, drifting off into the either.
So a discussion would be a topical public and a public constituted through the imagined participation in a discussion is a meta topical public, and all of these together, that social totality, they’re engaging in the public’s sphere or this is where the public sphere happens, and if we’re situating those within the public sphere, then that brings us all the way back to Habermas.
Wonderful. I think I’ve managed to make this as clear as mud. Fantastic.
Let’s diagram this out a little bit and see if we can make some sense of all this. Whenever you have a group of people involved in a discussion that creates a topical public, it doesn’t matter whether it’s face-to-face or through the media or online, it’s a public. That’s it. That’s the minimum. We need a public that’s constituted through the imagined participation in that discussion. So that includes the audience basically is a meta topical public, and you can have multiple of those together to create that public.
Each of these discussions amongst the publics occurs in a particular topical space. So if it’s online, we could think of these as like subreddits or discussion forums or ABNs or what have you. And then if you have multiple of those together, it would be a meta topical space. This would be like the platform itself, whether it’s Twitter, Sorry, X, Reddit, Facebook, TikTok. These are what Taylor calls “non-local common spaces”. And again, that’s particular to the internet, but it happens in broadcast and other media as well. And then if you have a particular group, which can. Change the place of the means of their association. That is a recursive public. And so that’s like your geeks in Linux or what’s happening right now with Mastodon, ActivityPub and the Fediverse in general.
And that was the big change: the way a recursive public, one that’s on the internet, can actually make changes to the way they get together and communicate. You see, those meta topical common spaces had already existed long before the internet, prior to the 18th century. We called them things like the Church and the State. But in the 18th century, we had the idea of this new social imaginary that showed up. That would become, what was the public sphere? It was the coffee house society. It was the discussion that would take place within the newspapers, the letters to the editor within the salons. So all this happened well before the internet.
What these spaces are is they’re, they bring about by like a common understanding that like, this is how we talk, this is where things take place and this is how we can discuss things. And this public sphere is made up by, it’s like an extra political space, right? It’s not brought about by any legislation or political maneuver, the government or the church, but through the practices and the media of that society, through the way they’re able to communicate with each other, and it’s a self-organizing space through the conversations that are taking place.
One of the things that made it really powerful was that it was seen as apolitical or extra political that it took place away from the discussions of power and had a place that was seen outside of that. Because it’s outside of that power, it has power. Which is kind of weird, I know, but it’s like why you’ll see politicians engage on Twitter or TikTok and try and be trendy just because they need to court the power that’s there in the public sphere.
It’s also why you’ll see like authoritarian states try and fake the existence of a public sphere by having news media or what have you. That gives the appearance that there’s a discussion going on. And there’s amazing scholars that have done work on like, the role of media in Eastern Bloc countries and the like, and how that, you know, legitimizes that power.
But that’s way outside of our point of discussion. The main point is that these social imaginaries, these ways that the public imagines society to be, have existed for a long time. And while it’s classically been defined by the activities like speaking and writing and thinking and having that discussion, we now need to change that a little bit in the internet era and include things like building and coding and compiling and redistributing and sharing and hacking.
And this is what Kelty is arguing, is that this “argument by technology” can create a new way of building a public space, a recursive public. You can contrast this with like a non recursive public, which would be like a newspaper or a political gathering. There’s the organizers or the people who write or publish the newspapers, and occasionally there’s like a letter to an editor or they’ll have somebody get up, but by and large, they’re locked into way that it allows them to engage with the public in the first place.
A recursive public allows for the feedback and for that public to remake the means of that gathering. In their own terms and their own terms include their shared common understanding, the way they imagine the world works. And how do they imagine the world works? How do they come up with the ideology that they share?
Well, myths and narratives and folklore. The shared fictions that they have pre-internet. This would be things like, uh, tall tales like Paul Bunyan or George Washington not being able to tell a lie. Those kinds of things. Anything that would be a fodder for like a Disney movie or TV show. Post internet, this can include things like, you know, the “net treats censorship as damage”, or “show me the code” or the idea of a singularity, or the ideas behind free and open-source software In the general, or even some of the underlying myths about cyberspace or the images and beliefs that go into like the identity of a hacker.
These are all elements that constitute the social imaginary of a recursive public, of a public on the internet. But there’s a twist. And the twist is social media. See, as I said, Kelty was writing in 2005 and he was talking about Napster and Linux, and he did some ethnographic field work with groups that are engaged in that, you know, in different parts of the world.
But, Since 2005, there’s been some changes to how the internet works, so let me read off some names and dates. Facebook, 2004. Reddit 2005, Snapchat, 2005. Twitter, 2006, Instagram 2010 GitHub 2008. YouTube 2005, TikTok or Douyin. 2012, and even the ones like Facebook that were before 2005, before Kelty was writing, were much smaller then.
So when Kelty was writing the internet was a radically different place than it is now in 2023, we’ve had the rise of these platforms, these. Social networks, but within walled gardens that all seek to recreate the public sphere. Having learned some of the lessons from the dot.com boom and bust, and from AOL and the other crashes, you could call them all medic topical spaces because they allow for multiple discussions and in their totality make up a public sphere.
Not “the” public sphere because the old public sphere is still there and they still interact with the online one as well, and none of them on their own make up the public sphere are constituted of it, even though just by dint of size, Facebook probably comes close. And it’s within this framework that Elon Musk with his purchase and subsequent rebranding of Twitter tried to buy into and Twitter’s role within it, even though it was smaller than most of the others, was the extent that it was legitimized, because that’s where journalists and academics and politicians would go to have those discussions.
That was where the conversation was taking place. But in 2023, that place has shifted, and this has been going on for a while. In the mid 20 teens, the geeks were chafing at the various restrictions, digital rights management and other, uh, issues with the various walled gardens and platforms. And because the geeks constituted a recursive public, they set about creating their own version of these walled platforms, of these social networks, one that fit their needs better.
They recognize the utility of those social networks and that they could be used for good, but they recognize that there’s also serious limitations with the way they’re constructed and the way they commoditize their audiences, as we discussed last time. So in 2018, the ActivityPub protocol was created and it became a standard upon which new applications and communication networks could be built.
Like a lot of these tools and especially the early Linux tools in the nineties, it’s been worked on part-time by a lot of volunteers, occasionally funded, and even though it’s been a little rough, it’s gotten better over time, over the intervening five years. So in late 2022 when Elon Musk purchased Twitter and in 2023, when Reddit and various other social networks started having massive problems, an alternative existed.
A new recursive public built by the geeks that mirrored some of the forms of the platforms of the previous 15 years of the social networking era. Different but familiar enough that it allowed for use. Thus, once again, the geeks have remade the internet, building a community that they can use, and we are moving.
Into the era of the FediVerse, but we’ll have to explore that in a future episode. For now, let’s wrap this up. I’m Dr. Implausible. It’s been a pleasure to join you. Transcripts should be available on the blog sometime soon, within a day or so, and we’ll also try and get a video version of the this up on the YouTubes.
The whole show is produced under Creative Commons 4.0 Share Alike license. Audio is by me, music is by me, and all the writing and stuff is too. No generative text or large language models have been employed in the production of this episode, and the world is moving pretty fast. So get out there and enjoy it. Until next time, I’m Dr. Implausible. Have fun.
Anderson, B. R. O. (1991 ). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Verso.
Habermas, J. (1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society (T. Burger, Trans.). MIT Press.
Kelty, C. (2005). Geeks, Social Imaginaries, and Recursive Publics. Cultural Anthropology,_20(2), 185–214. [https://doi.org/10.1525/can.2005.20.2.185](https://doi.org/10.1525/can.2005.20.2.185)
Taylor, C. (2004). Modern social imaginaries. Duke University Press.
Warner, M. (2002) “Publics and Counterpublics”. Public Culture 14(1): 49-90.