Implausipod EP009: Recursive Publics and Social Media


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 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 [2006]). 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. [](

Taylor, C. (2004). Modern social imaginaries. Duke University Press.

Warner, M. (2002) “Publics and Counterpublics”. Public Culture 14(1): 49-90.

Implausipod EP008: Audience Commodity

(Editor’s note: this is part 2 of the previous post on the audience commodity, which was drawn from a discussion thread on Mastodon. Much of that made it into the transcript of both the Youtube episode and the Podcast (both embedded below). This post will include the full transcript of the audio (and video), so there may be some duplication with the previous post, in the interest of completeness.

If this format of posting works out, then they should be better aligned in the future. Still working on the basics of the POSSE system. Better life through Additive Manufacturing though; iterate and improve. In the meantime, enjoy!)

The link to audio version, from Implausipod Episode 008 is here:


Getting started with a brief rundown of an old article that details the rise of the Audience Commodity: Smythe (1977) “Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism”, we use that to explain the recent events of the internet of the last month or so, including the Twitter-pocalypse, the Reddit Meltdown, the rise of ChatGPT, and some general media theory too.


 Welcome to the Implausipod, a podcast about the intersection of art, technology, and popular culture. I’m your host, Dr. Implausible, and as we return to a regular recording schedule, I’m going to introduce you to the audience commodity, an old idea from economics tat goes a long way to explain some of the current events we’re seeing in the social media spaces.

What exactly is the audience commodity? Well, that’s a fantastic question. With the recent introduction of Threads a little bit ahead of schedule because of the Twitter apocalypse, I thought it’d be worth going into the background of it because it’s really got some relevance for the current events that are happening today. Because it was published in a relatively obscure Canadian academic journal back in the seventies, it hasn’t seen that much adoption by mainstream economics, but we’ll get into it. If that the kind of thing is your bag, then by all means, stick around.

In short, the audience commodity is all about how you and I and all of us really are turned into products by the cultural industries, whether it’s media or advertisements or websites.

I’ll put the citation on the screen (see below) for those that are interested. The author, Dallas W. Smythe was writing it as a bit of a challenge to traditional Marxist economic thinking at the time in the seventies. He said they were getting it wrong when it came to the cultural industries and the impact that they actually had, what they were doing.

Now Dallas Smythe was a former economist at the FCC, and he was blacklisted due to McCarthyism. I mean, Hoover had a file on him, for reasons, and he is drawing heavily on a book called Monopoly Capital that was put out in the sixties by Baran and Sweezy. We should probably do a whole episode on that at some point in time, but we’ll see how this goes.

Now for Smythe, the main argument speaks directly to Facebook or Meta’s business model. This goes the same for like Google and everything else too. And what is their business model? Websites? No. Apps? No. Advertising? Close, but still not the whole picture. Their business model is the production of the audience commodity. Advertisers buy audiences and those audiences. Time is their labor. And how did Smythe come to this conclusion? Well, he’s asking a simple economic question. Basically, what economic functions for capital do mass communication systems serve? And in this case, both Google and Facebook, Meta and Alphabet, whatever, both fit in the same “mass” of mass communication. They have a huge reach. So in order to figure out the economic function, you need to figure out what the commodity those companies produce actually is. And you might think you know what this is, it’s the whole: “if you’re not paying, you’re the product” line. And this is a part of that, only in a lot more detail.

A part of Smythe’s argument is that traditional economics was getting it wrong. If you asked “what does the media produce?”, you might answer something like content or information or messages or entertainment or shows or something like that. And that’s understandable. It’s what it looks like they do. So you’d be forgiven if you thought That’s how it worked, because that was the traditional orthodox idealist point of view.  It was held by everybody from Marx to Galbraith to Veblen to McCluhan. There’s a lot of academic writing on this idea and non-academic writing too. Everybody thought that’s what was going on. Smythe’s argument is that it misses the point. If the trad orthodox view of economics is getting it wrong, what do the media companies actually produce?

What is the commodity form of advertising sponsored communications under “late capitalism”, or “monopoly capitalism” as Baran and Sweezy would say? The answer is audiences and readerships, or just the audience. The audience commodity here, the labor power of the workers, is resold to the advertisers. This is normally in the parlance of the time called the Consciousness industry.

So remember this: TV stations and walled platforms on the internet are factories that produce audiences for advertisers. That’s what’s coming outta the end of the factory. So that’s a lot of the overarching stuff. Let’s get into some of the specifics. Smythe has eight main points, and we’re gonna cover these quickly and then move on to how it connects to the social media platforms: Threads, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, AOL, Reddit, whatever.  

So Smythe’s questions are in order. Here we go. Question one, what did the advertisers buy with their money? Answer: the services of audiences in predictable numbers. It’s a service economy and we are the ones providing the service.  We’re also ones being a served up, which is, I guess, ironic. The commodity is the collective.

Question two, how do advertisers know what they’re getting what they’re paid for? Well, various rating agencies back in the day, like the Nielsen’s and whatever, and the analysis, which has largely moved in-house for streaming and internet platforms.  There’s a whole host of stuff that falls under the umbrella of market research.

Question three, what institutions produce the commodity that advertisers want? Well, we’ve hinted at this, but it’s principally and traditionally the owners of TV and radio stations and newspapers and magazine publishers, and we can add most web platforms to this nowadays ’cause they all work on the same model.  Of course there’s a host of secondary producers in industries that provide content for the principal market, obviously, but this is the main outlet.

Question four, and what is the nature of that content in economic terms under monopoly capitalism or late capitalism? Well, it’s an inducement. It’s the free lunch that attracts the audience to the saloon.  It gets ’em in the door and encourages them to stay. Now this speaks nothing to the cost, the quality, the format. In fact, the cheaper that this can be procured, the better. A free lunch isn’t free, obviously, but someone is providing the bread and the meat, and if the users bring their own, it’s the case of social media then even better.  And what are those users doing?

Question five, what is the nature of the servers performed for the advertiser by members of the purchased audiences? Well, the audience commodity is in economic terms, a non-durable producer’s good bought and used in the marketing of the advertiser’s product. The work that the audience is doing is to learn to buy and consume various brands of products and spend their income accordingly.

If they can develop brand loyalty while doing this, then that’s fantastic. Now, there’s a whole lot of work that goes into that learning. It’s like the reproduction of ideology and Ian terms and a whole lot more going on. But we will again, delve into this and either later in this episode or in future episodes as we keep this going on, but for Smythe, question five is all about the management of demand.

And question six is the big one: How does the management of that demand relate to the notion of free or leisure time under the labor theory of value? And for Smythe the answer is: the goal under monopoly capitalism is for all non-sleeping time to be work time for most of the population. I’ll let you do the math on the missing percentage yourself, but basically free time and leisure time are all turned into work time and in the 21st century, even work time can do double duty as branded elements take place within work.

Now Smythe goes on for about four pages in answering number six. It’s this key point and there’s a lot to unpack there. So again, we’re gonna circle back, but in the interest of brevity:

question seven, does the audience commodity perform an essential economic function? Well, the answer there is “it’s complicated”.  As noted above, Orthodox theories didn’t really go into this, and mass media and brands were before Marx’s time, so he didn’t have much to say about them either. Smythe turns to Marx’s Grundrisse to tease out an answer where production produces consumption, which is, I think page 91 and 92. There’s a whole paragraph on it.  So yes, there’s an essential economic function that’s taking place, but again, it isn’t what we think it is.

Question eight addresses some of that, what we touched on earlier, which is why have the traditional Marxist economists been indifferent to the role of advertising? They were focused on content instead.  Again, this is in the seventies, and it was obviously shiny things. The content was front and center, so people thought that that was what was going on. Remember, this is 1977, a full decade before authors Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky were publishing “Manufacturing Consent”, even though this was contemporaneous with some of Edward Herman’s earlier writings.

Now Smythe had actually published two versions of this paper. The peer reviewed article from 1977 that we’ve been using, and again, it came up as a chapter in 1981’s Dependency Road. These are again, foundational, critical for understanding what’s going on, but what does it mean for right now? Now as I’m recording this, on the evening of July 6th, 2023, Facebook has just launched Threads their Twitter competitor within the last 24 hours.

Earlier this week when I was writing it, I thought the main argument would be the Reddit implosion and Twitter’s issues, which were leading to a mass exodus of users looking for an alternative and heading towards the Fediverse, including Mastodon, which is an ActivityPub protocol tool that’s very similar in some ways to early Twitter.

Earlier, back in June or a thousand years ago, it seems, there was a lot of discussion on the Fediverse because there was news that Facebook was using the ActivityPub protocol for their Threads tools. All of this has gone by in like, you know, Lightspeed, where weeks, sometimes decades happen, right.

Anyways, when I started drafting this in response to those particular events and the general bad idea of engaging with Facebook on anything, (we’ll get into what Triple E means, probably in a future episode too), the online universe was vastly different. The Reddit moderator strike wasn’t even a thing that had happened yet, and even though there was problems at Twitter, it didn’t seem to be the mass expulsion that happened on July 1st.

So let’s tie it back to our main characters. Both Meta and Alphabet, Facebook and Google are well entrenched as advertising companies at this point. There’s no surprises going on there, and it’s also, it’s reasonably well known what’s going on when the auction service is used, being detailed in this explainer from the markup (see below).  I’ll put the link up in the show notes here. I.

They also have a wonderful explainer article going into the breakdown of market segmentation that’s done by, in this case, Microsoft and their Xandr platform, but actually takes place behind the scenes by all of these major social media companies. And these major companies know exactly what they’re doing, or they get into troubles when they lose sight of exactly what their core business model is serving up an audience to their customers, the advertisers.

Often they get themselves distracted by thinking themselves of content providers, and really that’s not the case. The most famous example of this would be like AOL. When they bought Time Warner and moved into providing content on a more regular basis, they kind of lost track of what they’re doing. Their subsequent failure and being overtaken by like everything else on the internet really speaks to them losing sight of that fact and investing in areas where they shouldn’t have. If AOL had focused on either infrastructure or their core business model, the audience, they would’ve weathered the dot-com bust significantly better than all the other companies out there.

But they got distracted by the shininess of Hollywood and thought that they were in the content business. So too, for Reddit and Twitter is some of the problems that they’ve had or because of moves that they’ve made to protect that content. But they can be forgiven slightly because there’s something that changed, something that Smythe didn’t foresee back in 1977.

And that’s AI. See AI flipped the equation around a little bit and turned all that user generated content stuff provided by the labor of the audience for free into something useful data for their large language models. You can understand why Elon Musk and Steve Huffman are a little bit miffed. Imagine you had a lumber mill and someone came in and took a look around and said, “Hey, you’re doing anything with all that sawdust?” and he said “No, take it”. And then they took that useless byproduct and added a little bit of glue to it, and all of a sudden turned it into, I don’t know, designer Swedish furniture and made a mint. You’d be like, what’s going on here? And try and stop them from taking the sawdust and figure out how to use it yourself, because all of a sudden, that stuff’s gold.

Jerry Gold. Because they didn’t know it or didn’t understand the process, both read it and Twitter in the process of lighting a fire in their factory and burning it to the ground. And meanwhile, the users, the audience commodity that was driving their business are all exiting stage left. And that pretty much gets us up to now.

Now we haven’t even gone into some of the other events like TikTok and the proposed ban that seems to be continually ongoing or some of the other social media networks or television, broadcast tv, what’s happening over there. And we also haven’t really gone into Threads and their use of the ActivityPub protocol that we kind of hinted at it.

But we need to get into something else related to that. And that’s a philosophy called Triple E or Embrace Extend Extinguish, but I think that’s gonna be a whole other video. Things are moving pretty fast and I’m just one guy. So for now, we’ll just wrap this up and try and catch the next one. I’m Dr. Implausible. The audio will be available over on the Implausible Pod and the text of the show should be available on the blog or in the comments sometime soon. The whole show is produced under the Creative Comments Attribution Sharealike 4.0 International Public License. We’ll try and make this one look prettier as I figure out how this whole video thing works.

But in the meantime, the world’s moving pretty fast, so we’ll see what it looks like in a week or so. I’m Dr. Implausible. Have fun.

Other links and references:

Baran, P. A., & Sweezy, P. M. (1966). Monopoly Capital. Monthly Review Press.

Smythe, D. W. (1981). Dependency Road: Communications, Capitalism, Consciousness, and Canada (Revised ed. edition). Praeger.

Eastwood, J., Hongsdusit, G., & Keegan, J. (2023, June 23). How Your Attention Is Auctioned Off to Advertisers – The Markup.

Keegan, J., & Eastwood, J. (2023, June 8). From “Heavy Purchasers” of Pregnancy Tests to the Depression-Prone: We Found 650,000 Ways Advertisers Label You – The Markup.