01.21.12

The Online-Piracy Bills Were Killed by a Generation’s Expectations

New Media was the least interesting part of how the tech industry killed the online-piracy legislation this week. What’s fascinating are a generation’s values and how they were channeled into opposition.

Hyperbole is so helpful. When tech companies used social media to kill the anti-piracy bills in Congress this week, breathless observers heralded the dawning of a new age in Washington. Old media was out; new media, officially, finally, was in. Tides turned; eras crumbled, we were told.

Really? Highlighting the fact that social media brought down the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is like saying Yankee Stadium is responsible for 27 world championships. It’s not the grass; it’s the talent that takes the field. The social uproar around SOPA didn’t arise because it threatened a generation’s favorite new media, but because it threatened their whole value system.

Social media isn’t even new. Social is now old. It has been used to overthrow despots around the world for years now, elect a U.S. president in 2008, and get Americans talking about income inequality for the first time in memory. We know it has given unheard-of power to anyone with a browser. And we marvel at the new, new things on our phones that send messages, images, and ideas around the world in seconds. That’s historic, potentially powerful–but not new.

For many Americans, nothing is more sacrosanct than the Internet. Call it creepy, but look in the mirror. Did you read to your kids last night before you went to bed, or did you check your email?

Social media is a platform. It sits there, begging for creativity, hoping that someone, anyone, will stir the passion of its users so it can let loose. It’s like a Ferrari idling. We desperately want a pro to show us what it can do on the track, not a hedge-fund executive taking it to Starbucks for coffee and bagels. It’s kind of depressing, actually, when potential is quashed.

While the technology, architecture, engineering, and science that go into building the pipe is astounding, the pipe is not overthrowing despots. How people use creativity to stir our passion, which in turn catalyzes the social response, is where the power lies.

For many Americans, nothing is more sacrosanct than the Internet. Call it creepy, but look in the mirror. Did you read to your kids last night before you went to bed, or check your email? Even if you read that story, you kind of wanted to take a peek, right?

And for at least one generation, and now almost two, that passion is a given. It’s a right. And for many, it’s a right to get stuff free online. Indeed, research shows that if kids pay for stuff online, they actually feel less good about themselves. They failed as a person. So if someone–say Congress and lobbyists representing big businesses–tried to clamp down on their online freedom, they would view that as a personal affront.

Tech companies, not surprisingly, know this. So as The New York Times reported, Reddit and Tumblr decided to lean into it. They, with unquestioned credibility among their users, began to demonstrate that SOPA was censorship—and censorship is one thing this generation cannot abide.

Look at what censorship might look like, they said. Other sites jumped in, and on Wednesday, the big guys joined. Google, Zuckerberg, Wikipedia, Wired, and all the other kids at the cool table took action. Unsuspecting members of Congress flipped, and that was that. It really wasn’t a fair fight, in the end.

Passion takes many forms. For the same group who think unfettered Internet freedom is (or should be) a right, they also think tolerance, fairness, and open-mindedness are absolutes. They grew up with the Internet and that meant growing up in a space where there is not one central norm but many. They have formed a generation that fosters individuality, self-expression, and plurality.

This group is defined by their age—20-somethings, broadly.  But people younger and older than this group aspire to be like them, including teenagers and 50-year-olds who take their laptops to bed.

They support gay marriage and can’t fathom why we’re even having that debate. They support abortion rights as vigorously as they want to protect the environment. They want enlightened immigration and appropriate regulations for Wall Street, and don’t understand why some wouldn’t put education funding at the top of our priority list.

For them, these are not just issues, but values and deeply held beliefs. In political terms, these Americans are the new values voters. And they believe Barack Obama not only shares these values of plurality and fairness, but also lives them daily.

On the other hand, they think Republicans are ... well, like the old media companies in the SOPA debate. Republicans, they feel, just don’t get it. They are like their parents, they say: close-minded, living in the past, clueless about the modern world, opposed to things they just don’t understand.

When they hear that Mitt Romney wants a constitutional ban on abortion, they cringe. When they learn that Rick Santorum thinks global warming is “junk science” or when Newt Gingrich says child labor laws are “truly stupid,” they don’t get it. When John Boehner and his House Republicans wants to zero out Planned Parenthood or eviscerate environmental laws or give tax breaks to wealthy Americans, they worry about the future of the country.

And like SOPA, when that political debate is framed as a choice between the president and any Republican later this year, it won’t be a fair fight, at least for this group of Americans.

Once again, we relearned old lessons this week. It’s not about the medium, as interesting and dynamic as that is. It’s about human passion and how leaders can creatively channel it online and in the real world. The tech companies know it, the Egyptians in Tahrir Square knew it, and so does President Obama.