In the 17-months-long conversation Americans have been having about social media’s effects on democracy, two distinct sets of problems have emerged. The ones getting the most attention are bad-actor problems—where someone breaks the rules and manipulates a social-media system for their own nefarious ends. Macedonian teenagers create sensational and false content to profit from online ad sales. Disinformation experts plan rallies and counterrallies , calling Americans into the streets to scream at each other. Botnets amplify posts and hashtags, building the appearance of momentum behind online campaigns like #releasethememo. Such problems are the charismatic megafauna of social-media dysfunction. They’re fascinating to watch and fun to study—who wouldn’t be intrigued by the team of Russians in St. Petersburg who pretended to be Black Lives Matter activists and anti-Clinton fanatics in order to add chaos to the presidential election in the United States? Charismatic megafauna may be the things that attract all the attention—when really there are smaller organisms, some invisible to the naked eye, that can dramatically shift the health of an entire ecosystem.
The hacker ethos and community as I have described it here long predates the emergence of Linux after 1990; I first became involved with it around 1976, and, its roots are readily traceable back to the early 1960s. But before Linux, most hacking was done on either proprietary operating systems or a handful of quasi-experimental homegrown systems like MIT's ITS that were never deployed outside of their original academic niches. While there had been some earlier (pre-Linux) attempts to change this situation, their impact was at best very marginal and confined to communities of dedicated true believers which were tiny minorities even within the hacker community, let alone with respect to the larger world of software in general.