Why Does the Internet Suck?

The quick answer may be the people who use it

Pioneers of the early web, researchers, thinkers and practitioners share their thoughts. Gif: Dianna McDougall; Source: Getty Images

Ones and zeroes don’t lie like humans do. The internet is a prime example of how an infallible technology butts up against the fallibility of man. So it is perhaps unsurprising that the internet, as it stands, is broken.

There’s a perverse logic here: The web fulfills the promise of a democratized media where anyone with a keyboard and a connection can change the world, but it also created a digital axiom underscoring the very worst of humanity: Godwin’s Law, which states, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.”

How did we reach this point where otherwise good people call other otherwise good people the worst human being ever; where a teen survivor of a school mass shooting is called out as a “crisis actor”; where “don’t read the comments” is yet another awkward conversation parents have with their teens; where a foreign nation believed that Americans would be susceptible to “fake news” and thus able to influence a presidential election; where a technocratic elite of a handful of companies exert power and influence at grand scales? This is a story of hubris and greed; of capitalism taken to an extreme; of representing humanity writ large. 

What started as a small community of government and academic researchers trying to create separate passageways for information to travel has blossomed into a community of 3 billion people, often yelling at each other about things both trivial and consequential, but also an economic boon for the companies that control the access to logging on and tuning out.

The new titans of tech have revenue that surpasses some nations. For example, Apple’s 2017 revenue of $229 billion is equivalent to the combined GDP of Cambodia ($20 billion) and Vietnam ($205 billion). Google ($109 billion), Facebook ($40 billion) and Amazon ($177 billion) are also not doing too shabby.

And then there’s the digital ad revenue side of the equation: $88 billion in the U.S. alone. The original sin of the internet, the click, has led to a race-to-the-bottom philosophy where the commoditization of information, evidenced in our never-ending thirst for pageviews, has helped create an environment that rewards the untruthful, the harmful and the sensationalist over facts and reason and rational thought.

The incentive for those gatekeepers to clean up their web is not an economic one, clearly.

Facebook and Twitter, for example, last week spiked the football for their recent efforts in transparency. This was not dictated by the invisible hand of Adam Smith, but instead of watchful senators and congressmen looking to flex their regulatory muscles.

Of course, one of the ironies of the internet is that Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, had different intentions; he didn’t patent his invention, and made it free to use. But sometimes, the argument goes, you pay for what you get. 

But there’s hope. Tech companies carry the word optimism around like a talisman, and there is a growing number of players who want to take the tech of the internet to a happier place. For example, instead of www protocol (the good old HTTP), which is the underlying language of the web, they’ve developed peer-to-peer networks, in which blockchain may hold the key to creating a more secure, more transparent, more dare we say, anything better than the internet as it currently exists.

Adweek spoke with several pioneers of the early web, researchers, thinkers and practitioners about their thoughts on the broken internet.

Steve Bellovin

Computer science professor, Columbia University, one of the founders of the early online community Usenet

My take is that in very many different ways the internet is an amplifier.

This story first appeared in the May 21, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@joshsternberg Josh Sternberg is the former media and tech editor at Adweek.
@lisalacy lisa.lacy@adweek.com Lisa Lacy is a senior writer at Adweek, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon.