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.

It was very clear even in 1980 that people could be very intemperate online. One of the neo-Nazis behind the Daily Stormer was on Usenet and was very clearly a Nazi then. But the phrase flaming online and trolling, these are Usenet terms and this was long before the commercialization of the internet. You should talk to a psychologist about why people behave differently online—to me it’s the distancing. It’s easy to say something nasty about someone you don’t see in front of you … you don’t perceive them as human … you have intemperate behavior going way, way back online—close to the dawn of the medium you started seeing this.

Dewayne Hendricks

CEO, Tetherless Access (and former member of the FCC’s Technological Advisory Council), also known as the Broadband Cowboy thanks to his efforts to expand broadband access

The heart of the problem is we have met the enemy and he is us.

People make up the internet. We developed a technology that enables communication in ways that humanity never dreamed of, but we’re screwing it up because we can’t learn to trust each other.

You have to have failure to learn and the commodity internet has turned into a failure, but the roots were sound and so those roots will be used to build the future. I’m not trying to say we’re doomed or anything—I’m saying the commodity internet is doomed. We can’t fix it, but there are new internet instances that are out there thriving.

Ted Nelson

IT pioneer, coined the term “hypertext” to refer to text with links to other texts

In the early days of computer networking … almost everyone was so idealistic that they’d bring truth and knowledge and accuracy in reporting and now we’re horrified with the opposite … in the same way no one knew the American republic would have a Civil War and crime in the streets. These are consequences of complications that arose once the infrastructure was in place.

To me, [peer-to-peer networks are] a little like a couple of hippies dancing in front of a German tank. Maybe it will take off, but Facebook and Google are very well entrenched and very, very, very big.

Tavis McGinn

Founder of market agency Honest Data and former market researcher at Facebook and Google

I didn’t join [Facebook] thinking it was the best company in the world … but I hoped with research and data it might start to value social good. But I learned in the six months I was there that was not possible. I thought the reason they were making decisions to prioritize profits was maybe they didn’t know better or felt tremendous pressure from shareholders. Maybe it was accidental. But I came to realize it was intentional. It’s a sort of obsession with being No. 1 and making as much money as possible, to get people to spend as much time as possible. It’s a desire that can never be satiated—to win it all, almost like someone who has a gambling addiction … I was very concerned about the company before I joined and kind of crestfallen by the time I left …  It’s fine for a for-profit company to ask, “How do we grow?” but there’s this growth at all costs that concerns people like myself … If truly your only god is profit, you might make decisions that are immoral … I think it’s unfortunate Facebook has prioritized profit from social impact.

Elisa Camahort Page

Consultant, author and former BlogHer co-founder and COO

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

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