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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Ten years ago, we were realizing there was a problem with harassment and troll behavior on the internet and there was a lot of discussion around 2007-2008 about a code of conduct for the internet. We had guidelines for the community that were accessible and enforced rigorously, but we didn’t believe in having one code of conduct for the internet—different sites have different purposes and audiences, but we believed every site needs to have its own. From the very beginning, platform companies and media companies were not willing to invest in moderation and enforcement and I think some of these platform companies don’t want to be media companies that are responsible for the content they publish. Those are the two primary problems: lack of moderation enforcement/intervention and basic denial of responsibility on the part of people who lead some of these platform companies.
Founder and executive director of Online SOS
In my experience at Morgan Stanley as an investor providing support around harassment, it’s clear to me why we’re here: It’s money. I would assert ad-focused business models and incentives being misaligned.
The way investors make money from social media platforms has primarily been ad based. People often point to everyone who is designing the platforms—we need people to be diverse, true—and it’s the C-suite … [which is] incentivized to prioritize clicks for ad metrics for valuations over experiences and, as a result, trust, privacy, the well-being of users … The monetization of the internet and social media is why we’re here.
General partner, Bullpen Capital and founder of early social network Tribe
I don’t think [the internet is] broken at all. It’s an example of what happens when no one reads the damn [user license agreements (ULAs)]. We could have been on the phone a decade ago and the conversation would have been identical. We need to have a #MeToo moment around privacy.
Congress might do something, heaven help us. This actually scares me the most.
If you watched [Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s] testimony, how out of touch were those congressmen asking questions? These people will write legislation? Do any of them even know what those words mean? That’s the thing that scares me the most—go back to 1998—they wanted to bring [Microsoft co-founder Bill] Gates on antitrust charges and they broke the company. Gates was never the same—he became a philanthropist. They might be trying to make an example with Zuckerberg … God help us if Congress does something. I guarantee they will make it worse.
Director of communications for Holo, a community building a distributed cloud
We created an internet where the way you make money is by watching everything people do—essentially stalking them and selling all the knowledge of how to most effectively manipulate them to the highest bidder. I don’t think any of those advertisers are evil—they are trying to effectively market their products, but the architecture is like an arms race. If you haven’t gotten to understand your consumer better than anyone else, you will lose.
New Yorker columnist and author of the upcoming book Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else)
Governments in Western Europe are outraged about privacy and now that outrage is spreading to the U.S. and you see 20 percent of Americans have ad blockers on their mobile phones and 30 percent in Western Europe and 54 percent of people are, according to Nielsen, skipping the ads,” Auletta said. “Companies have to respond to that … Companies have to decide whether to listen to those voices or object and move forward … The government does not speak with one voice, and many questions Congress asked Mark Zuckerberg were stupid and semiliterate…
The internet was started with the notion that it would be free. That was the belief and wouldn’t it be wonderful? … and that was the impulse Google had and the founders of Facebook had and then they said … well we’ve succeeded in building a big audience, but we haven’t succeeded in making money and each had their boards pressing them: “Larry, we need to bring in a CEO,” which happened in 2001, and, “Mark, how are we going to make money?” He brings in Sheryl Sandberg and Google brings in Eric Schmidt. First Eric Schmidt at Google and then Sandberg at Facebook: … “What a great medium this is for advertising. That’s the way to make money and support our expansion, servers and speed up search results.” And it worked.
I would argue Facebook wants to replace the internet. They want to be a place where you come and Google the same.