Have you noticed a not-so-subtle overall lowering of the internet’s IQ over the last few years? An apparent abandonment of polite discourse, freedom of expression, and fact-seeking, in favor of paranoid and irrational rants, rampant disinformation, and the sharing of viral content that appeals to the basest human interests and taking delight in the misery of others? I began joking about this around the time the AARP crowd began to dominate Facebook, referring to it as the “Eternal September of the Internet”.
If you’re not familiar with the term Eternal September, it refers to a period beginning in September 1993, the month that AOL began offering Usenet access to its users, overwhelming the existing culture of online forums. Prior to this point, Usenet was largely restricted to colleges and universities. Every September, swarms of incoming freshmen would acquire access to Usenet for the first time, and would take a while learning accepted standards of conduct and “netiquette”. After a month or so, these freshman would either learn to comply with the networks’ social norms, tire of using the service, or be banned from discussions for misbehaving. Whereas the regular September freshman influx would quickly settle down, the influx of new users from AOL never ended, and Usenet’s existing culture never fully recovered, thus the name “Eternal September”.
In this multipart series, we’re going to look at this dumbing down of the internet, its basic causes, and what might be happening to fix it. For now, we’re just going to provide some quick background, and bring into focus a few things that most people aren’t aware of as they use the internet.
Platforms, Portals, Providers
Until around 2005, there were still a variety of ways a person would access various internet services like search, email, and various forms of that era’s social networks. There were multiple viable search engines, Facebook had not gone public yet, and mobile devices were fairly common, but the web was not yet tailored to their specific needs, and “apps” were not nearly as pervasive as they are today. You were much less likely to provide an internet service or website your phone number, credit card info, and various other forms of personal information. This of course has changed.
Platforms & Providers
There are four common platforms you probably use, and three of them dominate across mobile and desktop devices. To actually access the internet, there are four major wireless providers, two of which (Verizon and AT&T) also dominate hard-wire broadband. Comcast is not yet in the mobile device game, but may join the fray, and are in any case partnered with Verizon to provide Xfinity.
Once you’re on the internet, you almost certainly start in one of two places (Google or Facebook), and spend most of your time with these services in one way or another. The graphic below shows typical users’ monthly usage. When you’re not on Facebook, there’s a good chance you’re searching (Google) watching videos on YouTube (Google), or checking your Gmail (Google). Or perhaps you’re a Bing, Yahoo, or AOL user. If you’re one of the latter two, you’re using Verizon. They acquired AOL in 2015, and Yahoo in 2016. If you’re an Android user, it may not often occur to you that you’re in Google’s environment before you even get on the web.
So What’s The Problem?
You may already be getting the picture, but if not, that’s what we’ll cover next time. The problem is that the internet and the “web” (they’re not the same thing) were conceived with an open architecture, and an intrinsic lack of control and ownership. In just the last several years, control of both access to the internet and the content you’ll view has condensed into the hands of just four primary companies. This leads to lack of competition, censorship and media manipulation, and a terrible consumer experience, to name just a few problems.
In part two, we look at how Facebook and Google in particular are engineering the end of the open internet, and how apps and mobile devices know more about you than you do.