Eternal September Of The Internet Part II: Tragedy of the Comments

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Who would you prefer to monopolize your internet access?

[See part one of this series here.]

Several years ago – starting around 2006 and accelerating when Facebook went public a couple of years later – I personally noticed this not-so-subtle change occurring on the still-fairly-wild and still-sometimes-unpredictable internet. It seemed the overall IQ of the internet was slowly dropping. As well as seeming less polite and articulate (something we’ll get back to) people were seeming more willing to give up personal information to random internet platforms and providers, especially on mobile. Everyone suddenly thought Google was some angelic technological force, which could be trusted with our most private information, even storage of our documents. This reached hilarious proportions in my world around 2011, when I was working with the Occupy Movement, and all these radical revolutionaries were comfortably making plans using Google Groups and sharing signs and manifestos via Google Docs. Such rebels! The explosion of apps on mobile accelerated this all; I’m pretty sure you have no idea which apps on your phone actually have complete access to all your personal information, and what they’re doing with it. How am I so sure? Among other things, I reviewed this Norton Security survey, and the TechSci piece called Who Knows What About Me?

A highlight from this Norton Security survey.

A highlight from this Norton Security survey.

Who Knows What About You?

The connections made when you share data to get a free app would surprise you. The image below is cropped from the TechSci piece mentioned above:

Who knows what about you?

We all know that our phone is as much a camera and internet browsing device as it is a voice communication tool, but what most users are fundamentally oblivious to is that more than any of those other things, it really is a marketing platform and data collection tool. In exchange for cool apps, users will exchange shocking amounts of detailed personal information, including their ongoing location, contact list, and personal photos. And app providers know very well that users don’t know to what extent that information is shared with third parties. Facebook, Google, and Apple have all capitalized on this ignorance in dozens of ways: Google, with its Gmail-centric set of web tools and control of the Android platform, Apple, with its walled garden of media offerings and cloud services, and as a 2015 BuzzFeed piece pointed out, Facebook Is Eating The Internet, by buying every app you use to roll it into the Facebook ecosystem. Any sense of privacy you have is already an illusion, and if you’re prone to falling back on the feeble argument of “Why should I care? I’m not doing anything wrong!” Then let us paraphrase Ed Snowden for you:

Saying you don't care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is like saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say

Another unfortunate thing that seems to have happened since around 2006 or so is that lowering of the average internet IQ we mentioned at the top. It’s most evident in comment threads on Facebook, news websites, and any politically-themed blog or group, and has a humorous nickname: the tragedy of the comments. One possible culprit behind this – that it’s because more rural people have internet than before – is often joked about on sites like Reddit. But the simple fact is that there was a long slow boom of new internet users that began around this time (regardless of rural vs. urban residency), meaning that more people with less tech-savviness or general sophistication were accessing the internet, and thanks to blogs, social networking, and comment sections on virtually every site one visits, they had a sudden ability to publish their thoughts, which for most of recorded history has required resources that were unavailable to the vast majority of the population. To reframe our “internet IQ” observation: maybe people weren’t getting stupider, we were just suddenly learning how stupid we really all are.

Not sure if people are getting more racist

Regardless of how stupid the average person may or may not be, there’s another problem here. It turns out Google is making us dumber at the same time it makes us think we’re more intelligent than we are, obviously a terrible combination.

So what are we getting at here?

It’s actually quite simple: Google and Facebook in particular have “ruined the internet”. People generally don’t notice this for two good reasons: 1) Most people don’t actually know what the internet is, and 2) Even if they sort of do, we’re so subjectively embedded in the portals we use to access it that we don’t realize we’re in that portal’s environment, not the actual internet. So the problem is this: a small number of companies have effectively carved up access to the internet, making it actually difficult to view and interact with it as the broader network that it is. We pointed out a while back that Google is flat out lying when it presents search results. When a Google search result page says there are x million results, try clicking to the last page. It’s only about ten deep usually, and sometimes less. Google has indexed an incredible amount of content, but not EVERYTHING. It’s also so “spammed out” by SEO and linkbait that you’ll never get past those first few pages of results anyway, even though it’s a tiny slice of the actually relevant content that exists. Google also censors content much more aggressively than people think. And the other place you spend all your time – Facebook – even more aggressively controls what you see, because it is first and foremost an advertising and publishing platform, not a user-centric search or networking tool.

So why is this a problem?

It’s a problem because the very things that made the internet the dynamic and generally civil global network that it was – open architecture, lack of censorship, and unrestricted access – have all been hijacked in various ways, mainly by Google, Facebook, Apple, and access providers like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon.

In the next piece, we’ll take a look at what people like Tim Berners Lee (who actually created the web and has similar concerns about it) is doing to maybe “fix” it.

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