The New York Times has staked their claim — The Internet Is Broken. For me, this is the literal truth as I await a service technician to arrive and replace my cable modem, which is on the fritz. However, technical problems, broadband speeds, or even Net Neutrality aren’t what the author, David Streitfled, or the subject, Evan Williams is getting at.
Evan Williams, one of the co-founders of Twitter, co-creator of Blogger sees vitriol where there should be virtue across the free exchange of information and ideas on the Internet. This utopian promise is anything but. For many popular spots on the internet, guttural is better description.
This became obvious during the most recent presidential election cycle and hasn’t stopped since. Between social media sites and fake news (real fake news, not just news you disagree with), the internet has become a minefield.
As author Yuval Noah Harari points out in his book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, humans are experiencing information overload, much of it worthless. We need to increasingly determine what is worthwhile information and what isn’t.
The problem is, most people just don’t make a conscious decision to work their filter. If one agrees with it, it must be true and therefore reinforces self worth.
At one time in my career, I supported email systems. Email systems hardly ever caused problems. The problem was with people. They believe that someone they don’t know loved them, had pictures of Anna Kournikova, or that a Nigerian prince was bequeathing a fortune upon them. Spam filters were introduced and the problem slowed (even after 20 years, the problem isn’t solved).
Beyond a technical solution, user education helped the most-Do not click on attachments from strangers. From here, people can now recognize spam and it becomes nothing more than a nuisance when it does show up.
User education initiatives were largely driven by businesses trying to stem the flood of spam email in the 2000s. People were educated and took that messaging into their personal email accounts. Internet disinformation and anonymous malevolence can’t be stymied by corporate initiatives as they aren’t affecting corporate cultures. Our professional lives just aren’t governed by the same rules as our personal lives.
This is apparent when you look at LinkedIn. While the platform has its issues, disinformation isn’t one of the their problems, at least in comparison to non-professional networks. LinkedIn users identify themselves as their professional self with the goal of creating a professional network to improve their career, sell products and services and find others in similar industries. Who would willfully risk employment to push a controversial agenda or connect with you if you did?
Our personal interactions on Facebook range from things we want acquaintances to know about us to things we would discuss in a back room with our family and friends. While there might be certain social contracts to check our behavior, the openness of publishing to family and friends is too powerful to consider the impact on acquaintances and therefore we post as if things were in the strictest confidence.
Prior to the presidential election, people would place three types of information on Facebook. The best self contain posts about vacations, achievements, and family activities. The despairing self is usually reactions to sad news stories or posts on impacting issues out of their control. Lastly, the isolated interest self posts any relevant content specific to one topic.
As a result, we only see a slice of someone and miss the real self. Still, this slice is governed by social constraints and what other people ‘like’ in our network. Facebook relationships aren’t built around a particular interest, they are built based on our connections in real life, which are complex and multi-threaded.
Facebook is the social media network where extreme individual interests can define a person’s online relationship with others, for better or worse. In 2016, I lost a real life friend over the social interactions on Facebook. One particular interest (politics) overcame over 20 years of friendship in a single post due to extreme views.
By contrast, Twitter has a massive problem and it stems largely from the thing that makes it great — anonymity. Twitter is the website that mirrors the Internet proper most of all. Just like anyone can create a website and hide behind an anonymized service, anyone can sign up for a Twitter account. You don’t need to know anyone to engage and be successful.
You build a social network on Twitter through informal connections based on common interests. While some use it professionally and adhere to LinkedIn type social rules, others use it fearlessly since there might not be real world consequences or hide behind anonymity to post whatever they want.
Individual interests become extreme and grow as people with common beliefs find each other. People connect on interests and those interests take on a life of their own. You are strictly a one-dimensional self on Twitter.
Where is the social network for the authentic self? Right now, it’s called real life.
Putting that aside, you still can’t escape the Internet.
It falls to both search engines and social media empires to protect it. The Internet Is Broken article points out the spam filter-esque solutions that Facebook, Google and Twitter are trying, but it comes across as responsible censorship.
Williams and Medium, the platform that you are reading this article on is striving to solve this issue by being a force for good and rewarding content on its merit, not for the sensational of worthless, but even that is a type of censorship. People will seek out websites and connections on social media that agree with their positions.
All of this points to one simple truth. The Internet isn’t broken, we are. We are overloaded with information and only we can determine something relevant to us and worth pursuing. How can any technology overcome this issue? Just like spam filters, real websites and content will be caught in the censorship cross-fire.
To compound this issue, as long as we demand anonymity on the Internet, we’re held accountable only to ourselves and any empathy we have for others.
For now, we have to live with these problems and the imperfect solutions put forth because the Internet has become an awful place and something needs to be done. It is no longer clear what is real and what isn’t. Some content blurs the lines between reality and fiction and as people come together based on interest alone, these fictions will perpetuate.
The question isn’t how to fix the Internet. The question is how do we fix humans?