The Internet was invented to create a universal and resilient means of communication between electronic devices, primarily computers. At its heart, it is a set of protocols for information exchange. There’s one protocol for the web. There is another for email. There is a third for news, and so on.
The whole point of the Internet is the free exchange of information. It was built specifically for that purpose. The old adage says “the Internet interprets anything that stops the free exchange of information (censorship) as a service outage and routes around it.”
As it turns out, we have an amendment in the Constitution dedicated to the free exchange of information. That amendment enshrines freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances, freedom of assembly and freedom to practice the religion of our choice. All of those things are entirely consistent with the founding principles of the Internet. As citizens of this nation and citizens of the Internet we helped build, those principles used to be sacrosanct.
We stand today on the precipice of a new epoch. This one won’t be limited to the web either. We have recently endured a period of time where we watched the Internet shrink. Sites we used to love went dark. Entire categories of entertainment we loved simply went away. Even if we looked for them they were nowhere to be found. We no longer “surfed” the web. We typed into search boxes and got fewer and fewer interesting results. Everything started to look the same, because everything was the same.
Then people started getting banned because they spoke out of turn. And the Internet shrank even more. Our emails started vanishing while our data was put up for sale. Eventually all opposing voices were silenced until there was only one voice left. And it demanded our obedience. Or else.
Somewhere along the way, it was discovered that over half the traffic on the Internet isn’t created by people, but bots. It’s fake. It was no longer possible to trust what you were seeing online, and since everything you believed relied on information hosted on someone else’s computer, the idea that everything you were seeing was fake became plausible. What happens to a society where there is no trust? What happens when we can’t rely on anything?
The reason this happened is because we allowed it. Instead of building, we allowed the incumbents to destroy what had already been built. They had (and still have) a very effective method too. They simply cut off whole regions of the Internet by dropping them from search engines, forbidding them on social media and persuading users they were dangerous. Foundational technologies were wiped out because they were labeled “unsafe.” Then quietly replaced with proprietary alternatives that were somehow superior. Of course nobody ever explained how or why. But then again, that didn’t matter. What did matter was herding people into narrower and narrower corridors towards smaller and smaller destinations. This continued until users were lined up single file and headed for a cage where they could be monetized for the benefit of a half dozen companies. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of people and billions of other web sites were relegated to “forgotten” status.
To be fair, you couldn’t really blame the incumbents. Their biggest fear was and remains the idea that a bunch of people will go off somewhere by themselves and build something really fun and interesting and Big Tech will get left out. We still have all the tools we need to do that, incidentally. People might start having conversations with one another and get ideas. Why, they might start a business or two and start making money and not be under threat of layoff or having their content banned! Imagine! They might email each other without some company arbitrarily deciding whether to deliver that email or not, or (Heaven forbid) failing to stuff an ad in it. They might form communities built on something other than hashtags and artificially suppressed or even outright fictional analytics.
They might start seeing the Internet as a place where they can exchange information freely. The very idea!
Here’s what you need to know about the way things are and the way things should be on the Internet right now: The very last thing Big Tech wants is the free exchange of information. What Big Tech wants is the monetized exchange of information, but only if they are collecting the money.
If people are free to communicate with each other without artificial limits, Big Tech can’t control them and therefore can’t monetize those communications. This goes to the very heart of every business model on the Internet today. Think about social media. All users want is to talk to each other and occasionally exchange links to their own properties here and there on the web. Clicking those links would take people off the social media site and send them somewhere else.
Big Tech doesn’t want that. They want those people to stay on the social media site so they can be monetized. That’s the fundamental disconnect of Web 2.0. You and your favorite social media destination are working at cross purposes. They don’t want people to go to your web site. They want people to stay on THEIR web site. They are your competitors. They will always be your competitors, no matter how many “followers” you have and no matter how viral your posts are. They want to control you and your content and every conversation you have. Forever.
To persuade you that social media is the way to build a big audience they make you a preposterous promise. They promise you a big audience! All you have to do is post more and use better hashtags and create higher quality content. For them.
The only problem is you are creating high quality content in gigantic quantities and putting it ON SOMEONE ELSE’S WEB SITE WHERE IT WILL BE MONETIZED FOREVER WHILE YOU GET NOTHING.
Oh sure, someday you might go viral. Then again someday you might pull the handle on a slot machine and win a Corvette. Joining a slot machine tournament is not a business model. Neither is “going viral.” It’s lottery thinking. They’ll dazzle you with stories about the millions and billions of people who might see your post someday. Just keep pumping valuable creativity and labor into their site for free and be patient. Work those three day jobs and be patient. Someday.
Eventually, and hopefully sooner rather than later, you’ll wake up and realize you’re working a job for that social media site and not getting paid. Your projects and your site languish. They haven’t been updated in weeks or months. If you’re like me and you write stories for a living your characters sit abandoned. Meanwhile you’ve posted 68 times on someone else’s web site where you average 18 impressions, no clicks and no engagement.
But someday, you might go viral!
The fundamental flaw in this business model is it leads nowhere. Eventually all that free labor will run out of enthusiasm. Nothing of any value will actually be produced. No real money will be made because there won’t be any real customers for any real products. It is just a room full of people wearing earplugs and screaming at each other. All their creative energy is being sent directly to ground. Naturally the social media sites are delighted at this state of affairs because it effortlessly wipes out all their competition. They don’t really have to produce anything because nobody can actually get anyone else’s attention. There is nothing to distract the audience from the big empty room.
One more thing. If you show signs of waking up and start questioning the preposterous promise of social media engagement being the answer to all of humanity’s problems, random people will pop up and try to shout you down. Oh yeah? Well what do you know about it!? It’s as inevitable as mud after rain. Their favorite strategy is to turn everything around and accuse you of incompetence. It’s not the ridiculous idea that anyone seriously engages with the torrential flood of crap on social media. It’s your fault! You didn’t do it right! That’s why nobody buys your products! You are the problem!
What they definitely don’t want is someone questioning whether those “followers” actually exist or not. They don’t want anyone wondering if those numbers on the screen are real. If you want an answer to how many followers you have, go to any of your social media accounts and try to get a list of them. Go ahead. You might as well set out to find El Dorado. There’s no list of followers. If you could find that list you wouldn’t need the social media site.
You post and post and post and nobody engages. What’s more likely? Those “followers” never saw your post, or you’re just a stupidface? Just use common sense. You have six thousand followers on BibbleWibble. You post something fun and colorful and nobody notices. You do it 20 more times and nobody notices. You never get a reaction from anyone. This goes on for weeks. If you were being paid by the hour, you would have earned hundreds of dollars by now and still you get not one solid reaction from anybody.
Oh sure you get a like here and there. That’s easily explained. If you get just enough of a reaction to keep you going, then you’re working for free in exchange for nothing. Nobody ever really engages with you, because there was never anyone there in the first place.
There’s a lot more to say on this subject. While we set out in a new direction just keep this in mind. If the numbers you see in your browser are at odds with what you are experiencing everywhere else, which are you going to believe?