What If We Were Wrong About the Internet?

Pretty interesting column making the rounds today.

I mean, yeah. Back when I was in grade school through my mid 20’s I saw the same vision of the Internet he describes, and have come to greatly doubt it now. Social media platforms are, in my estimation, a net negative to society these days. It’s not that they can’t be used for good, but that, for reasons of corporate and political interests, they have been weaponized.

I literally use Facebook only to organize game nights. I log in every few weeks, see if the local game store has a group that night, and log off. I no longer engage people (and haven’t for about 5 years), because the complete trash my family spreads. I don’t have the energy to fight them constantly, and I’d probably piss off most of them (which, admittedly, on more than one occasion I’ve considered the virtues of burning the whole thing down).

But the naive no holds barred vision of Silicon Valley has been proven false and harmful.

My opinion isn’t that we were wrong about the internet, we were wrong about how human behavior would react to the internet.

The grand vision of the internet was that endless information is right at your fingertips, where you can find any information that you want. This honestly turned out to be true and I can research subjects from my computer that I would have had to enroll in post-grad programs and pay a lot of money for. You can see this in countless examples of even what high school kids are able to accomplish that I would have had no avenue of just to get started.

Yet, this doesn’t account for the fact that all this information at our fingertips has overloaded us, and conditioned a lot of people to not dig deep into most tidbits that come across their brow (because who has that amount of time) and the fact that I can bookmark some info for later and not worry about diving into it now (endless procrastination).

Re Social Networks: the primary idea was sound. There were many family and friends that was time consuming to keep in touch with before Facebook and the like that email did not help with. Yet the concept never accounted for the fact that it would inundate people with the greener side of life and hide the fact that people’s lives are much rougher than they appear that face to face (and even phone) conversations are not able to hide as well.

So I think the article is wrong. It’s not that the original visionaries were “wrong” per se, they just did not have a good grasp of the psychological aspects that would take hold and wrap their perfect ideal internet around a pretty menacing place.

The good parts of the internet do still exist as per the original vision, it just requires work by the users to encounter and stay within those aspects.

I don’t even know what kind of hubris you’d have to possess to try something like this. This is incredibly dumb.

It works great to get you out of stuff though. I have two sisters. They used to take me clothing shopping with them which I hated. I am not a typical lady in this area. I find something I like, buy it four colors or patterns. I might go to the mall or shop online, one hour tops. My sisters though… hours. It was very simple to get out of it. They put on a dress, ask me if it made them look fat, I said… yes, huge, like your ass is certainly the highlight there. They don’t ask me very often anymore to go with them.

Not wanting to hear the truth about small stuff though does not mean you want to be lied to about the important stuff. It’s not a fair comparison.

Sturgeon’s Law in action.

Yeah, I read that and thought “I’m all good now with this particular idea.”

Maybe so. But to the extent that social media is being used for political purposes, I think that it has been a net benefit to progressives.

In the pre-Facebook days, progressives fretted about the decline of unions. They were pretty much the best way to organize politically, and they were dying. Today, nobody worries about an inability to get the word out. We have social media for that.

Yes, yes, conservatives (and Russians) can use it too. But they are less effective, partly because social media is used most by younger people, and younger people are increasingly progressive. And I suspect there is a feedback loop in play: young people are more progressive in part because of social media.

I mean, look at this graph of voting tendencies among the young, and notice what started to happen in 2004 when Facebook showed up:

I know, correlation is not always causation. But in this case, I think it might have been, at least in part.

It turns out that tribalism (which the author of the OP link alluded to) is very strong. So strong it might not be able to be overcome for a lot of people. Those people have dialed into the internet in a big way, but as an echo chamber and self selected belief reinforcement system. Facebook has tapped into this accidentally/on purpose in a big way, and it even affected our election. Thus we get a boob in the White House who is himself in this same position, filling his staff with yes men and cronies, and attacking anyone who disagrees with him. Just like on Facebook. I’m sure he’d block CNN if he could.

So going forward, what’s the best way to really connect us together? My guess is a big, dangerous threat we bond together over, or alien contact.

Wouldn’t it be wild if the aliens are looking not for the mastery of fission or FTL space travel, but a mature communications avenue like the internet in 20 years, before they contact us?

Radical transparency is crazy, but it is worth reading about:


The internet is the best thing that’s happen to humanity period, The negatives associated with the internet are outweighed by the positive by at least 10-1 and I suspect if one did one did a careful cost-benefit analysis the number could be 100x.,

Once we figure it all out, we’ll be great.

It’s the teething period that is an issue. I suspect kids these days will grow up being mostly immune to it’s negative effects since they understand how it all works, unlike older generations who aren’t used to it.

I’ve known people in their 60’s and 70’s with PhDs who would believe anything they saw on the internet. Because the news didn’t really lie to them back in the day. The idea of people doing it online isn’t even on their radar, though they were the first ones to say to never trust someone on the internet when it came to friendships and the like. It’s weird.

So far. From the 1960s to the 1990s (most of its existence) the Internet was tucked away in universities and government agencies, so the average person didn’t have enough access to mess with it.

The Internet was great when we were terrorizing people who made racist jokes. But then they used it to elect Donald Trump and leave the EU. Shut it down!

I mean that was great. We should do that more, again.

The problem is why that was happening in the first place. And that is because these platforms failed to stop the flagrant and abusive groups in the first place. Because according to Facebook and Twitter sending racist, sexist, and neo Nazi death threats and abuse is a ok. So people took it under their own initiative to go after these scum.

In the old days naming and shaming Nazis was considered good old fashioned socialization. You start painting swastikas around town and suddenly everyone in town turns against you to the point you are so ashamed you have to move away? How it used to work (when it worked). Nowadays that has been globalized.

So until the platforms start to take these jackholes seriously, and banning them en masse? Bring on the anti Nazi bot. Bring on exposing their real names. Bring on them getting fired for it.

If it makes anyone feel better, we were wrong about TV and radio too. When those things were introduced, their proponents argued they were great leaps forward whose primary use would be to educate and ennoble humanity. (For example, there’s a charming strain of thought from the late 19th century that held that merely being exposed to music made you a better person.) Instead, these media were immediately turned into mechanisms for generating trivial nonsense for profit, or for mass-mind control by bad actors with sinister agendas. Or, in the case of Fox News, both!

Thinking about it, the printing press doesn’t have an unblemished legacy either. The immediate outcome of the arrival of the book wasn’t an era of peace and enlightenment. It was two centuries of bloody religious warfare that tore Europe apart. And when enlightenment did come, it didn’t bring peace with it, but rather even more wars and revolutions. Looking back at it today you can say the positives of mass literacy on net outweigh the negatives, but that must have been little comfort to all those who were killed in the process.

Not that any of these media caused those problems by themselves - they’re merely tools that amplify our own instincts and actions, both good and bad. The fault, as always, ultimately lies not in our technologies but in ourselves.

Yeah. In the Good Old Days there were plenty of people like Alex Jones. They lived and died each in their own fetid little corner. They might put out flyers, or even have a local radio show. They might attract the attention of 0.1% of the local population and most people never even noticed them. But with the internet at least one of those local loonies was bound to come to national attention. Might still only attract 0.1%, but on the national scale that’s 300,000 people - and 300,000 people can make a whole lot of noise even if they are only 0.1% of the population.

Yeah pretty much this, what Ron said. If you have even ten thousand active vocal supporters they can now have an outsize effect via the internet.

Note that the below is a descrption of my facebook bubble. Doubtless everything I see happening on the far-left is happening equally on the far-right, but it is utterly invisible to me because of the nature of the bubble.

My experience of social media is that there are about a dozen people in my bubble, from across the spectrum from the center-right to the far left, who are highly politically engaged and who engage in constructive, thoughtful discussion. I frequently disagree with them and the links they share, but they tend to be arguing based on facts and using logic. I’ve frequently had my mind changed in these discussions.

Then there are maybe 50 or so people who are less engaged, and whose primary activity is to share stories they find shocking or moving. Almost invariably these stories are written from a far left viewpoint, and frequently contain “alternative facts”. Questioning or challenging these posts is socially incredibly difficult, and the general response is a kind of defensive “I may be factually wrong, but you are on the wrong side” retort. On the other hand - post something that agrees and you get instant social validation in the form of likes.

(Obviously there are some people on the boundary between these groups. The stark divide is a simplification, however I think it is a fair representation of the reality for the purposes of looking at the phenomena in play)

I don’t believe all of those people are (or at least were originally) of the far left. The stories are after all genuinely shocking - they read like something that should be spread. However similar stories from more centrist viewpoints simply don’t exist. They don’t have the same “share bait” quality.

So on the facebook feed an image is presented to people who see the shares of a society which is literally falling apart. Every failing of the government is exaggerated, every utterance of the mainstream leaders misrepresented, every inconsistency of the far-left ignored. Inevitably far-left viewpoints grow in popularity within not just the people sharing the “share bait”, but with the entire bubble, most of whom are far less politically engaged and so come to rely on their facebook feed for political input.

My belief is that TV news (a highly unbiased if often uninspiring source) has been replaced by the worst share-bait as the primary infosource of those who are politically unengaged but active on social media.