Brave New Internet

I started this post because I read a couple articles that lament the future of the web. They argue that it’s becoming the new TV, that our culture of consumption has transformed our diverse and interconnected web into one that is more uniform and intraconnected.

As I wrote, I found myself venting about the current state of the web. I pick on Facebook and BuzzFeed and explained how they are affecting the rest of the web. But as I compared past arguments about television and present arguments about the web, I conclude that the comparisons don’t hold up, and that we should be cautiously optimistic for the future.

Also, my new favorite word is “listicle.”

Get Out of My Face

An old classmate from high school posts racist commentary about current events. Blocked. A former coworker spams pictures of her children participating in mundane activities. Unfollowed. A former groupmate from college posts a BuzzFeed article. Unfriended.

Why am I logged into Facebook? Oh right, I wanted to clear that notification off my phone—a notification which turned out to be a game invite. People still send those?

For some reason, I still keep a Facebook profile. The benefits of staying in touch with a few friends and family outweigh the cost of, well, everything else—but just barely. My relationship status with the site has been complicated for a while. A few years ago, I wrote about my unhappy dependence on Facebook and its effect on my identity. Since then, I’ve moved the majority of my online activity to Twitter and Reddit.1

Despite my feelings toward Facebook, the Zuckernaut has only gotten stronger. Over 71% of adult internet users are on Facebook, or 58% of the entire adult population. The site is now worth $245 billion, which is worth more than Walmart. Every month, the collective user base spends 640 billion minutes on Facebook.

For many people, Facebook is the internet. And that’s exactly what the Zuckheads want.

Facebook’s ultimate goal is to create an experience in which users never have to leave—and why should they? Since the introduction of the apps, the news feed, and the trending topics sidebar, users have their games, their friends, and their news conveniently wrapped into a single page. Oh, and it’s free.2

Facebook as a one stop source carries implications that affect more than how users consume; it also affects what users consume. Facebook’s algorithm calculates what kinds of content the user wants to see and delivers it to the top of the news feed. In theory, content creators can tailor their content to become more visible on users’ feeds. We no longer need to seek information. Information seeks us.

…do you hear a buzzing sound?

Feed Me

BuzzFeed is among the most shared content on Facebook, but you already knew that. The sole existence of this “social news and entertainment” company is based around spreading their buzzy gospel across social media.

And they spread. And they spread. And they spread. And they spread. And they spread.

I recently visited their website and was awestruck at the volume of content they post hourly. Clickbait headlines, listicles, personality quizzes, and some current events sprinkled about. While these forms of content aren’t inherently bad (except for clickbait), it is staggering how much of this content is shared every day.

Has BuzzFeed, along with others like them, have found the key to being successful on this medium? Based on their 850 million dollar worth, the answer is: yes. If might is right, then BuzzFeed is very, very right.

However, the popularity of BuzzFeed isn’t a direct result of the website’s influence on internet culture. They are also a reflection of internet culture. Over the past decade, the internet had undergone a major cultural shift from diverse interconnectivity to uniform intraconnectivity.

In November of 2014, blogger Hossein Derakhshan was released from an Iranian prison. After six years behind bars, Derakshan was shocked at how different the digital landscape had become. In his article “The Web We Have to Save,” he discusses how social media changed the way we use the web. He writes, “[The internet] is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.” This is apparent when we see BuzzFeed and NY Times publishing their articles straight to Facebook, possibly ranking themselves more favorably with Facebook’s algorithm and giving users one less chance to leave.

John Herrman of The Awl asserts a similar idea in “The Next Internet is TV.” He argues that social media centralizes the web in a way that allows media companies market to an already established audience. The people are already there; they just need to be advertised to. For BuzzFeed, that means more writers, more content, more shares on Facebook, and more ad money.

With BuzzFeed’s native advertising strategy, even the line between content and advertisement is blurred. They aren’t in the internet journalism business; they’re in the advertising empire business. And we crave it.

Amusing Ourselves

Our endless streams of content hark back to Aldous Huxley’s soma. We scroll through our feeds not because it makes us happy, but to keep ourselves from ennui. We lose our minds when it’s taken away.

Are we witnessing signs of a digital dystopia? Are algorithms, media companies, and our desire to occupy our minds leading us to a cultural brain drain? Are we allowing others to think for us?

Neil Postman wrote on a similar topic in Amusing Ourselves to Death back in 1985. In his book, he likens television entertainment to soma that evokes our feelings rather than our thoughts. He argues that the oversaturation of information we experience through media renders us indolent; there are too many topics and not enough time to think, much less act. From local news to national politics, the media is in a position to shape our perceptions of the world.

Postman’s arguments are enticing, but was he right?

30 years after his book’s publication, we can hardly call our world a dystopia. We’re living in the best time to collaborate, share, organize, and act in ways which would have taken weeks or even months to organize in the past. We’re reading and writing more than ever with our digital technology. Postman’s arguments are still valuable, especially in the context of the modern internet. We should criticize our technology and the way we use it. The tools that can cause us to languish are the same tools that can empower us.

While I complain about the state of social media and its content, I have to remind myself to be thankful that I have a voice. I have the opportunity to complain without fear of imprisonment. For this, I am optimistic about the future of the web.

Facebook sucks. BuzzFeed sucks. For all I know, my blog sucks. But that’s what makes this whole thing great. Things don’t have to be perfect for us to enjoy them. For many of us, the internet is a form of escapism. A silly listicle can brighten up an otherwise dull day. A quiz result can amuse you. What is the harm in that? Some websites monetize our habits, our impulses, and our need for entertainment. We’re paying for it one way or another.

By nature, the internet can’t become the new TV. Scroll down—the comment section of every piece of content empowers us in a way that television can never replicate. Sometimes there are trolls and flame wars. Sometimes we strongly disagree with the top-rated comment. But we always have a voice.

No matter how uniform and marketable the internet may get, our voice is the main difference between the web and television.

We will have a problem if that ever changes.

1. With Reddit’s recent fiasco, I’m not sure if will I stay with this community. ^
2. As long as you’re cool with Facebook selling your personal information. I’m sure you’ve heard this before. ^

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