Characteristics of the Internet

BuddyPharaoh - [original thread]

Did the internet deliver exactly what was promised?

We have had the internet for decades, and everyone thought it would usher in a new era of knowledge sharing and democracy. Few predicted that it would so effectively facilitate the death of quality journalism and the rise of populism and fake news. [i won’t cite the person since this was a throwaway line and I don’t want risk a dogpile]

As far as I can tell the internet delivered exactly what everyone agreed it would back in the 90s, everyone has a voice now and a direct means of publishing their thoughts (even if their facebook friends have learned not to read it). Vastly more info is at our fingertips and we can factcheck stories in an instant for lies, but also omissions and burying of the lead, and affective manipulation.

And as a result we’ve realized the “intellectuals” and “adults in the room” have been lying to us and manipulating us the whole time.

. . .

I don’t know, I can barely remember not having the internet, maybe the 90s did expect some glorious conscienceness raising that never occurred... but from my perspective looking at Cyberpunk and 90s “break the story no one wants to hear” sci-fi....well the Internet is one of the few sci-fi predictions that totally delivered.

What do you think? am I missing something?

The glib answer is "yes, you are missing something". We all are. The internet is too big for any one person to grasp. On a more serious note, there's a lot to unpack, and we still have a lot of half-open crates sitting in the middle of the room, and the movers are bringing more in.

Information glut. Back in the 2000s, journalists used to report that the internet brought about the Information Explosion, followed by the Information Glut. It used to be possible to read one newspaper article about an issue and be informed to within 10% of everyone else. You really could trust Walter Cronkite. Obviously, he wouldn't give you perfect information, but it was good enough for daily life. You could get on the same page as anyone who wasn't a crank. Today, you can't. There's too much to know. Some of the issues are the same (someone broke a rule, someone else tried to cover it up), but every side of an issue can get a mouthpiece now. And they're not just cranks anymore. A lot of people haven't internalized this yet, even today. We still want our Cronkite, and instead we're getting ten Cronkites, each saying different things, and there's not enough time in the day to verify them all.

Moreover, this implies the original Cronkite had been hiding things from us. We'd been living in a false consensus all along. Weirdly, that was okay in a lot of cases - most issues don't actually affect us. They still don't, but we're being told they do.

Disinformation explosion. The Glut wasn't the only problem. The internet gives everyone a mouthpiece, and that includes people who will lie. And they can get away with it, too, because there's too much information to collate and prove they're lying, especially when it's not blatant, but rather a little spin. So now those ten Cronkites tell us different things, and one or two of them might be lying, and half to all of the rest might be spinning what they say, either by using framing language or by leaving out a few facts, so now we can't tell who the real Cronkite is, or even if we have one.

Journalism turmoil. The internet wrecked the traditional journalism business. Revenue comes through a combination of subscriptions and advertising. Subscriptions made sense when journalism came on dead trees you couldn't see unless you paid someone to bring them to you. It makes almost no sense when you can subscribe to an internet provider instead and pay the same price for more news than you could ever read. Ironically, this is why everyone trusted Cronkite: because everyone could see him, for free (after they bought the TV).

Now, subscriptions have dropped so low that advertising dominates the revenue equation. Journalists don't need top-quality information; they just need enough information to get the eyeballs that will see enough ads that advertisers will pay the journalists to run. Turns out, people only need so much information. After that, they just need entertainment. So journalism has been pivoting to that. It won't go all the way - people still need stock reports and weather forecasts and box scores - but no one really needs to know how a court drama turned out. We just think we do.

Still maturing. The story isn't over. People are still adjusting to the pivot. We're still getting used to the ubiquity of disinformation, and we're figuring out where our pain point is. How much disinformation are we willing to tolerate? How much factual data do we really need? Which news is truly important, and how much is just water cooler fodder? When news is important, how do we tell fact from opinion or spin? How do we dig up what our source left out? How do we spot framing language? How do we resolve conflicting sources?

The way I see it, the western world is slowly coming to the realization that social media can poison the discourse, because it now knows some of the vectors. The fact that social media can tailor what news you see on a personal level, and that it's vulnerable to malicious bodies, is finally common knowledge. The implied solution for now is to just stay away from it - use Facebook and Twitter less, use search tools that don't track us, and treat clickbait articles like tabloids. Also, we're slowly learning to factor in source bias, although we still don't agree on which source is biased where, and how heavily.

To me, the next step is to improve on those solutions. Eventually, there will be enough demand for a way to automate collation of unstructured information that someone will deliver partial solutions. By unstructured, I basically mean prose - anything that can't currently be stripped down to numbers and stored in a database, like sports scores or companies' stock performance over time. We'll know we've arrived when, say, you can take any ol' article from NYT or WaPo or even The Daily Star and strip out all the framing and spin with a button press, leaving just its factual claims. Troubling news for journalists with flowery writing skills, but heartening for investigative reporters. And independent bloggers, if they've got the research chops. Meanwhile, it'll clear out most of the trolls.