The People Get The Internet They Deserve

There’s currently a slew of articles, posts and tweets  about ‘the future of the internet’.  Stuart Jeffriestablet_smartphone1  article in this week’s Guardian (headlined ‘ How The Web Lost Its Way – And Its Founding Principles) has, at the time of writing,  generated nearly 500 comments in less than 24 hours. This comes hot on the heels of Charles Leadbeater’s Nominet Report ‘A Better Web’, which neatly identifies ‘the mixture of wonder and unease that we currently feel about digital technologies’, citing  the ability of Facebook’s ads to know what you want for birthday presents better then your partner does. Charlie’s report, on balance, is optimistic about our capacity to use the web for purposeful social activism and spends most of its sixteen pages highlighting ways in which innovative organisations are mobilising mass participation for good.

Yet the media coverage of the report primarily honed in on the abuse faced by some women  (Cambridge classicist Mary Beard being a specific example) on social media, with the report’s other important issues – collaborative consumption, entrepreneurship, care networks and new ways of learning – barely getting a mention. There’s clearly an issue over the abuse that some prominent women (and men) receive on Twitter, but a recent Demos report casts doubt on the claim that misogyny is rife on social media. According to an article in the Huffington Post this week, around 5% of tweets sent to male celebrities are abusive, compared to 1% sent to females.

So, press and TV, not content with actually provoking spikes in abuse on Twitter – the Demos report shows that programmes like Big Brother are followed by significant increases in tweets  using words like ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ – the media then makes misogyny the story when reacting to reports showing how the web can be a better force for social good. Some people who reviewed OPEN argued that I was being naively idealistic in focussing on the millions of small acts of kindness perpetrated every day on social media. I prefer to think that I’m trying to restore a sense of balance.

But what of Jeffries’ claim that the original egalitarian ideals of the internet have been ‘corporatised’? He quotes Wired’s Chris Anderson in identifying a subtle but significant shift:

“Over the past few years, one of the most important shifts in the digital world has been the move from the wide-open web to semi-closed platforms that use the internet for transport but not the browser for display. It’s driven primarily by the iPhone model of mobile computing. “

In other words, our online lives are increasingly spent in apps, which are essentially there to sell us stuff and hoover up data on us. In part this is a generational thing: many younger people live online almost exclusively through their phones, or tablets, making browsing the non-corporate world of discussion forums a less smooth experience than, say, buying shoes on eBay. And there’s no doubt that attempts to end the principle of ‘net neutrality’ (which I blogged about earlier) should have us all concerned. But does this mean that we’ve abandoned any hope of a free internet?

I don’t think so – at least, not yet. But there is  no question that the people get the internet they deserve. Social media simply holds up a mirror to ourselves: if we don’t like what we see, we have the power to challenge it, and ultimately change it. If we think the world of apps is little more than naked capitalism, then we can make our own apps for good.

As I wrote in the book, it’s arguable that we gave our privacy away rather than have it stolen from us. Does that makes us helpless idiots, or people who, by sharing information about ourselves, connect with others and, in turn, discover our better selves?

Culture of fear

Each new media invention triggers its own moral panic.  Socrates complained that learning to write would encourage forgetfulness; comic books were supposed to promote juvenile delinquency. In 1981, the British Parliament debated the “Control of Space Invaders (and other Electronic Games) Bill” out of concern for Space Invaders’ addictiveness and potential for causing ‘deviancy’. The bill was defeated by only 20 votes. Seriously, we almost banned Space Invaders.

So, perhaps we’re living through our own moral panic around social media? Or maybe Douglas Adams (as ever) got it right when he described our reactions to technology:

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Of course we need to stay vigilant, because the internet is just too alluring and powerful for bad people not to want to commandeer it. But it’s a little early for moral panic.




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