Remember baby internet? An era with no platforms – simply pages. Back in ’96, every page was a raft that some soul had to fashion with their own hands. The sticks and rope were html and images. Each raft was charming, even if hokey, you could respect the effort and total absence of covert, manipulative, commercial agenda.
What was once an ocean of rafts, is now brim with mega-yachts, cruise ships, and rogue armadas. Consider the Philippines, for example. They never experienced baby internet. For many Filipinos, Facebook IS the internet – because that’s how they first touched it. Somewhere, Tim Berners Lee shakes his head, for the 8 billionth time.
What are the consequences of comprehending the internet as platforms, to all of us? Limited expression. Limited dreams. Limited life.
You = Shoved In a Box
I feel it’s important to remember this.
No matter what fill-in-the-blank, upload-your-photos, heart-and-like service you are using, it will confine you. Your wildest imagination and essence can never possibly be depicted there. Only a fraction of a fraction of who you are – who you have the potential to be – can ever be represented in these places.
And simply understanding this intellectually does not inoculate you from harm. By spending any kind of significant time using these services, you are conditioning yourself to experience this shrunken world as more real that the massive, infinite one you actually belong to.
It devastates me to see people cling so tightly to their tiny online identities. No matter how decorated your profile, no matter how cute your photos and likes you have, at the end of the day, you are staring through a 5-inch pane of glass into hyperbolic reality, and further, squeezing into a contracted profile-costume that some social media company has designed for you – with very limited freedom.
By using these services, day after day after day after day, you are reinforcing your story as just another avatar wandering narrow, sterilized paths.
You = Manipulated
I feel it’s important to remember this, next.
Platforms profit from your time and attention. They bump your mind around like a pinball. They predict when you’re getting bored, and swoop in with numerous options to keep you mindlessly engaged, based on all of your previous engagements.
No matter how herculean you imagine your willpower to be, it is unfathomable that anyone endure time on these platforms and not get drawn into unintentional rabbit holes.
The thing is, these rabbit holes don’t feel bad. They’re entertaining. But what is the cumulative result of a lifetime of rabbit holes, driven by what a computer algorithm understands will keep you busy, as opposed to what a fellow human wants to share, to genuinely connect with you?
I am certain the above will feel a bit dramatic. When really, I know so many others (exhibits A, B, and C) have been trying to illuminate the implications of platforms for a long time. Similar to me, they all understand, maybe even were part-of, designing these platforms we are all squeezing in to. They understand the harm much more clearly than the users of the platforms do, they are simply way further along in grasping the implications.
(This is not wholesale endorsement of these people, films, or books. However – there is a consistent kernel of irrefutable truth within all of them, especially as it pertains to how platforms have integrated manipulative psychological science. The science itself is just that- objective science. How this science is employed, though, is where caution begins.)
Stretch! Build Your Raft.
If I can offer anything – it is to get OFF these platforms as often as you can. If you are going to build some form of “identity” on the internet, consider wordpress.com, the astonishingly beautiful technology I am using to run this blog. I promise you, you have room to truly spread out and be (more of) yourself. An expansive digital canvas to express. Technology that will enable, rather than dominate, you. But beyond the internet, go READ, go WRITE, go PAINT, go EXPLORE, go MAKE MUSIC, go RUN, go HIKE. Go make the world beautiful. Go be part of the world that is not shrinking itself into these profile costumes for the majority of their day, getting all sick and twisted about wildly distorted minutia.
The internet can be an amazingly beautiful place. The soulful rafts and islands are still out there. The mega platforms have something to offer, but they are NOT the definitive internet, and they will always be a very very small version of you and the world, at best.
Jaron Lanier, one of the “grandfathers” of the web as we know it, hopes to one day see a return toward a more organic, human-curated internet. One where we are directed by other thoughtful humans, not algorithms. I like to think this article, and this site, aligns with that idea. I hope it comes to fruition in a broader sense.
I have to carve out one exception. Of all the platforms in the world, Reddit is a place for complete strangers to meet and have high-quality, long-form discussions, about niche topics. Ads and algorithms are minimally intrusive. And you can pay a small amount to shut them off. This is the internet done right, as far as I am concerned. We need more Reddits in the world.