Monday, 20 July 2015
Is the internet the new TV?
Sometimes it takes being away from something to notice changes that are, to the rest of us, imperceptible. Which is precisely what happened to blogger Hossein Derakhshan, author of this thought-provoking and very readable article: The Web We Have To Save. Derakhshan was imprisoned, in Iran, for his blogging among other things, between 2008 and 2014. The year before he went to jail, I joined Facebook, which was still at the early adopter phase and a very different place to what it is now. I was rather late to blogging, starting with that in 2008.
Derakhshan points out a number of developments that have taken place on the internet during his incarceration, but that with the greatest impact is the growth of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. As he says, "lots of people start their daily online routine in these cul de sacs of social media, and their journeys end there." What characterises social media is what Derakhshan calls The Stream - "...getting fed a never-ending flow of information that's picked for them by complex - and secretve - algorithms." These days, you don't even need to go via a browser - just press the Facebook app button on your smartphone and you mustn't even leave the confines of your cosy social media world. He adds: "... and not only do the algorithms behind the Stream equate newness and popularity with importance, they also tend to show us more of what we've already liked. These services carefully scan our behaviour and delicately tailor our news feeds with posts, pictures and videos that they think we would most likely want to see."
The anthropomorphising of algorithms aside (an easy mistake to slip into), this is a fundamentally important point. People want an easy life and they want to be entertained. Nothing wrong in that except when it's to the exclusion of the way people used the internet, predominantly, ten or fifteen years ago: "The web was not envisaged as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking."
The very expression "News Feed" says it all - the social media is feeding people a pre-determined stream of pap. Calling it "curated" doesn't make it any better.
And the internet is less and less about seeking out the obscure, the diverse, the non-conformist and the individual.