Something is wrong with the Internet

By devin, 15 December, 2018

When I was younger I believed in the Internet. I believed the Internet was a brave place, where knowledge and culture was disseminated freely. I saw it as a place where you could tap into unparalleled knowledge and improve yourself.

This wasn't too far off the mark. People's memories became a lot worse when the written word was first adopted, but because we could store knowledge outside of our brains, in practice each human could retrieve information stored in a book rather than only what they could store in memory. Having Wikipedia and Google takes this concept to a whole new level - though you sometimes feel like you have less knowledge, in practice you have quick access to a much larger trove of knowledge than you could have ever acquired without the Internet.

The Internet is more than just that though. Because of the relative anonymity on the Internet, people shared unguarded stories about their lives. In the bowels of Internet forums and social networks ("Nexopia" comes to mind), I learned real things about what other people were thinking and doing in their lives I could have never accessed before. To be honest, most of it was about sex and romance and what goes on in the minds of women, but there were other fascinating topics I learned about. Reddit is the best example of this continuing today - I often turn to Reddit to get real insights into the lives of actual people.

I learned a lot of valuable information this way. I am very grateful, though, that I didn't learn everything I know from the Internet. I was lucky to have a really diverse set of experiences growing up, including some international travel (e.g. to France and Nepal). Working at summer camp was the most valuable though. Each summer working there, I met up to 500 kids and 50-60 other staff who came and went. And I didn't just meet them; I lived with them and learned about their lives.

The reason I'm so grateful for these "offline experiences" is because over the past 5 years I've gradually begun to realize that a lot of the information I got from being a digital native is wrong. Part of this is me growing up, becoming less naive, and becoming more skeptical & critical. For example, I realized I was too trusting of what I read in the news when Trump defied the polls and got elected. But that's not the only factor at play on the Internet. There's something more subtle going on.

The problem

Let's talk about Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Who primarily populates these platforms? I'm going to make some claims based on my anecdotal experience. Twitter is primarily populated by journalists, companies, teenagers, the unemployed, and perhaps the mentally ill. Given that I'm in none of these categories and I'm fairly active on Twitter, I'm clearly generalizing, but this doesn't take away from my point. I sometimes want to Tweet more, and get more active in other subcommunities than the ones I'm in. But I just don't have the time. I'm too busy with my actual life, job, and friends. I think this is true for the majority of people on the internet. They just read & consume it, because they don't have much more time for anything else. Some can carve out time to blog (e.g. Jeff Atwood), but when they get busy they have to pause. 

But there are other people who spend much more of their time on the Internet, and they are the primary content producers on these platforms.

If I look at my Facebook feed, I'd estimate 90% of the content is produced by 10% of the people. And it's people who spend a lot of time on Facebook. I stopped "following" 5 or 6 people this year and my news feed quieted down significantly. I notice that most of the rest of the people only post once or twice a month. But that means I'm reading articles and opinions from people without a lot of skin in the game in the issues they're talking about. 

And if you look at Instagram, the major content producers are models. That is, people who have a lot of time to spend being pretty.

This then skews our perception of the world. Twitter people get into Twitter fights and that bubbles up through the journalists to TV shows showing huge highlighted tweets, or articles saying "people are mad about X" based on five angry people tweeting about X. Twitter has this effect on politics - it magnifies disagreements so they seem bigger than they are. I heard recently that only 

Something similar happens on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. We see highly curated events from people's lives - what's worth sharing. This skews our perception of what's going on in those people's lives. My friend and I both think the other never does any work at work, because we both send snapchats only when we're goofing off. The hours of actual productive work never show up on our friend's phones.

What does it all mean?

To summarize what I'm saying here: the Internet is ultimately skewed. Structurally, and particularly in terms of who's contributing, you end up with an unexpected and unintuitive set of people producing the content that so many of us rely on. Couple that with my (and I think most people's) naivety and willingness to believe what they read at first blush (especially if you're reading while tired), and you end up with bad information spreading very rapidly.

But the initial benefits of the Internet haven't gone away. Reddit, Google, Youtube, Wikipedia, and even Twitter are still places I go to access information that I couldn't otherwise easily acquire. I just have to be careful. I have to constantly temper my enthusiasm for what I"m reading.

I shouldn't be too fatalistic here though. Productive people are probably only slightly more likely to be correct. For example, someone who spends a lot of time analyzing the stock market probably could share some great tips. But they also probably don't have the time or motivation to do so. But someone who has just gotten into the stock market, is enthusiastic, and about to lose a lot of money  will very easily find the time and motivation to post advice! 

But let's say that person who offers stock advice happens to be able to post useful information on the Internet, and I start following them and reading their ideas. Probably they won't shy away from also offering their opinions on politics. But there's no reason to think they have any special insight into politics. So I still need to be careful.

And really this should be the same when I read a book or newspaper. I need to remain skeptical and critical, always. You can't take anything at face value. The valuable part about consuming media is that it exposes you to new ideas. The bad part is that you are very likely (again, especially if you're tired and have less willpower during the consumption) to accept those ideas as truth. Not only that, memory isn't super reliable, and you're likely to end up remembering something you read not in context, but just as something that's true.

If there's any takeaway from all of this it's that. We need to be critical thinkers. And we need to accept that we aren't as good at this as we think. In fact, no one is safe. No one is a "critical thinker" 100% of the time. So we need to reinforce processes and habits that will help us triangulate what information is true and what's false.

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