The dry-heaving, deflated state of the Internet

As I’ve mentioned before, I basically no longer use what is called “social” media, and I have the western propaganda machine blocked in as many places as possible. It’s clear there is a culture war going on, and while there is as of yet no loss of life, it is ruining a lot of things which were once beautiful.

Within computer science, there exists what is called the discovery problem. Both Yahoo and Google started as attempts to solve it. You have a set of things with which people might want to engage, and you want to make sure they can with the most minimal friction possible. It’s not a new idea. If you think about it, newspapers, libraries, even roads operate like this to some extent.

This creates a gateway (or portal) of sorts, and whoever controls it has a lot of power. They control what is served in what order, based on what search criteria, and how frequently.

They are a technology which serves some sort of purpose. In theory, the gatekeeper is a neutral party who serves this higher purpose. A librarian acts to help someone find a book or information they seek. A journalist (a real one) tries to uncover the truth and report it. So a question to ask, when you are looking for something, is who is guiding the answer: is it the purpose of the technology, or the agenda of the gatekeeper?

Realistically every gatekeeper has an agenda, and traditionally this is why we’ve had multiple newspapers, radio stations, and so on. However, this seems to be dying away, and I’m not sure why. Google is one of the worst at this. I would say Facebook as well, but I don’t have firsthand experience. I first started noticing it with the Google Plus names drama, when they pushed the “Search Plus Your World”, trying to map searches to what fits you. And there is a dance between subjective and objective quality. Ever notice that when you search for someone’s name, you get their Wikipedia entry? Which of course makes assumptions about how reliable wikipedia is. After all, if I search for “Lyndon Johnson”, what should I get first, the Wikipedia page, or a website about Robert Caro, who is probably his most famous biographer?

I’ve been noticing lately that Youtube has been doing a lot of this. Let’s say I search for a kind of video, maybe about a current event. I click on a video that seems relevant… maybe it has a lot of views, maybe it has a description that fits what I’m looking for. Let’s say it’s a CNN story about the current event. I watch part of it, and then go back to the main youtube screen. Suddenly I’m getting recommended a ton of videos about that event (matching the keyword), and other videos about CNN.

That’s innocent enough. But for me, this cycle has iterated enough times that I pretty much know exactly what youtube is going to show me. The best analogy I can make is that it’s like knowing what time your favorite TV show is going to appear. It is literally the same, more of the same, and so on. Although lately the videos are fighting for attention, so I’ll get a lot of buzzwords in the titles, as well as things I didn’t ask for that youtube is clearly promoting, maybe because they were paid? Unsure on that.

One of the thrills for me of going into a traditional store is the surprise element. Take a used book store. Let’s say you go there to see if they have a book you’re interested in. You find it, and look at it for a moment. And then you see other books by the same author right next to it. This is somewhat close to the “also on CNN” videos. But then, on the next shelf over, you see books on a totally different topic. Or there’s a display created by the owner of the shop about a book you didn’t even know existed. These last two elements are what make the traditional bookstores (and other stores) special. And Youtube has totally destroyed any ability for them to exist on youtube.

Let’s approach this from another angle. Say you discover a new food at a nearby restaurant, and you like it so much you order it every day. After the tenth day, I’ll bet you no longer want to even see a picture of that food. The novelty dies off, and maybe you don’t go back for a month. It’s similar to stories I’ve heard from former pizza delivery drivers who tell me they never want to have pizza ever again. Or like the staff who works in retail during a promotion where they play the same song over and over again.

To me, the selections that Youtube offers resembles that food after the tenth day. The novelty has died, and I’m so numbed that it’s even difficult to imagine new keywords to search that will result in that “different topic” shelf that a bookstore would have. And yet, for some reason, I keep going there.

I almost wonder if this has placated the whole internet. In a sense, the websites of the 90s and early 2000s were a bit like the family owned shops in small town America before Walmart moved in. As I used to say, I can think of many people who would travel the US going to different small towns and seeing the little shops, but I can’t think of anyone who would travel the US going to all the Walmarts.

But the issue creating this distaste isn’t exactly a diversity issue (to use the hotbutton term of the day), I argue it’s more control. There’s a sort of feeling of disempowerment, similar when you argue with the staff at a large corporation and get fed the “there’s nothing I can do” line. The joy in those little family owned shops wasn’t exactly diversity, but that they were self-owned. If family with a toddler walked into the shop, the owner had the agency to suddenly tell them that “today candy bars are free for little boys named Billy.” There’s probably a community element to it too, something also absent from Youtube and Walmart.

To end the ramble, it seems like today’s Internet has become a homogenized, sterlized shell of what it was even ten years ago. I’m still not sure why, but I think this has something to do with it.

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