On the Purposes of the Internet

SISCTI 34
February 28, 2009
Monterrey, Mexico

Introduction

I am going to begin by asking a philosophical question about the Internet. But I can hear some of you saying, “Philosophy? What does that have to do with the Internet? Maybe I will have a siesta.” Well, before you close your eyes, let me assure you that the question is deeply important to some recent debates about the future of the Internet.

The question is: what is the purpose of the Internet? What is the Internet good for? Perhaps you had never thought that something as vast and diverse as the Internet might have a single purpose. In fact, I am going to argue that it has at least two main purposes.

To begin with, think about what the Internet is: a giant global information network. To ask what the Internet is for is about the same as asking what makes information valuable to us, and what basic reasons there might be for networking computers and their information together.

 

The two purposes of the Internet: communication and information

I think the Internet has at least two main purposes: first, communication and socialization, and second, finding the information we need in order to learn and to live our daily lives. In short, the Internet is for both communication and information.

Let me explain this in a simple way. On the one hand, we use the Internet for e-mail, for online forum discussions, for putting our personalities out there on social networking sites, and for sharing our personal creativity. These are all ways we have of communicating and socializing with others.

On the other hand, we are constantly looking things up on the Internet. We might check a news website, look up the meaning of a word in an online dictionary, or do some background reading on a topic in Wikipedia. These are all ways of finding information.

I want to explain an important difference between communication and information. Communication is, we might say, creator-oriented. It’s all about you, your personal needs and circumstances, and your need for engagement and recognition. So communication is essentially about the people who are doing the communicating. If we have no interest in some people, we probably have no interest in their communications. This is why, for example, I have zero interest in most MySpace pages. Almost nobody I know uses MySpace. MySpace is mainly about communication and socialization, and since I’m not actually communicating or socializing with anybody on that website, I don’t care about it.

Information, on the other hand, is not about the person giving the information but about the contents of the information. In a certain way, it really does not matter who gives the information; all that matters is that the information is valid and is of interest to me. And the same information might be just as interesting to another person. So, we might say, communication is essentially personal, and information is essentially impersonal.

I say, then, that the Internet’s purposes are communication and information. In fact, the Internet has famously revolutionized both.

The Internet is addictive largely because it gives us so many more people to talk to, and we can talk to them so efficiently. It allows us to compare our opinions with others’, to get feedback about our own thinking and creative work. In some ways, the Internet does this more efficiently than face-to-face conversation. If we are interested in a specific topic, we do not need to find a friend or a colleague who is interested in the topic; we just join a group online that has huge numbers of people already interested, and ready to talk about the topic endlessly.

Online discussions of serious topics are often a simplistic review of research, with a lot of confused amateur speculation thrown in. We could, if we wanted to, simply read the research—go to the source material. But often we don’t. We often prefer to debate about our own opinions, even when we have the modesty to admit that our opinions aren’t worth very much. Discussion is preferred by many people; they prefer active discussion over passive absorption. Who can blame them? You can’t talk back to a scientific paper, and a scientific paper can’t respond intelligently to your own thoughts. The testing or evaluation of our own beliefs is ultimately what interests us, and this is what we human beings use conversation to do.

But the Internet is also wonderfully efficient at delivering impersonal information. Search engines like Google make information findable with an efficiency we have never seen before. You can now get fairly trustworthy answers to trivial factual questions in seconds. With a little more time and skilled digging, you can get at least plausible answers to more many complex questions online. The Internet has become one of the greatest tools for both research and education that has ever been devised by human beings.

So far I doubt I have told you anything you didn’t already know. But I am not here to say how great the Internet is. I wanted simply to illustrate that the Internet does have these two purposes, and that the purposes are different—they are distinguishable.

How the Internet confuses communication and information

Next, let me introduce a certain problem. It might sound at first like a purely conceptual, abstract, philosophical problem, but let me assure you that it is actually a practical problem.

The problem is that, as purposes, communication and information are inherently confusable. They are very easy to mix up. In fact, I am sure some of you were confused earlier, when I was saying that there are these two purposes, communication and information. Aren’t those just the same thing, or two aspects of the same thing? After all, when people record information, they obviously intend to communicate something to other people. And when people communicate, they must convey some information. So information and communication go hand-in-hand.

Well, that is true, they do. But that doesn’t mean that one can’t draw a useful distinction fairly clearly. Here’s a way to think about the distinction. In 1950, a researcher would walk into a library and read volumes of information. If you wanted to communicate with someone, you might walk up to a librarian and ask a question. These actions—reading and talking—were very different. Information was something formal, edited, static, and contained in books. Communication was informal, unmediated, dynamic, and occurred in face-to-face conversation.

Still, I have to agree that communication and information are indeed very easy to confuse. And the Internet in particular confuses them deeply. What gives rise to the confusion is this. On the Internet, if you have a conversation, your communication becomes information for others. It is often saved indefinitely, and made searchable, so that others can benefit from it. What was for you a personal transaction becomes, for others, an information resource. This happens on mailing lists and Web forums. I myself have searched through the public archives of some mailing lists for answers to very specialized questions. I was using other people’s discussions as an information resource. So, should we say that a mailing list archive is communication, or is it information? Well, it is both.

This illustrates how the Internet confuses communication and information, but many other examples can be given. The Blogosphere has confused journalism, which used to be strictly an information function, with sharing with friends, which is a communication function. When you write a commentary about the news, or when you report about something you saw at a conference, you’re behaving like a journalist. You invite anyone and everyone to benefit from your news and opinion. Perhaps you don’t initially care who your readers are. But when you write about other blog posts, other people write about yours, and you invite comments on your blog, you’re communicating. Personalities then begin to matter, and who is talking can become more important to us than what is said. Information, as it were, begins to take a back seat.

Moreover, when news websites allow commenting on stories, this transforms what was once a relatively impersonal information resource into a lively discussion, full of colorful personalities. And, of course, online newspapers have added blogs of their own. I have often wondered whether there is a meaningful difference between a newspaper story, a blog by a journalist, and a well-written blog written by a non-journalist. That precisely illustrates what I mean. The Internet breaks down the distinction between information and communication—in this case, the distinction between journalism and conversation.

Why is the distinction between communication and information important?

I’ll explore more examples later, but now I want to return to my main argument. I say that the communication and information purposes of the Internet have become mixed up.

But—you might wonder—why is it so important that we distinguish communication and information, and treat them differently, as I’m suggesting? Is having a conversation about free trade, for example, really all that different from reading a news article online about free trade? To anyone who writes about the topic online, they certainly feel similar. The journalist seems like just another participant in a big conversation, and you are receiving his communication, and you could reply online if you wanted to.

I think the difference between information and communication is important because they have different purposes and therefore different standards of value. When we communicate, we want to interface with other living, active minds and dynamic personalities. The aim of communication, whatever else we might say about it, is genuine, beneficial engagement with other human beings. Communication in this sense is essential to such good things as socialization, friendship, romance, and business. That, of course, is why it is so popular.

Consider this: successful communication doesn’t have to be particularly informative. I can just use a smiley face or say “I totally agree!” and I might have added something to a conversation. By contrast, finding good information does not mean a significant communication between individuals has taken place. When we seek information, we are not trying to build a relationship. Rather, we want knowledge. The aim of information-seeking is reliable, relevant knowledge. This is associated with learning, scholarship, and simply keeping up with the latest developments in the news or in your field.

Good communication is very different from good information. Online communication is free and easy. There are rarely any editors to check every word you write, before you post it. That is not necessary, because these websites are not about creating information, they are about friendly, or at least interesting, communication. No editors are needed for that.

These communities, and blogs, and much else online, produce a huge amount of searchable content. But a lot of this content isn’t very useful as information. Indeed, it is very popular to complain about the low quality of information on the Internet. The Internet is full of junk, we say. But to say that the Internet is full of junk is to say that most conversations are completely useless to most other people. That’s obviously true, but it is irrelevant. Those who complain that the Internet is full of junk are ignoring the fact that the purpose of the Internet is as much communication as it is information.

Personally, I have no objection whatsoever to the communicative function of the Internet. In fact, it is one of my favorite things about the Internet. I have had fascinating conversations with people from around the world, made online friendships, and cultivated interests I share with others, and I could not possibly have done all this without the communicative medium that is the Internet.

But, as I will argue next, in making communication so convenient, we have made the Internet much less convenient as an information resource.

Communicative signal is informational noise

You are probably familiar with how the concept of the signal-to-noise ratio has been used to talk about the quality of online information and communication. A clear radio transmission is one that has high signal and low noise. Well, I’d like to propose that the Internet’s two purposes are like two signals: the communication signal and the information signal. The problem is that the two signal are sharing the same channel. So I now come to perhaps the most important point of this paper, which I will sum up in a slogan: communicative signal is informational noise. That is at least often the case.

Let me explain. The Internet’s two purposes are not merely confusable. In fact, we might say that the communicative function of the Internet has deeply changed and interfered with the informative function of the Internet. The Internet has become so vigorously communicative that it has become more difficult to get reliable and relevant information on the Internet.

I must admit that this claim is still very vague, and it might seem implausible, so let me clarify and support the claim further.

The basic idea is that what works well as communication does not work so well as information. What might seem to be weird and frustrating as information starts to make perfect sense when we think of it as communication.

Let me take a few examples—to begin with, Digg.com. In case you’re not familiar with it, it’s a website in which people submit links for everyone else in the community to rate by a simple “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” This description makes it look like a straightforward information resource: here are Internet pages that many people find interesting, useful, amusing, or whatever. Anyone can create an account, and all votes are worth the same. It’s the wisdom of the crowd at work. That, I assume, is the methodology behind the website.

But only the most naïve would actually say that the news item that gets the most “Diggs” is the most important, most interesting, or most worthwhile. Being at the top of Digg.com means only one thing: popularity among Digg participants. I am sure most Digg users know that the front page of Digg.com is little more than the outcome of an elaborate game. It can be interesting, to be sure. But the point is that Digg is essentially a tool for communication and socialization masquerading as an information resource.

YouTube is another example. On its face, it looks like a broadcast medium. By allowing anyone to have a YouTube account, carefully recording the number of video views and giving everyone an equal vote, it looks like the wisdom of the crowd is harnessed. But the fact of the matter is that YouTube is mainly a communication medium. Its ratings represent little more than popularity, or the ability to play the YouTube game. When people make their own videos (as opposed to copying stuff from DVDs), they’re frequently conversational videos. They are trying to provoke thought, or get a laugh, or earn praise for their latest song. They want others to respond, and others do respond, by watching videos, rating videos, and leaving comments. I suspect that YouTube contributors are not interested, first and foremost, in building a useful resource for the world in general. They are glad, I am sure, that they are doing that too. But what YouTube contributors want above all is to be highly watched and highly rated, and in short a success within the YouTube community. This is evidence that they have been heard and understood—in short, that they have communicated successfully.

I could add examples, but I think you probably already believe that most of the best-known Web 2.0 websites are set up as media of communication and socialization—not primarily as impersonal information sources.

But what about Wikipedia and Google Search? These are two of the most-used websites online, and they seem to be more strictly information resources.

Well, yes and no. Even Wikipedia breaks down the difference between a communication medium and an information resource. There has been a debate, going back to the very first year of Wikipedia, about whether Wikipedia is first and foremost a content-production project or a community. You might want to say that it is both, of course. That is true, but the relevant question is whether Wikipedia’s requirements as a community are actually more or less important than its requirements as a project. For example, one might look at many Wikipedia articles and say, “These badly need the attention of a professional editor.” One might look at Wikipedia’s many libel scandals and say, “This community needs real people, not anonymous administrators, to take responsibility so that rules can be enforced.” Wikipedia’s answer to that is to say, “We are all editors. No expert or professional is going to be given any special rights. That is the nature of our community, and we are not going to change it.” The needs of Wikipedia’s community outweigh the common-sense requirements of Wikipedia as an information resource.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not saying that Wikipedia is useless as an information resource. Of course it is extremely useful as an information resource. I am also not saying that it is merely a medium of collaborative communication. It clearly is very informational, and it is intended to be, as well.

Indeed, most users treat Wikipedia first and foremost as an information resource. But, and this is my point, for the Wikipedians themselves, it is much more than that: it is their collaborative communication, which has become extremely personal for them, and this is communication they care passionately about. The personal requirements of the Wikipedians have dampened much of the support for policy changes that would make Wikipedia much more valuable as an information resource.

Why do we settle for so much informational noise?

Let me step back and try to understand what is going on here. I say that Web 2.0 communities masquerade as information resources, but they are really little more than tools for communication and socialization. Or, in the case of Wikipedia, the community’s requirements overrule common-sense informational requirements. So, why do we allow this to happen?

Well, that’s very simple. People deeply enjoy and appreciate the fact that they can share their thoughts and productions without the intermediation of editors or anything else that might make their resources more useful as information resources. And why is it so important to so many people that there be no editors? Because editors are irrelevant and get in the way of communication.

The fact that Web 2.0 communities are set up for communication, more than as information resources, explains why they have adopted a certain set of policies. Consider some policies that Wikipedia, YouTube, MySpace, and the many smaller Web 2.0 websites have in common.

First, on these websites, anyone can participate anonymously. Not only that, but you can make as many accounts as you want. Second, when submissions are rated, anyone can vote, and votes are (at least initially, and in many systems always) counted equally. Third, if there is any authority or special rights in the system, it is always internally determined. Your authority to do something or other never depends on some external credentials or qualification. University degrees, for example, are worth nothing on YouTube.

The result is that, on a website like Wikipedia, a person is associated with one or more accounts, and the performance of the accounts against all other accounts is all that the system really cares about.

To Internet community participants, this seems very rational. A person is judged based on his words and creations alone, and on his behavior within the system. This seems meritocratic. People also sometimes persuade themselves, based on a misinterpretation of James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds, that ratings are an excellent indicator of quality.

But these systems are not especially meritocratic. It is not quality, but instead popularity and the ability to game the system that wins success in Web 2.0 communities. High ratings and high watch counts are obviously not excellent indicators of quality, for the simple reason that so much garbage rises to the top. There is no mystery why there is so much time-wasting content on the front page of YouTube, Digg.com, and many of the rest: it’s because the content is amusing, titillating, or outrageous. Being amusing, titillating, and outrageous is not a standard of good information, but it can be a sign of successful communication.

The less naïve participants, and of course the owners of these websites, know that Internet community ratings are largely a popularity contest or measure the ability to play the game. They don’t especially care that the websites do not highlight or highly rank the most important, relevant, or reliable information. The reason for this is perfectly clear: the purpose of these websites is, first and foremost, communication, socialization, and community-building. Building an information resource is just a very attractive side-benefit, but still only a side-benefit, of the main event of playing the game.

The attraction, in fact, is very similar to that of American Idol—I understand you have something similar called “Latin American Idol,” is that correct? Well, I have been known to watch American Idol. It is a television competition in which ordinary people compete to become the next Idol, who earns a record contract, not to mention the attention of tens of millions of television viewers. The singing on American Idol, especially in the early weeks, is often quite bad. But that is part of its entertainment value. We do not watch the program to be entertained with great singing—that is, of course, nice when it happens. Instead, we watch the program mainly because the drama of the competition is fascinating. Even though the quality of the singing is supposed to be what the program is about, in fact quality is secondary. The program’s attraction stems from the human element—from the fact that real people are putting themselves in front of a mass audience, and the audience can respond by voting for their favorites. The whole game is quite addictive, in a way not unlike the way Internet communities are addictive.

But let’s get back to the Internet. I want to suggest that the information resource most used online, Google Search itself, is also a popularity contest. Google’s PageRank technology is reputed to be very complex, and its details are secret. But the baseline methodology is well-known: Google ranks a web page more highly if it is linked to by other pages, which are themselves linked to by popular pages, and so forth. The assumption behind this ranking algorithm is somewhat plausible: the more that popular websites link to a given website, the more relevant and high-quality the website probably is. The fact that Google is as useful and dominant as it is shows that there is some validity to this assumption.

All that admitted, I want to make a simple point. Google Search is essentially a popularity contest, and frequently, the best and most relevant page is not even close to being a popular page. That is a straightforward failure. But just as annoying, perhaps, is the prevalence of false positives. I mean the pages that rank not because they are relevant or high-quality, but because they are popular or (even worse) because someone knows how to game the Google system.

Does this sound familiar? It should. I do not claim that Google is a medium of communication. Clearly, it is an information resource. But I want to point out that Google follows in the same policies of anonymity, egalitarianism, and merit determined internally through linkings and algorithms that machines can process. As far as we know, Google does not seed its rankings with data from experts. Its data is rarely edited at all. Google dutifully spiders all content without any prejudice of any sort, applies its algorithm, and delivers the results to us very efficiently.

I speculate—I can only speculate here—that Google does not edit its results much, for two reasons. First, I am sure that Google is deeply devoted the same values, values that favor a fair playing field for communication games that many Web 2.0 websites play. But, you might say, this is a little puzzling. Why doesn’t Google seek out ways to include the services of editors and experts, and improve its results? An even better idea, actually, would be to allow everyone to rate whatever websites they want, then publish their web ratings according to a standard syndication format, and then Google might use ratings from millions of people creatively to seed its results. In fairness to Google, it may do just this with the Google SearchWiki, which was launched last November. But as far as I know, SearchWiki does not aggregate search results; each individual can edit only the results that are displayed to that user.

So there is, I think, a second and more obvious reason that Google does not adjust its results with the help of editors or by aggregating syndicated ratings. Namely, its current, apparently impersonal search algorithm seems fair, and it is easy to sell it as fair. However much Google might be criticized because its results are not always the best, or because the results are gamable or influenced by blogs, at least it has the reputation of indeed being mostly fair, largely because PageRank is determined by features internal to the Internet itself—in other words, link data.

Google’s reputation for fairness is one of its most important assets. But why is such a reputation so important? Here I can finally return to the thread of my argument. Fairness is important to us because we want communication to be fair. In a certain way, the entire Internet is a communicative game. Eyeballs are the prize, and Google plays a sort of moderator or referee of the game. If that’s right, then we certainly want the referee to be fair, not to prefer one website over another simply because, for example, some expert happens to say the one is better. When it comes to conversations, fairness means equal consideration, equal time, an equal shot at impressing everyone in the room, so to speak. Communication per se is not the sort of thing over which editors should have any control, except sometimes to keep people polite.

The fact that Google has an impersonal search algorithm really means that it conceives of itself as a fair moderator of communication, not as a careful chooser of relevant, reliable content. And a lot of people are perfectly happy with this state of affairs.

Conclusion

In this paper I have developed an argument, and I hope I haven’t taken too long to explain it. I have argued that the Internet is devoted both to communication and information. I went on to say that communication and information are easily confused, and the Internet makes it even easier to confuse them, since what serves as mere communication for one person can be viewed later as useful information for another person. But what makes matters difficult is that we expect communication, and the websites that support online communication, to be as unconstrained and egalitarian as possible. As a result, however, the Internet serves rather well as a communication medium, as a means to socialize and build communities, but not nearly as well as an information resource.

I can imagine a reply to this, which would say: this is all a good thing. Information is about control. Communication is about freedom. Viva communication! Should our alleged betters—professors, top-ranked journalists, research foundations, and the like—enjoy more control over what we all see online, than the average person? The fact is that in the past, they have enjoyed such control. But the egalitarian policies of the Internet have largely removed their control. In the past, what those experts and editors have happened to say enjoyed a sort of status as impersonal information. But all information is personal. The Internet merely recognizes this fact when it treats allegedly impersonal information as personal communication.

This is the common analysis. But I think it is completely wrong.[1] First, the elites still exert control in many ways, and there is little reason to think the Internet will change this. Second, the radical egalitarianism of Internet policies does not disempower the elites so much as it disempowers intelligence, and empowers those with the time on their hands to create and enjoy popular opinion, and also those who care enough to game the system.

If more people were to emphasize the informative purpose of the Internet more, this would not empower elites; it would, rather, empower everyone who uses the Internet to learn and do research. We would have to spend less time sorting through the by-products of online communication, and could spend more time getting solid knowledge.

In fact, I think most people enjoy the Internet greatly as an information resource—at least as much as they enjoy it as a communication medium. But most of the people who create websites and Internet standards—the many people responsible for today’s Internet—have not had this distinction in mind. But I think it is very fruitful and interesting way to think about the Internet and its purposes, and—who knows?—perhaps it will inspire someone to think about how to improve the informational features of the Internet.

In fact, if my fondest hope for this paper were to come true, it would be that those building the Internet would begin to think of it a little bit more as a serious information resource, and a little bit less as just a fun medium of communication.

[1] As I have argued in a recent paper: “The Future of Expertise after Wikipedia,” Episteme (2009).


Is it time to establish Internet user unions?

Since everybody and his grandma have gotten on the Internet in a big way in the last few years, the social influence of giant Internet companies has skyrocketed. Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, Amazon, Twitter, and many more wield enormous power over us.

We have given them that power. Their success is built on participation, and we willingly participate.

For those of us who have watched the Internet grow from the time we had to dial in to local bulletin boards, or log onto big mainframes, these are somewhat troubling developments. Facebook makes decisions that are deeply consequential to all of us, but without consulting us. They violate our privacy expectations and too readily share our information with people who might abuse it. Another example is Wikipedia. People who find lies about themselves on Wikipedia pages, who otherwise might have recourse to libel law, are often forced to participate in an arcane and often unfair system. Wikipedia also lacks any filter for their enormous porn holdings, while its representatives continue to tout it as a great resource for school children.

I could go on, but this is not just about Facebook or Wikipedia, or any one website. This is about participatory Internet companies that are so huge that their users--and the broader public affected by them--essentially have no meaningful input in their governance. But shouldn't they? We live in a democratic age. If we participate in a community, we expect to have a say in how that community operates; the community becomes, in a real sense, ours.

The patriots of the American Revolution said, "No taxation without representation." Now, participation and use are not exactly taxes, but they are obviously very valuable to Internet companies, and those companies are now in a position to abuse what is so freely given to them. Why shouldn't we say: no participation without representation!

I don't propose an online revolution. These are issues that must not be left in the hands of the state, wielding "the blunt instrument of the law." If the state were to address these issues, it would be making itself into an editor, and the state cannot edit without censorship. Rather, these issues should be left in the hands of civil society--in free associations of free people.

But civil society lacks effective institutions and mechanisms to deal with these problems. Let me propose one: Internet user unions.

In the 19th century, when economic influence consolidated in the hands of factory owners, the union movement sought to give a voice to workers who, individually, had no way to negotiate with their employers.

In the 21st century, we find social influence consolidating in the hands of website owners. Shouldn't there be corresponding unions of Internet users to negotiate with the websites that they participate in and use?

A Facebook User Union might call Facebook executives to the negotiating table about any significant changes to policy, or else face days of boycotts. That union's nuclear option would be, after an open, transparent process, to recommend that masses of users abandon Facebook for any number of competitors.

A Wikipedia User Union might represent the voices of Wikipedia's users, which have never been represented within Wikipedia's insular decisionmaking processes. They might influence Wikipedia to install a porn filter--or to admit that they have an "adult" website.

In addition to unions for participating websites, there could be unions for special issues. There might be an Internet User Union of Families, which represents the interests of children online. There could be scholarly unions, which blow the whistle on media companies and others online, who get facts wrong and who organize their users' collective influence to engage in their essential role of teaching. There could even be, simply, an Internet User Union, although they would have to think hard about what their goals are, precisely.

But let's be careful about what we wish for. These would be inherently political organizations. The consequences, at least in some cases, could be as troubling as companies acting on behalf of users without adequate user input. One can imagine a "rogue" union--like Anonymous, but bigger--coordinating cyber-attacks. One can also imagine openly political unions that use their influence to flood ideological opponents' forums with hostile comments.

To my mind, however, the best effect that Internet User Unions might have is to organize people to build things that are useful to everyone. I have been thinking about the enormous untapped potential of people working together online since before I spearheaded Wikipedia in 2001. The Big Problem, not really solved by Wikipedia itself, is getting enormous numbers of people to agree upon a well-designed system. Wikipedia would be dwarfed by a system that I imagine is really possible, one that is appealing to a much broader cross-section of the public than Wikipedia itself is. An Internet User Union might develop the idea for such an organization, launch it with many thousands of people ready and raring to go, as well as find enough funding to keep it independent and non-profit.

If you're interested in this idea, let's start talking about the philosophical, social, and broadly technical issues. This is something new. We do not want to go off half-cocked.


How not to use the Internet, part 4: how "social" is social media?

<< Part 3: How the Internet's current design philosophy fails

4. How "social" is social media?

A person who is "social," we think, gets along with others and does not always stay at home. They mix well. This is, we hope, because they like other people, not because they're trying to take advantage of them. They have an interest in getting to know others and doing fun things with them.

So I wonder if "social media" is misnamed.

Social media features the trappings of social behavior: conversation (with head shots and indications of mood), sharing interests, and doing things together. But how these activities happen in so-called social media are mostly a weak shadow of what happens face-to-face. The conversation is typically brief. It is rarely one-to-one, but instead one-to-many, rather like broadcasting a message over an intercom to a group of people who are only half-listening and busy broadcasting themselves. We often do not know who, precisely, is receiving our message, and we act as if we do not care. We do not expect a reply, and if we do not receive a reply, we are at worst disappointed; face-to-face, if we received no reply at all, we would think the person we spoke to was rude and cold. In many venues, the conversation happens among literal strangers, often from around the world, which at first glance seems charming—and it sometimes is. But after the novelty wears off, we discover that the rewards are rare. Such interactions rarely involve personal understanding and regard, as friends share.

Conversation online is rarely as meaningful, from a social point of view, as conversation face-to-face among friends and known colleagues. (In terms of logic and rhetoric, I have found that it can be more rigorous and rewarding than much face-to-face conversation. But I'm talking about sociality now, not logic.)

When we get online and engage in "social" media, I wonder how much we—most of us—do so because we like people. I wonder if we do it because we want to use people and promote ourselves. This is not social, properly speaking, any more than PR work is "social." "Now just a minute, Sanger," I hear you saying, "you've gone too far. I like people. I am not a user. How dare you accuse me, and all users of social media, of being selfish 'users'?" I apologize if I offend. I did not accuse all users of social media of being "users" of people. That really isn't my intention. But I have an important point to make and it isn't pretty. When you do an update, are you acting like a friend, or like a PR agent? I'll be honest. Personally, I do a lot more PR updates than friendly updates. I find it a little surprising and charming when my friends and acquaintances respond to such updates, but that doesn't stop them from being, mainly, PR updates. Sure, I understand that some people do mainly engage with their close friends. I think that's nice (as I said before), as far as it goes. But a lot of what we say is personal advertising, so to speak. Some have even taken to speaking of their online identities, to mind rather pathetically, as their "personal brand," and they invest much time on social networks buffing their "personal brands." This behavior is "social" in a very weak sense, in that it involves people, but not in the strong sense that it involves building friendships.

Social media is a poor replacement for a real social life. To the extent that social media is replacing it, friendship as an institution weakens.

Relevant links:

I was tempted to try to coin a phrase, "anti-social media," but of course someone beat me to it.

On "personal branding," see this Mashable post.


How not to use the Internet, part 3: how the Internet's current design philosophy fails

<<Part 2: The pernicious design philosophy of the Internet

3. How the Internet's current design philosophy fails.

Websites compete for the really limited commodity online, namely, attention. That much is understandable, and not likely to change. How they compete is the problem.

Putting lots of menus, internal links, feeds, and self-promotional media on pages drives traffic around a website internally, while putting external links and various media on a given page is thought to increase its value and interest to end users. Competition for limited attention also motivates others to link to us (through reciprocal links, which are often automatic in blogging systems). More information seems better, so more pointers to information and ways to organize it seems better. Similarly, systems for regularly alerting us to mail, news, blogs, and so forth are straightforward attempts to grab our limited attention. Software-driven media tries to prove its relevance to us this way, and sometimes succeeds.

But if we really are trying to capture and hold each others' attention, isn't this busy, distracting design philosophy puzzling?

Why saturate a blog post (or other media) with a panoply of enticing choices to other things on our website, when we surely know that most users will, by habit, bounce right off of the page that brought them to our website, the very page that has the best chance of keeping them there? Such internal links might in a few cases get your user to go elsewhere on your site, but it also reduces the chance that the visitor will at least read the thing that brought them to your site in the first place. Why not seize the bird in hand? For that matter, why have so many external links right in our own text? Why don't we design our pages so that, when we are graced with a visitor, the visitor will focus on, and actually want to stay to the end of, what brought them?

Similarly, if we really want to get others' attention, why do we flood their Twitter and Facebook feeds with so much noise? Why do we bore them with too much news, repetition, and chitchat? We are instructed to increase the signal if we want more followers, yet most of us don't. Why not?

Yet if the choices of web designers and marketers  seem paradoxical, how much more paradoxical is it that we, as end users, continue to consume—ravenously—what so often contains more noise than signal? Consider that many of us follow hundreds of people on Twitter (far more than we can really keep up with), that we have "friended" people from high school whose names we barely remember, that many of us welcome in more mail than we can reasonably manage, and so on.

Both paradoxes, of Internet producers and consumers, disappear when we reflect on the fact that we are very anxious about "missing out," and Internet producers are merely exploiting this anxiety. It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that we are in a collective panic, a veritable mania, over the fantastic content now online. Information purveyors, working in this frenzied atmosphere, and who are end users themselves, naturally go to great lengths to seize their portion of the online public's attention. Faced with a zillion things to pay attention to, calm, slow decision-making seems ridiculously inefficient. In this atmosphere, there is no time to exercise wisdom.

It's bad enough that this design philosophy looks, at least to some extent, self-defeating for information purveyors. Even worse is that it doesn't really benefit the end user. Consider:

Many of us spend a lot of time on Twitter. Why? The people you're following come up with some quite insightful observations? Actually, not so often. Few can say much that is really worthwhile in 140 characters. The best that most of our Tweeps can do is be occasionally interesting, clever, or funny—and otherwise a waste of time. But maybe you get a lot of links to fascinating news articles, blogs, and so forth? Maybe, yet most of the links go unclicked. You are usually quickly in-and-out of those that you do click. Even if you don't bounce out after a glance, even if you actually read something, you'll probably just skim it quickly and forget it, which means you don't really benefit from even the things you spend the most time on. But, you fret, if you don't follow your feed, wouldn't you be out of it and disconnected? Not necessarily. If you focus on a few high-quality news sites and blogs that cover your industry and interests, if you actually read them, you'll almost certainly be more up-to-date about those topics than someone who uses Twitter as a replacement for such sources.

But you knew that. No, surely in your heart of hearts you know that the reason Twitter exists is not information exchange, but a kind of socialization. Yet it's rarely bona fide socialization or friendship-building. It's mostly networking. For most people, I suspect, we just have a somewhat pathetic desire to see our username replied-to and retweeted. This makes us feel relevant, popular, and connected. Our ego swells with each new follower, reply, and retweet. Yet this is clearly illusory. It is increasingly fashionable to apply the self-effacing epithet "narcissistic" to these, our common social networking habits. We know that, just because our vanity is flattered by public attention, it does not follow that we are relevant, or popular, or connected in any way that matters.

Face it: the only reason we (some of us) waste so much time on Twitter and Facebook is that "everybody else" is there, wasting time too, and we would feel out-of-it and incomplete, somehow, to be drop out. The whole advent of truly mass participation in social media, beginning in the mid-2000s with Myspace, seems to reflect not "the wisdom of crowds" but "the madness of crowds," like tulip mania. I think Twitter exemplifies this observation perfectly.

Facebook looks open to the same observations. Why do you spend time on Facebook? Because your Mom and old friends are on it, for one thing. Are you closer to them now than you were before Facebook? Probably not, in most cases, except for the few comments you've exchanged with people you haven't otherwise spoken to in years. On Facebook, we frequently exchange sentiments (and media) with people close and not-so-close to you, and that is being sociable. I won't be so churlish or anti-social as to deny that it's nice. Of course it's nice. But this style of interaction makes socialization less personal than it once was. If you spend a lot of time socializing on Facebook (I'm guessing; no doubt someone's done a study) you probably talk less on the phone. You probably feel less of a need to spend face-time, or even ear-time, with loved ones. Be honest, now: is Facebook really enhancing the quality of your social life and family relations? For society as a whole, is it bringing us closer together and improving our social relations in general? I strongly doubt it. It seems only to make our social lives more "efficient"—and impersonal, too. Doesn't this social media par excellence actually make us less social, in the ways that matter? Why shouldn't I draw that conclusion? Some might have a knee-jerk tendency to call me a Luddite for saying such things. But I live online and have devoted much of my adult life to building bits of the Internet, so that would be silly; can you explain why I'm wrong?

Wikipedia is an amazing and frequently useful resource. (For all my criticisms, I've never denied this.) But when you look something up there, how often do you increase your store of knowledge, rather than gaining a temporary grasp of not-fully-reliable "fact" and fleeting sense of understanding? Is your mind significantly improved? Probably not. Even if you spent the evening lost in Wikipedia's hyperlinkage, you are apt to forget most of what you come across. It's intellectual fast food; the taste is strangely compelling, but it is not exactly mentally nutritious. Building your personal store of knowledge requires deep reading and critical study, focus on a topic for a lengthy period of time. The design philosophy of Wikipedia—the copious irrelevant hyperlinks, and the way text tends to be written in smallish, loosely-related chunks instead of woven into a coherent narrative—militates against deep reading and critical study. I'm not saying you can't use Wikipedia as part of a program to do serious research and gain solid knowledge. Of course you can. Some people even have, I'm sure. But I doubt that's how most people use it. Its design encourages surface grazing, not immersion.

Even Google Search itself falls prey to this sort of analysis. What could be better than Google, which delivers highly relevant results and often answers your questions instantly? Well, yes. But we should demand more. There is more to search than faux-relevance and speed. When you do a search to find the best possible information on a subject, is that what you are shown? Not necessarily, because what Google shows you is the most popular and the most recent (and now, if you're logged in with your Google account, what they think you'll be most likely to click on). The highest quality results are too often far down the list. Google's daily influence on us may well have trained us to overvalue popularity and recency, frequently at the cost of more significant qualities like reliability, clarity, historical importance, and depth.

I could give many similar examples, but let me skip to a general conclusion.

The Internet is ostensibly set up to let us help each other navigate the wealth of information online and, by speeding communication and new ways of collaboration, bring us closer together. But that isn't quite what it does. When I spend much time on social networks, I find the experience to consist more of noise and alienation than signal and connection. What many, including myself, have touted as a potential tool of enlightenment and increased social connection right now seems to be making us less enlightened, less sociable, and less disciplined to boot. The Internet caters particularly to those who want to promote their work. Because so many people are doing this at once, its most striking effect is to distract us endlessly with what are, at the end of the day, mostly trivialities.

Part 4: How "social" is social media? >>

Relevant links:

I know that SEO people have answers to my rhetorical questions about menus and links. Here is a sample (chosen only because it's highly ranked in a Google search and thus, no doubt, played the SEO game well). But the SEO strategy is about building traffic. It is not about encouraging them to finish reading what they came for.

It's common advice to Twitterers that they increase their focus and signal in order to get more followers; example.

This Google search is a good place to start reading about how social media is narcissistic.

The famous phrase "the wisdom of crowds" seems to have gotten its start in the book by James Surowiecki of that name. "The madness of crowds," by contrast, comes from Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. I've read the former but not the latter, even though it is free (courtesy a part of the Internet that really doesn't suck).

I read on the Internet that 71% of all U.S. citizens are on Facebook. So, probably, your Mom is.

While I don't recall ever being accused of being a Luddite, I probably was at some point. Nicholas Carr, though, makes much of the purported "Luddite" aspect of Internet criticism.

Wikipedia doesn't seem to place much stock in narrative coherence, contrary to Citizendium.

On the idea that the Internet generally (Wikipedia is not mentioned) encourages surface grazing and does not increase our knowledge significantly, see this speech of mine.


How not to use the Internet, part 2: the pernicious design philosophy of the Internet

<< Part 1: It's a problem that the Internet distracts us

2. The pernicious design philosophy of the Internet.

The way that the Internet is designed—not graphic design, but overall habits and architecture—encourages the widespread distractability that I, at least, hate.

This basic notion is not my idea; I freely admit that I learned it from Nicholas Carr. I did not quite notice some features about the Internet until reading Carr's The Shallows some time ago, and the following borrows from Carr. My analysis consists of two related parts, the first being about the nature of the Internet, and the second being about the design philosophy of the Internet.

First, consider what the Internet is, or the public side of it, so to speak. (Not the technical, "back end" part.) The public side of the Internet consists of (a) information of various media that is presumably of some public interest, together with (b) ways of repackaging, sending, publishing, and rating the information and, especially, of linking to it for public consumption.

Category (a) is rapidly growing to include all of the public information we know of, or at least all of it that can be digitized—and not just all extant information, but also all new information that arrives on the scene. This fact is of interest not just to "geeks," but to everyone who finds books, news, movies, and virtually everything else that we can communicate and share digitally. Category (a) is the concern of all of humanity, not just geekdom.

This makes category (b), what we might call the net's meta-information, all the more important to us. Google makes the inherently interesting information findable. Wikipedia tries to summarize it. Email, texting, and VoIP (like Skype) allow us to communicate it more efficiently. Twitter gives acquaintances and colleagues a way to share the latest and greatest with us. Facebook gives us easy, one-page access to information about our friends and families. Other sites, like YouTube and Amazon, offer us view counts, ratings, samples, and reviews that are crucial to deciding what long-form content worth pursuing.

Now I can explain a notion, which again owes a great deal to Carr, of the current two-part "design philosophy" of the Internet, to wit:

Interconnectivity: information that is of some inherent public interest is typically marinated in meta-information: (a) is bathed in (b). It is not enough to make the inherently interesting content instantly available and easy to find; it must also be surrounded by links, sidebars, menus, and other info, and promoted on social media via mail. This is deliberate, but it has gotten worse in the last ten years or so, with the advent of syndicated blog feeds (RSS), then various other social media feeds. This is, of course, supposed to be for the convenience and enlightenment of the user, and no doubt sometimes it is. But I think it usually doesn't help anybody, except maybe people who are trying to build web traffic.

Recency: the information to be most loudly announced online is not just recent, but the brand-spanking-newest, and what allegedly deserves our attention now is determined democratically, with special weight given to the opinions of people we know.

Something like this two-part design philosophy, I believe with Carr, is what makes the Internet so distracting. Carr found some interesting studies that indicate that text that is filled with hyperlinks and surrounded by "helpful" supporting media tends to be poorly understood, and we spend less time on each page of such text. As soon as we come across a link, video, or infographic sufficiently interesting to distract us, the surrounding mass of text becomes "tl;dr". Over time, we have largely lost the habit of reading longer texts, and this problem is apt to get worse.

Moreover, when we and our social networks place a premium on recency, we naturally feel a need to check various news streams and data feeds regularly, and coders oblige this tendency by providing us various distracting push notifications when the latest arrives. Even more, the Internet industry hungrily pounces on new tools and devices that allow people to share and be connected in ever more and newer ways. The Internet increasingly goes wherever we are, first with the advent of laptops, then smart phones, then the iPad—and eventually, maybe "Google Glasses."

The result is that, soon after we surf to a page of rich media, its interconnections lead us away from whatever led us to the page in the first place, even while our various alerts and, just as important, our habits of checking stuff, conspire to pull us away as well. Ironically, what might look to the naive to be an efficient, intelligent system of alerting us and giving us instant access to the latest and greatest online has the effect of making us unable to focus on any one thing for long.

Let that sink in a little. Back in 2000, what we were so excited about, when we thought about the potential of the Internet, was the sheer amount of knowledge that would be available and presented (and developed!) in all sorts of brilliantly engaging ways. Now it is 2012. Is that what we have? Yes—and no. Some of the dream has indeed arrived. Vast amounts of content are there. Frequently it is presented engagingly (although we have a lot more to do before we reach our potential). But it is also presented in a context that is so extremely distracting that we, even despite our best intentions, often do not really appreciate it. We are not encouraged to study, absorb, savor; we are encouraged to skim and move on.

I think there is something really wrong with this design philosophy. We ought to try to change it, if we can. But how, especially considering that it mostly grew organically, not as a result of any grand design?

Part 3: How the Internet's current design philosophy fails >>

Relevant links:

Nick Carr's blog, "Rough Type"

To see how SEO analysts (and many webmasters) think about recency, see "New Rules: Fresh Content Is King" (undated, natch!).

Of course, the Google Glasses that appeared in the video are probably vaporware, for now.

"Vast amounts of content" that is "presented engagingly"? Well, Wikipedia and YouTube, for just two examples. I didn't say presented perfectly, but their popularity is evidence of their being engaging. Their vastness is obvious. Many more examples could be given.


How not to use the Internet, part 1: it's a problem that the Internet distracts us

For almost a year, I've been at work on a very long essay about some problems with the Internet and social media in particular. I've worked on it now and then and occasionally I think I'm really going to finish it—but I never do. So, as a concession to failure, or partial failure anyway, I have decided to divide it up into several self-contained brief essays. I'll release an essay a day and see how it goes. Here is the first.

Note, rather than tempt the reader to click out of the essay, I've moved links to the end, and annotated them. This is an example of one way in which the Internet could change (although I'm not exactly holding my breath).

1. It's a problem that the Internet distracts us, dammit.

I too am distracted by ubiquitous digital media. This is a problem—a common, serious, and real problem—and I wish I could get to the bottom of it, but it is very deep.

In the last several years, like many of us, I've often felt out of control of my time. Following basic time management principles is more difficult than ever, especially when I'm spending time online and looking at screens generally. My situation is probably similar to that of many people reading this: I check my mail many times per day; Twitter and Facebook beckon, as do my favorite online communities (and I dread joining Google+); people push the latest news at me; people Skype me; and the time seems to slip away in spite of my better intentions to, you know, get work done.

What I think of as an unmitigated vice has been complacently described by some as "multi-tasking," as if allowing yourself to be distracted were some sort of advanced technical ability. We are told (though, I gather, not by most psychologists) that being able to multi-task effectively is one of the skills that should now be in every plugged-in person's toolkit. But the notion that multi-tasking is an advanced ability is merely an excuse, I think. When you are "multi-tasking," usually, you are not using your time efficiently; you are simply letting yourself be distracted, because you don't want to "miss out."

That's not all. As much as I hate to admit it, the Internet also seems to have made it difficult for me, as it has Nicholas Carr and Richard Foreman, to write and pay attention to long texts, and to think deep thoughts. To be sure, I still try and occasionally succeed. I seem to skim more along the surface of things, despite myself. Thoughtful insight is far from impossible, but it seems to require more deliberate effort. Creativity still flows, but less often and less spontaneously. Believe me, I wish it weren't this way. I fear that I, too, am becoming one of Carr's "shallows" and one of Foreman's "pancake people."

Many heavy Internet users have fairly admitted the same, often apparently with pride or without shame—or at least without hope of improvement. Do you feel the same?

The nature of these now-common problems—a mind ironically made poorer in spite of, indeed by, the Internet's riches—has been much discussed, for example by Maggie Jackson in Distracted, Mark Bauerlein in The Dumbest Generation (a much better book than you might expect from the title), Nicholas Carr in The Shallows, and Jaron Lanier in You Are Not a Gadget.

So why do we let ourselves get so distracted? Why are we so often incapable of sticking to a single task?

I think there is a simple answer, actually: we intensely feel the presence of all the world's information and people and the digital fun that entails, miraculously made available to us. Impersonal information made it bad enough for us early adopters in the earlier days of the Internet. But now that everybody and his grandma (literally) has joined social networks, the situation got a lot worse, for me at least. We are constantly available to our colleagues, friends, and acquaintances, so they may "interrupt" us at random times throughout the day, offering insights and telling us that some new website or blog post or picture or video is a "must read" or "must see," or simply reporting their own sometimes-interesting thoughts and news. We constantly feel pulled in a thousand directions. This general problem seems likely to worsen as our access to the world's information becomes more and more complete, speedy, and convenient. Before long, we will have virtually instant access to every bit of content we might want, always and everywhere, and with a minimum of effort (though not necessarily with a minimum of cost). We are nearly there, too.

This revolution—inadequately described as a revolution of "information" or the "digital" or the "Internet"—is wholly unprecedented in history. Not long ago I had to tell blasé skeptics that it is not "hype" to call it a revolution. But clearly, a lot of regular folks, not necessarily in the vanguard, have started to understand the enormousness of how the world has changed in the last fifteen years or so. It's a real revolution, not a mere fad or development, and even as we stare it in the face, it is still hard to grasp just how far-reaching it is. We have been swept up by the one of the most novel and dramatic transformations that humanity has ever undergone. We read about "revolutions" throughout history, the printing press, of religion, of ideology, of industry. This is another one; it's the real deal. It's more important than, for example, who will be elected president in 2012, whether the Euro will collapse, or Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Anyway, this revolution is so novel that it is not surprising if we act like kids screaming in a candy store, not knowing what to sample first. Maybe it's time that we started taking stock of the Internet's candy store more like mature adults and less like sugar-crazed children.

For some time, I've known that I would have to come to a personal understanding of this situation, and make some personal resolutions to deal with it. Like so much else, I've been putting this off, because the problem is massive and I haven't felt equal to it. I'm not sure I am yet. Nobody seems to—not even the above writers, who offer bleak reports and little in the way of helpful advice. The Internet bedazzles us. But for me, things have come to a head. I do not want to go through the rest of my life in the now all-too-familiar state of Internet bedazzlement, if I can help it. For me, it begins now. It's time for me—and maybe, for you too—to get over the fact that all of the world's information and the people that drive it are (or soon will be) accessible in moments. But how?

Some people won't admit that there is even a problem in the first place. They celebrate the Internet uncritically, leaping upon every new site, app, or gadget that promises to connect us in newer and deeper ways. But it is precisely the wonders of the Internet that we celebrate that have become a major distraction. Some people don't seem to want to admit that distractability is a serious problem; they do nothing but offer blithe predictions and analysis of how thinking, social interaction, education, etc., are moving into a wonderful new age. That is all very well as far as it goes, but I sometimes wonder if some of the recent economic downturn might be explained by the amount of time we waste online. Surely it's possible that the global economy is significantly less productive because we're distracting ourselves, and each other, so much, and with so little to show for it.

Other people seem to think that there's nothing that can be done about our distractability and "shallowness." Whatever their disagreements, Internet commentators Clay Shirky and Nicholas Carr seem to agree on this: the brevity of information chunks, the pace of their flow, and the fact that they are mediated democratically by giant web communities are all inevitable features of the Internet; so we can't help but be "distracted." Or so Shirky, Carr, and many techie A-listers seem to think. This is where modern life is lived, for better or worse. If you want to be part of things, you've got to jump into the data stream and do your best to manage. If your distractability is making you "shallow" or "flat," that is just a new and unfortunate feature of life today.

I will not "go gentle into that good night." I can't help but observe that this sort of techno-fatalism might be why some Internet geeks are becoming anti-intellectual. I'm far from alone in my view that the overall tendency of the Internet, as it is now and as we use it now, is to make us less intellectual. So, many Internet geeks make a virtue of necessity and begin slagging intellectual things like memory (and thus declarative knowledge), books and especially the classics, expertise, and liberal education. At least critics like Carr and Lanier have the good taste and sense to bemoan the situation rather than mindlessly celebrating it.

As to me, I disagree with techno-fatalism strongly. Isn't it obvious that the Internet is still very new, that we are still experiencing its birth pangs, and that dramatic changes to how we use it will probably continue for another generation or two? Isn't it also quite obvious that we have not really figured out how to design and use the Internet in a way that is optimal for us as fully-realized human beings? I love the new universal accessibility of so much recorded knowledge. Over the last dozen years I have been a booster of this myself, and in my work I still aim to enlarge our store of free, high-quality knowledge resources. I also deeply love the free exchange of ideas that the Internet makes possible. These things are why I "live online" myself. I do agree with the boosters that all this will, in time, probably, change us for the better. But the idea that the mindless digital helter-skelter of the early 2000s is how things will always be, from here on out, is highly doubtful.

We simply can't go on like this. I think we can change, and we should.

Part 2: the pernicious design philosophy of the Internet >>

Relevant links

A good place to start learning about what psychologists say about Internet distraction would be via this search.

Nicholas Carr's famous essay, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" in The Atlantic, is one of those articles you kind of wish you'd written. It focused many people's thinking about the effect of the Internet on how we think. I actually prefer his book The Shallows, however.

The "pancake people" reference is to a short essay by Richard Foresman in Edge.

For some of what I've said about the "revolution" that the Internet and digital media represent, see thisthis, and this, just for example.

When I think about the suggestion that it's not a bad thing that information chunks are getting smaller, I think of this Britannica Blog post by Clay Shirky, lauding short-form online communication as an "upstart literature" that will "become the new high culture." Perhaps an older, more widely-read introduction to this notion would be Small Pieces, Loosely Joined by David Weinberger--it's just that the pieces are even smaller and looser than when Weinberger published that book (2002).

"Go gentle into that good night" is, of course, a phrase from the poem "Invictus."

The surely absurd notion that there is a new geek anti-intellectualism is broached in this much-discussed essay.