Did the Internet Break Society?

February 23, 2018

The internet is brokenI’ve been on the internet since 1995,  just after AOL started mailing CDs to everyone to get them on the world wide web and right around the time Yahoo was founded.  I frequented chat rooms, witnessing the wide variety of conversation that occurred in them.  Inhibitions were lowered as if we were all pounding beers in a dive bar.   Behind the curtain of their computer screens, people learned that they could speak their minds with perceived anonymity.

One month after I graduated college, Google was founded.   Having graduated with a marketing degree, this, in hindsight, was significant.  I don’t remember ever talking about “the internet” in any college course.  How could we?  We sort of, kind of had email, but there weren’t case studies about dotcoms or anything to really prove the value of digital communication.

We didn’t know at that point in time that Google would become a verb or that graduates in the next generation would focus on content marketing designed to optimize online searches.  What? Our vocabulary is filled with words that literally didn’t exist 25 years ago.

We also didn’t know that traditional journalism was about to be turned on its head.  Yes, yes, I know. Some would argue that it was due for an overhaul.  So it shouldn’t be surprising that the change made it possible for anyone to create a website,  or a “weblog”  and go from barista to blogger with the touch of the publish button.   We didn’t realize that the freedom seen in the chat rooms would spill over into long-form content and the rise of citizen journalists.

And of course social media.  A short decade after America went online, we received the ability to create our own news outlets allowing us to share our thoughts and opinions with our friends.

So How Did it Get Shitty?

We can write about whatever we want.  If we are convincing enough, people will believe us.  Independent bloggers don’t have editorial teams and fact checkers or over a century’s worth of credibility like The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal.    We instead rely on our own moral compass and an army of critics and trolls who will call us out on everything from our opinions, facts and grammar.  Our community of readers police us and are responsible for our success and failure.    However, as independents, we push more envelopes with an ‘I’ll write whatever the fuck I want’ attitude.   It’s the reason why good bloggers are read.

Between publications with strong journalistic integrity and bloggers who believe in the same, we have come to trust what we read online and, until recently, rarely questioned its truth.  We may have disagreed with the content, but in general, we believed what we found through a Google search to accurate-ish.

Content marketers have filled the information superhighway with so much traffic and rubbernecking that it’s nearly impossible to find what you are looking for.  Google has created a profitable market for SEO-experts to figure out their systems. Then they change the rules keeping these experts gainfully employed.  I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but it’s a soggy mess out there.  For example, when searching for tech-related information (how to fix my Mac, etc.) I get discussion boards from 2012.   Many of those sites have been drinking the SEO juice, but it’s gone sour.  In any case, this isn’t a post about SEO.  It’s about the fact that our society relies on the information we find online and the SEO game has filled the channels with garbage.   This is a problem when trying to learn about a topic like “how to play the guitar” to “how did my Congressman vote on gun control.”  This is only part of the problem. Whether it’s a contrived marketing piece or it is information about sociopolitical issues,  the Googlesphere is a free for all and it has made relevant information hard to find.   And yes, you can argue that Google and friends are working to provide more relevant search results, but the system is broken and with paid search being so profitable, it’s easy to get your message out with the right dollars. Or Rubels.

When People Say Shitty Things

Like the freedom felt in the early days of chat rooms, the comments section found on most online article has given people the confidence to speak their minds.   Even with profiles that reveal their real names and avatars of their families,  the curtain remains.  People have acquired digital courage – the superpower to say whatever they think without consequences.

Are racism and bias more prevalent now because of the internet or were they always there and now people have found peers who share their beliefs? Is it more widely accepted among some circles because everyone else is doing it? Or are people learning these viewpoints because they see others engage?  Were people always so nasty to each other or have they grown uglier as a result of seeing others name calling and slamming each other? When the hell did it become acceptable to insult someone for having a differing opinion?  When did we enter into a two-sided world where you are either a ‘Liberal Dem’ or a ‘Trumpublican’? Why are we spending so much time and energy arguing with people whom we will never meet about issues that will never be solved by throwing stones?

There are not easy answers to these questions.    I know which side I am on an vehemently believe I am right.  In some case, I see the perspective of the other side of an issue, but in many cases, I cannot fathom where they are coming from.   I assume they feel the same way.   Now, let’s assume that some of these people have researched a topic well and have their facts straight, but still, they hold true to their beliefs.  So much so that they are willing to try and convince anyone who will listen that they are right.    Trying to convince someone else that your position is correct is not easily accomplished by name calling, insulting,  telling them they are flat out wrong.  Yeah, that just doesn’t work.

The truth is, social media is great at getting people to take action and unite them.  But the comments section is not going to help us come up with better solutions.   It doesn’t really accomplish much at all.  It makes people (assuming they are people and not bots) look petty and mean.  It feeds that mentality.   And that is not OK.   It is not OK to be petty and mean.

Unsolicited Advice for Surviving Whatever the Hell is Going On Today

I have started to look for answers that will help keep me sane without being sheltered.  If we all go into hiding and not pay attention to what others are saying then we risk ignorance.   While ignorance may be bliss, it’s not a practical way to be a member of society.

  • Continue to share real life, non-controverisal positive messages.   Suddenly the “what I had for lunch” content is a welcome change.
  • Share helpful, actionable information without bias (although it is evident where I stand).
  • Have conversations with real people, offline about everything and anything. Find the real experts and get the scoop from them.
  • Where I get my news?  I’m still trying to figure this one out.
  • Report “fake news” to Google.   This isn’t news that I disagree with, but truly fake sites.
  • Check my facts and sources before sharing.  Seriously –  DO NOT share anything without verifying its truth.
  • Report bullies, etc. to whatever online platform they are on.  I’m all about shutting them down.
  • Limit my online time because life happens without a screen.

We are in this race for the long haul.  I hope that society gets better.  I hope that the digital giants step up and do their part to ensure that the truth prevails.  I hope that you can demonstrate kindness, even when you are angry.   I hope this post helps someone who is struggling with managing their digital and real-life worlds.