The Internet is (Mostly) Trash

Even though my career as a web developer requires me to use it extensively, I have become increasingly disgruntled with the Internet. I find myself wanting to spend less and less time on social media, as well as most mainstream websites.

Social media is a mess. It’s great that sites like Facebook and Twitter enable people to build relationships with people across the globe who have perspectives and resources that they need or want. Without social media, intelligent people in small backwoods towns could never get the publicity they need to fulfill their potential. They would never learn that there’s a better way to live than the backwards traditions and beliefs they might have been raised in. Access to other people is good.

But social media’s flaw is how it gives every idiot a soapbox and an audience. You want to rant about how terrible Donald Trump is? Or how great he is? You can easily post tweets and Facebook statuses full of vitriol, baseless opinion, and utter lies. People are more than happy to reply to you, some with agreement, others with fierce hatred.

We’re so addicted, yet so lonely. Websites often resort to psychological tricks to pull you into using their websites repeatedly and compulsively. I’ve seen many people, and have counted myself among them, as people who are outright addicted to social media, news sites, or whatever. We think we have a sense of connection to our fellow humans. But our brains are designed for face-to-face, tactile interaction. Words on a screen do not satisfy what we’ve developed to need on an instinctual level.

There’s no vetting of information. The amount of trash information on the Internet is astounding. I wonder how much of it I see a day as I browse Twitter and Reddit. Because anyone can say whatever they want, they do so with a great sense of authority. And many a hapless fool falls for them. You know what’s emerging into the public conscious these days? Flat Earth theory and anti-vaxxers. Most Flat Earthers are really just trolls pretending to take it seriously. But most people don’t know that. So they get angry and wonder how anyone can be so stupid. But anti-vaxxers are very serious about their beliefs, and they spread devastatingly harmful paranoia and information. Is there some truth under their outrageous claims? I would bet. But the way they extrapolate that truth, and use it to justify exposing entire communities of children to fatal diseases, is utterly immoral. And it’s a consequence of the Internet letting anyone say what they want.

I’m pretty fond of the First Amendment right to self-expression. But the open spread of harmful misinformation worries me, and really makes me question exactly how committed I am to freedom of speech.

The modern web experience SUCKS. This particularly bothers me as a web developer. You go on to the typical website these days and you’re immediately spammed with modals asking for your email so they can put you on a mailing list. Then you’re asked if the website can send you notifications. Then you’re asked to accept the website’s cookie policy. Then you’re asked to use their mobile app. And if you’re on Reddit, you keep getting that same question over and over, forever and ever amen. All of this before you can even read the site’s content. Many websites also have still one more dialog box that pops up if it detects you’ve moved your mouse toward the Back button (which a lot of websites intentionally break anyway so that you stay on their site longer). And have you tried using most sites on a mobile device? Images and videos load so slowly that the screen bounces around for ten or so seconds, and you constantly lose track of what you’re reading.

I honestly don’t know how any web developer does this trash with a clean conscience. Once a company I worked for asked if I could paginate articles on their site and I said it was a bad idea. Because as someone who uses the Internet too much, I would be very irritated by having to click Next every 500 words. They had the good sense to listen to me.

Websites spend so much time begging for your attention they detract you away from the thing you’re actually giving them attention for: their content.

Things are too big and too generalized. Facebook has two billion users. That’s larger than the population of China. There’s no good reason any website should be that massive. If Amazon or Google suffered any major disaster, large swaths of the Internet would simply cease to function. No single company should have its hands in so many parts of our lives. It invariably leads to dangerous and immoral practices. Facebook, Google, and Amazon all do their share of good things, and I don’t doubt they’ve helped humanity make great advancements in technology and welfare. But I shudder to think what the cost of that is, a cost we’re just now beginning to see.

Maybe I’m just projecting. As I said, I’ve had trouble with my own Internet addiction in the past. Wasting hours away watching videos and reading stupid stuff. But I also think I’m making a lot of fair critiques of the modern web. Critiques that others have raised, and that deserve to be addressed.

What do I want the Internet to look like? Honestly, I’d just like for it to get smaller, and for sites to be more niche. Let’s do away with big general-purpose social media sites like Facebook or Twitter. Let’s go back to having communities dedicated to certain topics. Think bulletin boards or forums. And let’s not have online communities that number in the millions. If there are any that big they should be divided up into sub-communities. Interaction between these smaller communities should be possible, but maybe not easy or commonplace. Sort of like how large organizations have conventions where people in local chapters can meet up. I think this would scale things down to something that lets us remember we’re dealing with actual other humans, and would encourage camaraderie instead of the awful behavior we often see.

Let’s also make it a little harder to disseminate info. You want to spew lies? OK, but you don’t just get an open platform for everyone to see it. They need to go looking for it. Same with people posting actual, credible information. Right now it’s easy for a troll to argue you into oblivion. Maybe let’s make it a little harder, require a little more personal investment. That way the people who see what you have to say, are people who actually need or want to see it.

Let’s also go for longer form, better thought out content. Instead of tweets and soundbites, why not really elaborate on what you’re saying? Thoughtful content is more satisfying to read, for me anyway.

Maybe I’m just an old man yelling at a cloud.