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Here’s a cheerful thought for you as we head into 2019:
How much of the internet is fake? Studies generally suggest that, year after year, less than 60 percent of web traffic is human; some years, according to some researchers, a healthy majority of it is bot.Max Read, Intelligencer
That’s from this beautiful rundown on Intelligencer – essentially a laundry list of all the ways in which the Internet has disrupted human connection.
It doesn’t even mention the pre-social media scourge of email spam, which at one point accounted for over 90% of emails sent worldwide. Every platform has its spammers, all eventually learning roughly the same thing: That gaming the system is profitable. But like any single-minded attempt at extracting wealth, it leaves the entire ecosystem in disarray.
Simply put, the web is no longer human. It’s been co-opted by machines, optimized for our most basic impulses, reinforced by the massive accumulation of the resulting wealth. The tech boom has left a wake — empathy, humanity and truth, receding into history.
I wrote that a year ago (here, on Medium) almost hoping that 2018 would signal some sort of reversal of the trend. It was published in the middle of peak blockchain hype, during which I had a great deal of optimism for the way public chains might address the scourge of fake news.
(It hasn’t happened, and now seems less likely than ever)
I first got online in primary school, and the internet has been a massive fixture in my life. It’s where I learned the skills that landed me my first job, it’s where I’ve built a career and relationships that now span decades. I’ve always thought of the internet as a net benefit – that connecting lots of people from all over the world was a fundamentally good thing.
On the longer scale of history though, it was really doomed from the start.
Within the first few weeks of starting my first job, somebody pointed out something that I have since come to accept as a fact: That without porn and advertising, the internet would be a handful of boring websites and productivity tools.
Porn has a unique effect on technology: in that it drives the development and adoption of new things faster than any other drive, which I guess makes sense given that we’re human. If you want to know more about who we are as people (and I kid you not) PornHub’s Insights blog is recommended reading.
It’s the advertising that did us in, though.
For as long as there’s been audiences, there’s been ad sales. For as long as those ads were “external” to us (they existed in a context that let us clearly differentiate reality and advertising), they were mostly harmless.
The TV ads of the 1950’s embodied this, with the content and tone mostly being conversational – not unlike how a salesman would pitch you in person.
Archive.org has a fantastic collection of these. It might amuse you to know that even back in 1954, TVs were sold on size. This RCA Master 21″ TV commercial illustrates it beautifully:
Advertising has changed over the last 50 years, though. Modern ads present a supernatural version of reality: The models are photoshopped, the food is fake, products are sold on emotion and status rather than practical considerations. Here’s an ad from 2017 – see if you can spot the differences.
Which again, is largely fine if you understand that you’re being advertised to – between segments of a TV show, breaks in the news, before a movie, before a YouTube video. Being able to put the information in the proper context is what’s important here – and it’s that exact thing that’s been under attack most recently.
Influencer marketing is my second-least-favorite form of insidious advertising. It’s simple: Gain a loyal following and then subtly promote products without actually promoting them. Just make them part of your “lifestyle” on whatever social platform you’re on, and make sure the purchase links are readily accessible.
It works, too – far more than any other form of marketing.
Influencer marketing definitely has it’s social downsides (among them, collapsing the distinction between identity and brand preferences), but I can’t be too upset at this. This sort of marketing reaches the same demographics as tabloids and daytime TV talk shows – people who are easily influenced and apparently see no downside to that.
My least-least-favorite form of insidious advertising has to be Native Advertising – news and editorial functions incorporating paid content under the guise of being news.
That was in 2014, and the practice hasn’t slowed down at all. It’s at the point now where people cannot distinguish between news, and content designed to provoke a response and rake in ad dollars.
In the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and othersCraig Silverman, BuzzFeed News (link)
That was in 2016, the year we reached some truly ironic situations: Like a for-profit content site publishing sober analyses on news media consumption patterns. At the same time, public interest in the concept of fake news reached sky-high levels, as it helped put the former host of the Apprentice in the White House (the moment reality finally broke).
You want to know the best part though?
People are basically losing interest in the concept altogether. Fake news is now just another part of daily life – another thing to watch out for, like 419 scammers and encryption ransomware.
This is 2018 now. The internet is awash with fake news, churned out by dodgy operations that capitalize on the weaknesses in anti-fraud algorithms on display markets (like Google AdSense). Any place where content can earn money, people are gaming the algorithms (to terrifying extremes). Social networks, desperate for engagement, are slow to act on containing any of this.
All of it ultimately driven by advertising. Businesses want to reach people, people are spending time online, and so the ad dollars flow.
It might have been better if the internet was just email and porn. At least we wouldn’t be questioning whether or not we share the same reality – an actual problem that surfaced during the Kavanaugh debacle.
There is a state of the world where Kavanaugh assaulted Ford in 1982, and there is a state of the world where he did not. Pick one. Now. And once you’ve picked, you no longer co-exist in the same political reality as someone who picked differently. You are truly – and I mean this in a very literal sense – in different worlds.Ben Hunt on Epsilon Theory (link)
This is why I think we’ve reached late-stage internet. For the longest time, the internet was an escape – a world that existed beyond the physical world, where the same rules didn’t apply, and people were free to explore and experiment.
Then it crept into the mainstream, with the confluence of incentives from hardware manufacturers, ISPs, news organizations, tech startups and advertisers drove the internet into everyone’s home, then everyone’s pocket.
Personally, I have it down to Obama’s election as the moment the internet went mainstream (he used Twitter to great effect). As soon as anything can be used to wage political war and influence the outcome of a public event, its impact makes it mainstream by definition. Tobias Stone calls it “The Great Cyber War“, and it’s hard to disagree.
And so now we’re here: The internet, a daily reality for most people in the connected world, is a primary mode of engagement. The badly-designed incentives and tradeoffs that put ads everywhere, and encourage malicious actors to skirt the rules for cash, consistently weakens our ability to trust what we read. And then there’s the politics, in which it’s essential that one side hates and fears the other, with well-resourced propaganda machines moving their operations into the most effective theater of operations the world has ever seen.
With any luck, we’ll end up in a future where Twitter bots troll the algorithmic influencers and leave the rest of us alone to get on with the business of being human.