Late-stage internet

This post is more than a year old. The information, claims or views in this post may be out of date.

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:

From archive.org

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 TimesWashington PostHuffington Post, NBC News, and others

Craig 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.

I’m in favor of Article 13

This post is more than a year old. The information, claims or views in this post may be out of date.

There’s a very neat trick when it comes to obscuring discourse: conflating unrelated-yet-confusingly-similar issues to make them seem bigger than they really are, and to steal support from otherwise-legitimate causes.

This is an ongoing example (link):


Hillary Clinton is facing backlash for arguing that European leaders should try to assuage the concerns of a growing right-wing populism across the continent by refusing to offer “refuge and support” to migrants.


… politicians expressed shock and concern with Clinton’s comments, which some said appeared to contradict her 2016 campaign position on welcoming immigrants and refugees.

Eliza Relman, Business Insider US

Immigrants and refugees.

There’s a world of difference between the two. Personally, I’m in favor of more open borders and a greater flow of immigrants: people who explicitly and voluntarily decide how and where they want to live, and are prepared to put in the work to contribute positively and assimilate into the culture are all right in my book.

Refugees are very different. They’re not moving by choice, but by necessity. Being coerced out of the land they chose to live in means they’ll hang on to their culture and traditions (as they should, by their own volition).

When this issue is reported though, immigrants and refugees are routinely conflated, to the point where they’re treated as synonyms for eachother – when they clearly are not. So now, even though I completely support as much voluntary, legal immigration as countries can bear, I’m also expected to support the unmitigated flow of refugees to systems that cannot integrate them at all.

I feel the exact same thing happening with this Article 13 issue.

At its core, the EU leans in favor of human rights. The regulations handed down are more often for the protection of citizens than not – GDPR being a stellar recent example.

Article 13 protects rightsholders by preventing unauthorized use of their work. The initial draft of the bill proposed some truly terrible mitigations (requiring automated content filtering on all uploads to catch violations), but the final bill has watered that down quite a lot.

When Article 13 is reported on though, it’s usually with a message like this:


the EU’s new copyright directive have stoked fears that memes will effectively be banned


platforms will have to pay a fee to share a link to a news article and have to start filtering and removing memes.


they will arbitrarily remove content based on their terms and conditions. As a result, many creators will see their content get blocked


Only platforms with deep pockets will be able to comply with the Article 13 requirements

It’s all horseshit, reasoned from a faulty premise that legitimizes theft under the banner of “user-generated content”. The internet that anti-Article 13 activists are fighting to protect was largely built on wide-scale infringement, with the inability to enforce existing laws taken as tacit permission to break them all.

But every wild west is eventually tamed, and the internet is long overdue for this. The truth (especially in Facebook and YouTube’s case) is that copyright-infringed content has been the biggest driver of their success. While they’ll fight Article 13 and sell it as the platforms “standing up for the creators” (and we’ll come back to “creators”), in reality they desperately need the freely-generated content to keep flowing – that’s all that keeps eyeballs on the site, and ad dollars flowing.

As platforms, between DMCA, Fair Use and Safe Harbor, they effectively have a license to print money (or in this case, monetizable attention). They can provide platforms that permit millions of people to violate copyright, then simply take their time to remove infringing content, while never having to compensate the victim.

While they claim to be acting in the best interests of “creators”, they’ve managed to come up with a very narrow, self-serving definition of “creator”: anyone who uploads anything. Truly independent creators are suffering the most under the current regime, illustrated beautifully by Kurzgesagt:

It’s that “immigrants and refugees” trickery all over again: conflating the independent artists who put their backs into creating original content, with the vampires who cut and re-share it without attribution (or fair compensation) to build their own profiles. To the platforms, these are both considered “creators”, which is why this statement from YouTube’s CEO should come as no surprise:


Article 13 as written threatens to shut down the ability of millions of people — from creators like you to everyday users — to upload content to platforms like YouTube. And it threatens to block users in the EU from viewing content that is already live on the channels of creators everywhere. This includes YouTube’s incredible video library of educational content, such as language classes, physics tutorials and other how-to’s.

Susan Wojcicki

(I wonder if Susan’s “educational content” includes these horror shows aimed at young children.)

There’s a whole lot of very subtle trickery in that paragraph. For one, and this is probably the most important point in the whole debacle:

People are rightsholders too.

Most of the criticism about Article 13 sets up this dystopian scenario where a few large companies (Disney, FOX, etc) will end up being the only ones who can publish anything, since Article 13 protects copyright and copyright is evil.

Except, it’s not. In most common-law countries, copyright is actually very simple: You make it, you own it. And if you own it, you should have some say in how it gets used – including permitting people to use your stuff for free, which is what Creative Commons is all about.

Copyright is only evil in a world where you can’t create new things, and the reality here is that a lot of this outrage is coming from people who have built businesses, careers and social standing off the work of others. They’re the ones with the most to lose if laws like Article 13 pass, which is why “copyright” is routinely cast as this benefit that only applies to large companies with expensive lawyers. 

Copyright is a thing we’ve had since 1886, ratified at the Berne Convention and adopted by pretty much every country on Earth. 

You could go (right now) and outline a story about a high school for wizards. Apply some creativity, take on a new angle, mix in your own experiences, draw from a large array of influences and produce something unique – and by default, you’ll have the copyright on it.

That’s creation. That’s what authorship is supposed to look like. Taking a three-second clip from a movie and dubbing a different voice over it is, at best, imitation.

But it’s that imitation that’s now being heralded as “creation”, defended by companies that desperately need large volumes of content to monetize but cannot (or will not) invest in producing it themselves.

Of course, there are more arguments against Article 13, for instance:

Only large companies will be able to afford compliance! Only big platforms like Facebook and YouTube could possibly do this!

Garbage. Setting up your own website comes with a cost of $free, and you have full control over what goes up on there. The only reason these large companies are the “only ones who can afford compliance” is that their business model depends on large-scale, unmonitored, unchecked user-generated content that can be monetized – with bonus points for presenting all of that as a defense of free speech.

This will kill creativity! Nobody will be able to make anything new! Copyrights prevent people from experimenting!

More garbage. The thing about copyright (other than it being a basic human right, globally enforced and freely available) is that the rightsholder can do whatever they want with the rights, including making it available for adaptation.

It’s as if everyone’s taken crazy pills and forgotten that CC-BY-SA exists.

Even in a world where that experimentation/remixing/adaptation is universally good for business, rightsholders (everyone from Disney to neighbour Dorothy) should have some say over how their work is used. If they decide to prevent remixes, that’s their business. Everyone that takes a more relaxed approach will benefit, and the free market will sort itself out.

Ultimately, that’s why I’m in favor of legislation that tries to protect rightsholders from unauthorized use of their work, while still giving them the option of making their work available for adaptation and re-use: Because people are rightsholders too.

Swinging a double-edged sword

This post is more than a year old. The information, claims or views in this post may be out of date.

It’s been an interesting few weeks in terms of freedom of speech, and what that means on the internet. On 31 August, YouTube made a small but significant change to its advertising policy – it set new guidelines for monetizeable content, and included rules specifically against offensive content.

In a lot of contexts, that’s pretty justifiable: It shouldn’t ever be the case that a system is put in place that rewards hateful and destructive speech. Under the previous system, ad revenue was pretty much a direct correlation to viewership, and controversy is a constant driver of viewership.

For example, it would be possible to create a YouTube channel that featured nothing but trolling and baiting other people, and not only would you get a response to that, you’d actually be rewarded for your efforts with ad revenue. That cannot possibly be a reasonable thing to reward – it directly fans the flames that make YouTube an unpleasant place to be.

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Trouble is, “offensive” is an extremely subjective and rapidly-moving target – nowhere more so in the US, with college campus politics and ludicrous entitlement driving a new generation of offenderati. A recent, glowing example of this was a Lyft passenger who berated the driver for being racist, simply because the driver had a Hawaiian bobblehead accessory in his car:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3763921/Woman-berates-Lyft-driver-racist-Hawaiian-bobblehead-doll-dash.html

That’s one element to consider. The second is how quickly instances like that are used to fuel internet mobs – groups of people with internet access and nothing better to do. They’ll gang up, post harassing messages on social media, try unearthing private information about their target, and generally try making their lives miserable.

If that Lyft driver in the article above was on social media, he would have been targeted with death threats, his information would have been made public, he’d probably be barraged with phone calls and texts for being “racist” – none of his fault, and all of it perpetrated by what I can only imagine is a mentally unstable woman.

That behavior – distasteful as it is – is a fantastic driver of “engagement” on these platforms. It drives eyeballs to videos, it drives comments (albeit bad), and it drives uploads – mainly rebuttals and rants. And YouTube is, in my opinion, justified in trying to protect themselves from that. Not only because advertisers will be insisting on it, but also just because it’s the decent, human thing to do.

photo-1455747634646-0ef67dfca23f.jpg

 

But because everyone’s so easily offended, and because people can be rallied up into attack mobs, there’s a very real downside: The systems by which YouTube enforces this policy are largely automated, and there’s basically no preemptive defense. If you say the wrong thing on YouTube, or you upset a group of people (maybe no more than 50 people, even), they can rally against you and flag all your videos for inappropriate content. And after a certain point, the system simply starts demonetizing your videos.

That’s a bit of a slap in the face to the people that work on producing great content for YouTube. It takes a lot of effort to build a channel and an audience, and the ad revenue from that was what made it viable for a lot of content creators to keep doing that. There’s a large overlap between the people that are passionate about creating YouTube content, and the people that believe strongly in the views they’re sharing.

And since we’re now living in a world where simply existing is offensive to some people, it’ll become harder and harder for those content creators to justify spending so much time and effort producing content for YouTube (which already takes 45% of all ad revenue), when it’s so easy for someone to get a hate mob together and torpedo your earnings.

YouTube is by far the largest platform for community-driven speech in the world, and they’ve swung a bit of a double-edged sword here. They’ll likely end up with a profitable network, but at the cost of burning down a vital square for public debate.

Meaning that the final holdout just bit the dust. Facebook has been tailoring their algorithms for years, designed to put profitable content in front of you. Twitter’s losing the battle for their independence, and will have to start making larger compromises pretty soon if they want to remain relevant. And now YouTube has thrown their independent content producers to the wolves.

Kinda makes you long for MySpace a bit.