N.B. This post was migrated from oli-hall.github.io to oli-hall.com on 18/04/2019
...or why the grass isn't so green on the other side
I'm not sure whether it's me growing older/more disillusioned, but it feels increasingly like the internet is broken. That, and it's breaking us. It takes an active effort to not just browse YouTube, or HackerNews, or Reddit, for hours on end. Sure, I sometimes come across interesting content, but the overwhelming sense at the end is of wasted time. I've managed to escape the social media bubble for the most part, but I chatted to some school teachers a few weeks back, and they talked about how their pupils often had no hobbies or interests of their own, spending every waking hour on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and whatever new app is trending these days. That's a depressing thought.
I'm old enough to remember not having internet, and had good ol' dialup through much of my teens, meaning if someone (and it was one, due to our single computer) was on the internet, we couldn't make or receive phone-calls. I'm certainly not advocating a return to the era of dial-up (no-one should have to suffer 56k downloads!), but it made the internet more of a tool. We'd go on to check emails, to buy something, or to fetch some information. Having it continually accessible, not just at home, but now, through our smartphones, constantly at our sides, 24/7 (even on the darn toilet), has reduced it to a mechanism to never be bored. Ever.
Just think about it. When were you last bored? When did you last have an idle moment to wander, alone in your own thoughts? To look at something interesting, without wondering how to frame that perfect Instagram shot that your friends will, like, totally love. When did you last learn a new hobby or skill? I'm sure there's a few who manage to walk the line, but... it's hard. It takes a real effort to pull yourself out of that vicious feedback loop and do something meaningful. I've heard it compared to fast food. Sure, it's tasty from time to time, but noone should be eating it every day.
An unrelated aside, perhaps, but the character of the internet, such as it is, has changed too. I'm not sure if it's for better or worse, but I remember having more routes to interesting content, and finding a lot more lo-fi, original sites and whatnot (some guy/gal made a thing and stuck it on the web), rather than highly polished perfect products for the masses. It seems at the moment that there are but a few key websites (YouTube, Facebook, Google, Reddit, etc), owned by fewer companies, that are essentially gatekeepers to everything: News, video, search, social media, blogs, images, the works. If you want to put something out in the internet, you have to pander to their demands. That monopoly concerns me.
The sheer scale of these internet giants is terrifying in a lot of ways. There've been giant tech companies before, but by many measures Google, Facebook et al are bigger than any of their predecessors, if not in staff counts then certainly in revenue and cash. This means that disrupting them, or even merely competing with them is harder than ever. Often, these companies will simply buy out competing or threatening products, often for insane amounts of money (see WhatsApp, sold to Facebook for $19 billion). Even if they can't buy (in the rare case a founding team doesn't want to sell), then they can simply copy the competitor and attempt to drive them out of business (e.g. Snapchat). That's a terrifying thought. Our internet is now run by giant companies that cannot be removed/reduced in power, and we have to hope that they take it in a direction that we're OK with.