Modern web

A Case Against Today's Internet

This is an ongoing living piece about my understanding of the modern internet, and why we should resist it.

Search Engine Optimization

Ever Google something and get a bunch of results like this?

  • 10 Tell-Tale Signs You Need to Get a New Cat
  • The Best Advice You Could Ever Get About Cats
  • 11 Embarrassing Cats Faux Pas You Better Not Make
  • The 12 Worst Types Cats Accounts You Follow on Twitter
  • 20 Gifts You Can Give Your Boss if They Love Cats

But when you click on the article, there isn't much good information at all, and you feel a creeping suspicion that it was written by an AI?

You can blame SEO for that.

SEO stands for search engine optimization. In most cases, "search engine" refers to Google, although it can also refer to its less-popular counterpart Bing.

A website with "good SEO" maximizies its chances that it will be listed at the top of search results.

There are many "entrepreneurs" out there that will teach you how to get rich quick with SEO: 1) make a website and get to the top of google searches 2) put ads on your website 3) ??? 4) Profit!

Trust me when I say it's not that easy.

SEO has a set of rules and standards that are typically set by Google. Because Google is the most popular search engine in the world, their words carry the most weight in the industry. Google determines the order of websites in search results with an algorithm that is supposed to decide the best order. (Google revises this algorithm over time.)

For a while, and arguably even until today, it just so turned out that the most "optimized" websites were also the spammiest, peppered with "keywords" in a struggle to the top - without having solid content. Although Google has shifted their perspective over time, in a seemingly endless fight against "spam".

The term "engagement" in the SEO-sphere refers to clicks and pageviews on a website. Sites that include ads always want to maximimize engagement, in the chance that an ad is clicked and they make money. This is why many websites seemingly start out "ad-free" and then begin including ads. In fact, most advertisers require you to have a minimum amount of pageviews before you're allowed to even begin including them.

A side-effect of this is that it's harder to find good websites with solid content, since the sites that are fighting hardest are driven by the incentive to monetize their website as much as possible.

Social media

Modern platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter are free to use in exchange for giving up your data and consenting to be a commodity.

When a platform collects enough data on a user (by tracking what they react positively/negatively to), a human-coded algorithm builds a highly specific consumer profile which can easily be targeted by advertisers.

This allows social media platforms to turn a huge profit while offering their platform for free.

In the beginning, ads lined the sides and tops of a website. The more annoying ones would pop-up in a new window. Still, there was a clear separation between ads and content. Soon, platforms learned to intersperse ads with a person's social timeline and made it so.

When celebrities (now termed "influencers") emerged from the background, businesses and brands started using those people as channels to market their products and services. After all, these celebrities already have an audience, which allows the business to skip all of the would-be salaries of their marketing team and assign the responsibility of gathering a sufficient audience to an individual for a fraction of the cost.

The Newsfeed

All of these modern social platforms have some variation of the newsfeed. Sometimes it's called the dashboard or timeline. This is usually a mix of content from everyone you follow (plus ads, but we'll get to that...) In the early days even on these modern platforms the newsfeeds were reverse-chronological and simply showed the latest updates from everyone that you followed. On modern social platforms, that experience is much different.

Now platforms use algorithms to determine which posts you will see, and which you won't. These algorithms are meant to filter out "irrelevant and poor-quality posts so that the highest-quality content gets through". Instead, one might argue that these algorithms take the power away from the person scrolling through them, and filters them based on data that has been collected from their activity.

Even without algorithms and ads, the idea itself of a time is designed to keep users on their platform for as long as possible (so the user sees as many ads as possible). The order of the timeline is determined by what the algorithm thinks the user wants to see next.

Rather than user's posts being viewed on their own individual pages, they are neatly ordered into a single-file line for maximum advertising potential. In this way the user is also alienated from their content, their identity/person made secondary to their "content".

The modern timeline was not designed for creators. It was designed for consumers. It's no secret that it's nearly impossible promote yourself as an independent artist online. Anyone who has read a guide to marketing yourself on social media knows that it's a full-time job which requires constant activity and new content creation to keep followers engaged. It requires turning yourself into a brand, and your following into consumers.

The timeline was designed for maximum profit

The "Follower" Model

Modern platforms use the terms follow and follower to describe interaction between two people.

Social networks started out with the consensual level of following: friend requests which must be accepted. Over time the dominant form became simply "following", clicking a button to see that person's content intermixed in your feed.

Following is a one-sided action - you can choose to follow an account but that account may not follow you back. Those who do follow you back are affectionately termed mutuals.

The goal and overall "victory conditions" of social media is, and always has been, to gain more followers. Gaining followers means your posts will reach a wider audience. At the most basic level, this may indicate that people like you. If you are a creator, it may indicate that people will see your creations and perhaps offer you money. Big-name brands and businesses may also reach out to you to promote their products to your followers.

Having a large following also has its consequences. The larger a group of people is, the harder it is to please everyone. But this consequence is relatively harmless compared to the others. With more exposure and popularity, that person has a higher chance of being stalked and harassed, just like real-life celebrities. They also risk being doxxed, or cancelled (which tends to attract angry mobs and encourage dogpiling).

The follower model promotes social imbalance, a one-to-many kind of connection.

The act of following another account is impersonal and one-sided. Building meaningful relationships with other people is second to amassing an audience.

The Social Environment

We've established that the main goal of modern social platforms are designed to profit as much as possible. What many don't realize is how this also directly impacts the dominant social environment that exists in those spaces.

"Engagement" on social media refers to likes, follows, and comments. The higher a platform's engagement is, the more appealing it is to advertisers. This encourages platforms to work toward making an extremely engaging experience. Often this comes at the cost of the distinction between positive and negative engagement.

Additionally, Twitter's algorithm has been accused of amplifying extremist political views although they announced in 2022, they won't amplify misinformation during a crisis (how kind of them!)

This is a natural result of min/max-ing social engagement at any cost. Over time, the algorithm learned what gets people to comment in long drawn-out arguments in threads, or openly protest their disgust at someone else - and as a result, that type of engagement became weaponized against people in exchange for extra profit.