The Internet Is Already Broken

Ed Zitron 8 min read

My personal inbox, as it stands, is largely useless. Of the 100 emails I can see at a glance, two of them are things I asked for — changes to a profile, an order receipt – and the rest are adverts from companies that I have absolutely unsubscribed from.

One is for a perfume company that I once used to buy my mother a gift. Two or three are for crowdfunding campaigns. One is from a hotel I have never visited. Another is for a subscription box for dog toys I unsubscribed from in 2017. Why do I hear from Sears? I thought they went bankrupt! Either way, I’ve unsubscribed from their emails three times.

Every company I have ever interacted with decides to send me at least one email a week, several of them choosing to do so multiple times. I have tried every unsubscription product under the sun, and none seem capable of changing the fact that email, the single most popular product on the internet, has become unquestionably poisoned.

This is a direct result of the spam culture of modern commerce – every time you interact with any business online, even once, you are agreeing to be spammed. Book a flight with Southwest? Enjoy 3 or 4 emails a week about the flight you’re taking, even if it’s in a few months time, asking if you’d like to rent a car or book a hotel. Give a steak company your email? Expect to be emailed every single major holiday or news event that they see fit with some sort of discount or new product.

My email is irrevocably fucked to the point that I have to tell people to email me on my work email, because I will reliably not see it on my personal because a company I bought a suit from in 2017 has a new discount, or because Product Hunt has decided that I need both a weekly and a daily update that I have never clicked.

The concept of growth hacking has destroyed the basic communication channel of the internet, exchanging the inconvenience of physically going to a store with the annoyance of constantly being badgered by every single store you’ve ever shopped at. While one can unsubscribe from these emails, they invariably find a way back – either through future purchases or by simply ignoring the unsubscribe request, safe in the knowledge that no authority will reliably police the baseline harassment of using email.

Email has become the victim of the late-stage capitalist internet – a place where we are continually productized and monetized, where our actions are evaluated to better market us products, and where the actual experience of using said products too often exists to find more efficient ways to get our cash. And while these messages are annoying, the metrics that growth marketers see show that people complete purchases from them, and they’re never, ever going to stop.

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The Rot Engine

As I’ve related before, searching for things online has become less about providing answers and more about Google, the people that pay Google, and the people that game Google finding ways for us to decide that their answer is the right one. Content is created specifically to rank high on search engines — called Search Engine Optimization — to the point that businesses have to create entire strategies to con the robots that choose what comes up when you search.

The Verge published a vast piece on SEO last week, citing stories of stores using AI to find new and inventive ways to con Google search into ranking them above others. Google, a $1.5tn company, has always treated search as something to be manipulated rather than a mass-curation of “the best” of what’s online, allowing a cadre of SEO expert “hustlers” to grow into a $77bn industry where you pay someone to tell you how to change the things you want to say into what Google regards as “interesting” or “good.” The result is an internet littered with austere and joyless copy, engineered to reach a high rank on a particular search — meaning that the most popular results are, ironically, usually boring, low quality, and in some cases totally useless. While SEO itself is not Google’s fault - there will always be people trying to game systems - it is absolutely on Google to not have their search results crammed with low-quality content engineered to have the highest ranking.

People are concerned that AI is going to turn the internet into a porridge of low-quality service journalism and/or ecommerce marketing, and I’m not worried because that’s what the internet already is. Media’s obsession with clicks and rankings and traffic as revenue-drivers mean that a large amount of popular — and high quality! — media outlets also spill out random holiday gift guides (with affiliate marketing links so that they get a cut of the sale) or random articles about when an event will happen.

Or worse, articles that are essentially re-written Reddit posts. Fortunately, this plague hasn’t spread to the US quite as badly as in my home country of England, where Reach Media — the largest publisher of local newspapers, as well as the Daily Mirror, a left-leaning and comparatively high-brow tabloid that once counted Christopher Hitchens among its columnists — routinely publishes regurgitated threads from /r/AmITheAsshole and /r/mildlyinfurating on their homepages.

These posts have no informational value, and because they’re based on unsourced and unverified information from anonymous strangers, there’s no guarantee the story is even true, but they’re easy to write and play nicely on Google and social media. It’s exactly the kind of meaningless, soul-sucking job you can imagine a rapacious publisher giving to a fresh-faced, hopeful journalism graduate or intern.

AI might help profligate this kind of content, but you are completely delusional if you can’t see that the modern content mill of the internet is already full of crap specifically built to convince Google to give it more traffic. This is the direct result of monetizing media through advertising. You need traffic, and you need that traffic to be consistent, and the way to get consistent traffic is to make “helpful” content.

Google has effectively outsourced its own function — to provide the answers to a question or help you find something — to the media, who have in turn changed their mission from growing their own audience to catering to the one that Google provides. Much like the average social media influencer, media outlets find themselves locked in a battle with a shadowy and ever-changing algorithm, and said battle distracts them from doing good work, because doing good work is insufficient proof that your content is “good” or “right.”

All of this is a direct result of the rot economy, where endless growth of users and revenue are the only things that matter. Google is directly incentivized to provide answers that help it grow its dominance, which in turn means that it will always incentivize publishers to create more content for Google to sell ads against.

It could — perhaps not easily, but it’s absolutely possible — create a search experience that actually analyzes the content of what’s being shown and, in turn, reward the outlets that create “good” and unique content, but instead chooses to incentivize the worst content, because that’s more results for people to trawl through. This allows Google to continue to juice revenues, and allows the media to continue to show its investors that they are “growing” thanks to their “optimized operations,” at no point considering the efficacy of the content or whether anybody even actually likes it.

I’d argue that Google has no real incentive to improve. It makes billions of dollars a quarter off of a search engine that has only gotten worse over time, and there is effectively no competition thanks to the fact that most people refer to searching for stuff online as “googling.”

There’s no need to worry about the internet’s content mill hell — it’s already here, and we’ve been living in it for years. The internet we inhabit isn’t so much made for us as it is made for us to operate in. We are mice in the maze, constantly having objects put in our way or removed to see how we’ll react, or whether we’ll do the thing that someone else wants us to do.

Some of us might occasionally jump a wall and surprise those experimenting on us, but as it stands, the internet has become a kleptocratic playground for billionaires to monetize our every move.

Social Distancing

The modern internet is an endless shell game where the user is continually swindled out of seeing the things they want, and social media is no exception. Facebook and Instagram have become dominated by a different strain of the same poison that afflicted Google, with your feed oscillating between pictures and videos of things you chose to follow and whatever direct-to-consumer product Meta has been paid to harass you with.

The sites that we joined with the express intent of having a more personal connection with something or someone are now specifically engineered to interrupt that connection exactly as much as they can before a user chooses to quit using the product and they have to apologize.

There is no scenario where Facebook or Instagram showed you “too much” of something — they are simply testing how much they can piss off their end user until they stop using the app altogether, providing a mealy-mouthed and insincere apology every 6-to-12 months and then making another vague, undocumented change that we’ll never understand. Meta makes billions of dollars a quarter off of an advertising business that makes its product significantly worse, and it will continue to abuse its users to the exact extent it can.

Twitter has become burdened with so much spam that one of the core functions — being able to direct message people — is littered with an endless flume of bots offering crypto trading tips or the opportunity to participate in a romance scam. The irony, given that Musk promised he would stop the bots, isn’t lost on me. In all my years on the site, I don’t remember things being this bad.

Musk doesn’t care that the service is getting worse because it may theoretically save him money, because all that matters is increasing the amount that a particular user will make the company. It doesn’t matter that tweeting “crypto” or “I want this on a t-shirt” is a guaranteed way to get a few replies offering some sort of new investment opportunity, or an automatically-generated listing for a t-shirt, because all of this is “engagement” that new CEO Linda Yaccarino can package up and sell as a “vibrant community.”

The problem is that Musk lacks any of the abusive business acumen of a Zuckerberg or Nadella or Pichar. He doesn’t realize that users can only be mistreated so much before they find a platform putrid, or that lowering the quality of the platform also lowers the quality of advertising. He sees the low quality of the rest of the internet — the way in which users are drowned in advertising and manipulative content — and believes that turning Twitter into a swill of spam, scams, and anti-vax conspiracy theorists won’t somehow fundamentally harm the product.

And like most of Musk’s problems, he fundamentally misunderstands the entire situation. Twitter’s success — if one can call a company being unprofitable for most of its existence, and never more unprofitable than it is right now, a success — is attributable to the fact that it is one of the last “real” places online, where everyone from celebrities to guys called The Hamburger Dipshit can share their real thoughts in real time.

The hesitance of the previous executive team to change anything fundamental at Twitter was an acknowledgment of the stable equilibrium of a site where, despite existing in a relatively corrupt internet, people still communicated with a degree of authenticity. Destabilizing that equilibrium by fucking with the algorithm and the concept of verification has made the experience of interacting with any “big” post on Twitter agonizing, with 30 Twitter Blue users barking nonsense in the hope that Daddy Elon will respond with “interesting” or a laugh-cry emoji, or that they will somehow receive “more engagement.”

What Musk wants is to turn Twitter into the same search-optimized hellhole that Google has become, or to have an algorithm that can manipulate what is seen in a way that somehow benefits advertisers. Neither of these will work, because Twitter is fundamentally built on a sense of intimacy and uninterrupted thought — one which, when interrupted, feels dissonant and annoying.

The only value of Twitter is receiving the thoughts of those you care about at lightning speed, and if Musk continues to interrupt or stymie that flow in ways that benefit him, it will end with the best users leaving, and the core posts of Twitter being utterly boring and devoid of value.

I have no idea if the internet will improve from where it is, or whether it’s possible to reverse a situation where the process of gathering information is so thoroughly monetized. While AI will undoubtedly help us become more monetized and more interrupted by billion and trillion-dollar enterprises, it’s arguable that we haven’t already entered a digital society where the corporations are completely in control. And they don’t give a shit about you.

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