We Need To Educate People About How The Internet Works

Despite almost everybody being online, we have failed to educate people at scale about the realities and consequences of the internet.
Ed Zitron 8 min read

In a conversation with my friend Kasey about my piece yesterday on Internet Fandoms, he brought up something poignant: the general issue with fandoms is that they seem to have transcended actual enjoyment. To quote Kasey, “the core of the problem with bad fans and bad fandom is that they forget that this shit is supposed to be about how much fun it is to like stuff,” and I think that’s such a core issue that people face with the internet in general.

People have written at length about the phenomena of doomscrolling - that we must consume more news, especially if it’s bad news. There’re tons of genuinely intelligent people that regularly tweet that they’re on “the hell website Twitter” and “have to be there” for whatever reason, and that their feed is just “full of negativity” that they must, for whatever reason, continue to consume feeds of stuff that continually reinforces how bad things are and will be forever.

Outside of those who genuinely have to read truly awful shit for work (Misinformation reporters, Baltimore Orioles beat reporters, and so on), we have control of both the things we consume online and the rate at which we consume it. The very nature of the ‘doomscrolling’ discussion is one of helplessness - that we’re at the mercy of the internet, and we cannot help but to read endless bad news - we may have chosen the people we follow. Still, we cannot control the stuff they share, or how negative they feel, or how bad things are in the real world.

Except we’re the ones choosing how our feeds are presented to us - the people we follow, the subjects we follow, the people’s retweets that we choose to see - and that we are as a result responsible for the content that crosses our feeds. Billions of people participate in social media at scale without asking the fundamental question of why the hell they are actually on social media and whether or not the thing they’re seeking exists or has any substance.

The problem, though, is who exactly tells us how to do any of this shit? When were we sat down and told that we might fall into these habits or be vulnerable to these negative feedback loops? Besides intuition and what our friends tell us, when exactly were we taught to use the internet?

Doomscrolling is a symptom of, to quote Bo Burnham, of having “access to a little bit of everything all of the time.” We can instantly access responses to almost any whim we have and almost always find an answer that affirms our belief, along with the means to continue hitting the button to establish said belief. We naturally want things that will affirm our beliefs, so we curate news and social feeds that prove them, even if said thing keeps us in a state of a simmering agitation.

It’s easy (and reasonable) to blame algorithms for creating this. Still, most people are totally and utterly unprepared to deal with the fact that while you can follow anyone and find almost anything, it’s not necessarily a good idea to centralize all of that into something you read for hours a day. It’s also extremely easy to conflate access to the world’s knowledge with understanding the world’s knowledge, and the internet regularly rewards people who mislead (and misunderstand) basic information because it confirms the biases of others.

The entire “freakin’ hell website” conversation is a result of the confusing sense that we have to have a presence online and that we have to “stay connected” or else fall behind, despite the “informed” part of that mainly being “I know what insular grievance is going on” and “people are pissed off.” Our instinct to be aware of our surroundings to protect ourselves betrays us, and many people stick their head in the social media toilet while hating every minute of it without thinking about why.

Outside of the computer, even someone working in a customer-focused position will still meet at most a few hundred people a day, and even then in a relatively passing manner. If we were to go out into a supermarket and yell that we believe that a movie is good or bad, the reaction will likely be either nothing or a “yeah, sure” or “no” and not to an altercation.  Sure, if we went to a baseball game and yelled that the home team sucked, we may end up getting our asses kicked, but not immediately, and the vitriol we’d receive would likely be significantly less.

Online, we can get the opinions of as many people as we’d like at an unnatural rate compared to how we deal with human beings in person. We are given both the news of things happening and the world’s reactions to them, as well as judgments on our response to them, in a manner of minutes. Our feeds are not naturally built to protect us from or navigate this slew of information, and despite the internet being the single most influential technology, we haven’t societally worked out how to deal with it.

We have societal norms that stop us from stripping naked in public or having a screaming match with other people and treat those who do with confusion and disdain; we do not have an accepted, ubiquitous understanding of good conduct online. We’re left to curate our feeds and our experiences - as I’ve said is required to make Twitter “good” - and doing so is a complex process with little guidance and a billion opinions.

The whole fake news and misinformation conversation is a symptom of the more significant problem that most people jump headfirst into social media with no real idea as to what they’re getting out of it, and thus will seek out things that make them feel good about themselves or right about something. Opinions both agreeing and disagreeing with us are brought to us at lightning speed, with no real obvious answer as to what the right call is - and even a relatively passive social media user will reach a point where they face a level of conflict and antagonism that’s alien to them, and act with the level of confusion and sadness one might if screamed at in real life.

The internet is a constant test of critical thinking and emotional restraint, compounded every time your following or access to other people is increased. In real life, the spread of (and trust in) the integrity of information is remarkable - a small family may believe in something foolish “because Dad said it.” That level of blind trust can spread online at scale because most people are not forced to question information from trusted sources. Except online, they’re able to access many, many, many, many trusted sources at once and can meet like-minded people who also believe in the thing that may be wrong, which affirms their belief because so many people also believe it. While one might call this ignorance, I call it the result of never really trying to teach people what the internet is, how it works and what a post on Twitter means (or doesn’t mean).

Outside of other people, we’re also able to access slightly different versions of the same story if we’re looking to confirm something, or if we feel bad about something and want to establish if we’re right to feel bad about it. Access to trillions of pieces of data without any guidance means that we can effectively form any opinion about anything, and while many people are reasonable and realize they’re doing this, there are many more who are not and do not.

The internet naturally feeds our desire to know more to vulgar limits, giving us the air that we have the capacity to learn anything. This is why you have rich venture capitalists acting as if they’re epidemiologists, or your cousin Gerbis who insists that “natural immunity” is the solution to COVID - the infinite knowledge of the internet is such that they’ve found information that you haven’t, and that you are simply not looking hard enough. It is just that easy to have an incredibly informed and incorrect opinion, because there is some sort of quasi-researched counterpoint out there, and no real evaluation of what makes something right or wrong.

On top of all of this, there is the unrelenting ever-presence of the internet. There are so many holes to fall down, so many places to get lost and get hurt, and there is so little guidance or education about what any of it means or how it affects you. Avoiding doomscrolling requires being aware of how we consume content and how the internet works that most people don’t have - not because they’re ignorant or stupid, but because the internet is still (even in its ubiquity) so new, and we still do not understand how human beings are affected by it at scale.

People who doomscroll are not idiots, they’re simply trying to work out what’s going on through the lens of their own experience, operating on the instinct of trying to learn more about something that’s bad without a real goal or purpose beyond a vague sense of being “better.” But we generally want to know more about something we perceive as a threat, and that instinct drags us back to searching for more and more answers based on the conclusions we’ve already gathered. If we think that COVID is a threat, we’re going to want to know how big a threat it is - and if we’re someone that would like COVID to not be as big a deal as it is, we will find information and people that back up that opinion.

The advent of social media means that we now have to do real work when we engage with the internet in a way that’s totally alien to us. The consequences of using the computer are extremely poorly-understood, and we have up until recently had an almost completely passive approach to it, assuming that it’s as simple as following the things that we’ve been taught about dealing with people and information in real life.

What we need is better education and understanding of what the hell is going on here, which is difficult when private enterprises are the ones that have much of the information that needs to be researched and actively impede access to it. It’s also an entirely different problem to deal with - one that’s so different from regular human experiences both in its manifestation and the speed at which it happens.

When you log online for the first time, there is no real guide beyond the people you know who are already online, and no firm, accepted understanding of the effects of being online beyond “don’t click fake emails” and “use secure passwords.” We are so woefully ignorant - myself included - about the short and long-term consequences of social media and endless information, and we lack a societal education of how our actions may effect others online, or how we may be taken advantage of online for someone else’s amusement or enrichment.

It’s a gargantuan educational effort, one that requires teaching empathy (EG: there’s another person behind the screen), critical thinking (EG: just because someone has a lot of followers doesn’t mean they’re not lying), and basic research skills in a way that just isn’t happening. When I say “the average person” I don’t mean it condescendingly - the internet, and in particular social media, is something that has happened to people - it is something that became a necessity without any sort of education about what it is or what it does, with a huge assumption that anyone knows what they’re doing.

While everyone acknowledges the internet is a beautiful, terrible melting pot, we approach it societally in a remarkably casual way. We worry vaguely about “screen time” - that a kid will get “addicted to the screen” - without considering whether that’s the real thing to be afraid of.

While I may enjoy Twitter by ruthlessly curating my experience, I also acknowledge that barely a year ago I was hating it in exactly the same way, following people that pissed me off and upset me and getting in insular arguments because I felt like I *had* to be right, and that I could form opinions entirely based off of what one random user thought. We are not even an inch below the surface of how the internet affects people, and I don’t think anyone is invulnerable to the chaotic mess that we deal with every day.

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