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Last sync:2023-01-30 08:15
In which John discusses what's wrong with the Internet, whether it's new, and the power (and value) of our attention.
Samuel Ashworth quote is from this great essay:
And special thanks to for thinking through this video with me.

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Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday. It's hard to get people on the internet to agree about anything. Like, it's hard to get them to agree about complicated subjects like how to pay for and deliver health care, and also it's hard to get them to agree about tiny things, like whether to call a gif a 'Jif'.

But the one thing everyone on the internet seems to agree on at the moment is that the internet kind of sucks. Like Samual Ashworth wrote of Twitter, "The thing about Twitter is that no one who uses it needs an explanation of why it is the worst. It is an endlessly self-renewing bonfire of outrage and confusion." And I think that's true not only for Twitter but also for YouTube and Facebook and Reddit and so on. It's hard to get reliable news online, and the news cycle moves so quickly that it's difficult to follow complicated stories over time. And the architecture of the social internet often seems to lift up the loudest and most divisive voices over more cautious and nuanced ones. Also lots of undeserving creators and creations reach large audiences and then the backlash to those creators and creations is so hyper-intense that it creates a backlash to the backlash, and then a backlash to the backlash to the backlash, ad infinitum.

First, I think it's worth noting that a lot of this isn't new. Like, the internet has always sucked, or at least we've always felt like it sucked. I mean way back in 1995, the very first joke I made on my very first website was that the internet was made out of narcissism, cat pictures, and pornography. The more things change, but the point is whatever golden age of internet discourse people hearken back to is inevitably mis-remembered. There's a lot I don't like about today's YouTube, but that was also true in 2007 and 2010 and 2012 when the running joke online was that the only place on the internet worse than Yahoo Answers was YouTube comments.

Admittedly, it sometimes feels like YouTube comments never really got better so much as the rest of the internet got worse, but still, we shouldn't idealize the past.

There have always been powerful people who misuse that power and there have always been people who feel powerless and vengeful and use the cloak of anonymity to attack others.

But none of that means that we should have to accept an internet that sucks. Look, this is a complicated problem and I am not going to solve it in a YouTube video. I do think, however, that we need to look at the difference between our goals as a species and the goals of the private companies that host so much of our public discourse.

Alright, imagine you work at a zoo and someone comes up to you and says, "I'll give you $1,000 every time you get that lion to roar."

Maybe at first you teach the lion that, when it roars, it gets extra food. But then over time, you start to notice that the lion roars whenever it sees something weird, so you start to show it lots of surprising information. You also might notice that lions roar when they feel threatened, but they learned pretty quickly that your threats were empty, so you'd have to vary them up. 

You'd have to find a million different ways to make the lions feel like their lives were in danger, or their families were about to be broken up, or their territory was threatened. 

Twitter is not structured to make us better informed or happier, it is structured to keep us on Twitter. 

The same is true for Facebook and Netflix and Hulu and YouTube and cable news. All of these companies want as much of our attention as they can get, because that is how they make money, which is what they exist to do.

I don't buy the argument that this makes corporations or the people who work at them "evil", but I do think that we need to understand what corporations want, so that we can know how best to tell them what we want.

They want our attention and it is very hard to turn down the feast that they lay before us, but if we refuse to roar on cue, they will notice, and they will change.

Algorithms and the companies that control them are big and powerful, but in the end, each of us still chooses what we watch and listen to and read. Your attention is powerful, and it is yours.

Hank, I'll see you on Friday.