By Sachin Whether we are searching for a website, clicking on a link or scrolling down a page, our deceptively innocent and simply keystrokes are extremely influential as a collective whole in the way they shape the world wide web and our society. Just imagine the combined online actions of the three billion people who [...]

Sunday Times 2

Internet: The other side of the egalitarian age


By Sachin Wijesekera
Whether we are searching for a website, clicking on a link or scrolling down a page, our deceptively innocent and simply keystrokes are extremely influential as a collective whole in the way they shape the world wide web and our society.

Just imagine the combined online actions of the three billion people who use the web on a daily basis to complete a myriad of activities, from web surfing, to posting on Facebook, to engaging in research, to performing bank transactions. Indeed, the internet has undoubtedly become a paramount infrastructure in our modern society, linking global supply chains, managing an array of transactions, providing innovative and specialised means of marketing and advertising, as well as serving as a storehouse for business and financial data. In turn, the aggregate actions of billions of internet users are extraordinarily impactful, bringing forth an age in which the general populace plays an intrinsic role in information creation, business decisions and social change.

While many view the web as a harmonising force signalling an egalitarian age, there are other more cautionary perspectives that must be considered when determining what sort of role the internet should ideally play in our future.

In his engrossing provocation The Big Switch, former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review Nicholas Carr elucidates the advanced production capabilities of the general populace, thanks to computerisation and the internet. Basically, the internet dismantles the high cost and narrow distribution channels system associated with traditional mediums such as film, radio and television, in which costs of production limit the quantity of content that media companies are able to deliver to the masses. On the other hand, inexpensive software and unlimited storage services of the web in conjunction with the fact that cultural products consist of words, images and sounds which can be easily reproduced, allow the average person to engage in information creation on a wider scale than ever imagined.

An example of this is the Youtube blogosphere, which allows users to actively engage in pop culture or political events by uploading video clips. Yale law professor Yochai Bechler praised this new era of user-generated content, describing it as a popular revolution that hands the power of speech from the big companies to the masses, facilitating increased freedom, democracy and cultural self-reflection.

However, to blindly fall for Bechler’s utopic rhetoric without considering some alternative perspectives of online cultural creation in the twenty-first century would be a mistake of the most egregious variety. An imperative retort to Bechler’s standpoint is Carr’s warning that both amateur and professional creations are placed on the same shelf in the online marketplace, and thus essentially presented as equally valuable. For example, YouTube serves as a platform for: home-made films and award-winning short films; user political rants and professional interviews; originals and parodies. This can result in a situation where the signifiers of professional work become increasingly less valuable, resulting in a dearth of quality cultural goods in the marketplace, which is instead swamped by an abundance of information products from amateurs who have not had media or film training.

Furthermore, cultural products that are expensive and difficult to create could potentially be evicted from the marketplace by a horde of inferior cultural goods, resulting in a loss of professions, an example being documentarians, film editors, visual librarians and storyboard writers replaced by the amateur jack-of-all-trades movie-makers and webcam stars on YouTube.

Despite these drawbacks, Bechler approves of this transition in the online market, describing it as a ‘gift economy’ of an egalitarian society, in which the powerful means of expression and creation, once monopolised by governments and corporations, are wielded and distributed by the general public.

Unlike previous cultural transactions of a monetary and political nature, the gift economy is based on understanding, kinship and mutual obligation. While this idyllic view of the online world is indeed compelling, it fails on two levels. Firstly, as Carr highlights, online user-generated content is exploited by big companies as a form of inexpensive – in this case, virtually free – labour. For example, Steve Chen and Chad Hurley, the original creators of YouTube, reaped billions from a merger with Google, as a result of thousands of non-profit videos uploaded by their site members each day. This scenario is known as “crowdsourcing” – when plebeians have access to means of production but are restricted from commercial ownership. Carr compares this to the practice of sharecropping during the agricultural era, in which landlords benefitted from the economic outcomes of licensing free real-estate and ploughing tools to their tenants.

A more modern version of this phenomenon engendered from the social popularity of the internet in the 1990s, when users performed free moderation in AOL chatrooms, a mass media company that Wired magazine described as a “cyber sweatshop.” Additionally, on February 3, Col Needham, founder of the online International Movie Database (IMDb), claimed that he will be permanently closing the discussion board facility of the website at the end of the month. Despite stating his reasoning for doing so being that the boards no longer serve a necessary function on the website, users discussion over the event included the possibility that his decision stemmed from the fact that he was unable to monetise user conversations on the website, thus rendering the forums worthless in the scheme of his business, an approach that starkly contrasts with Bechler’s idealistic views of a popular revolution via free speech.

The second disadvantage of the gift economy stems from a socio-political framework that assesses herd mentality in a twenty-first century virtual context. During an investigation into how an individual user’s choices may affect the way online communities are created, economists Eric Brynfolfsson and Marshall Van Alstyne declared that, when online, humans hone fine-tuned filters which influence content exposure and community building. Basically, faced with unlimited access to content and opinions due to the inexorable expansion of the online world, people actively narrow the ideas and opinions they are exposed to. This is exacerbated by Brynfolffson and Alstyne’s finding that even slight biases in favour of similar views can result in deep divisions, evident in the polarising political blogosphere, in which liberal and conservative blogs are largely homogenous, with scarce intermediary traffic flow.

A major reason why this social development is so troubling can be illuminated in legal scholar Professor Cass Sunstein’s 2005 Colorado study which stated that when humans immerse themselves in groups that predominantly share their views and beliefs, they are susceptible to ‘ideological amplification’, which will only serve to enhance their biases, narrow their already parochial perspectives and facilitate further discrimination against those out of their ideological group.

For example, a recurring proponent for the termination of the IMDb message boards was that the forums were overwrought in ‘group think’, a term coined by psychologist Janis Irving to describe the phenomenon that occurs within groups of people where dysfunctional and irrational decisions are made by a total dissension of alternate viewpoints.

As opposed to the offline world, in which money and energy prevent physical and psychological homogony, the virtual nature of the internet allows societies to form, insulate and consolidate, potentially harming social and political structures offline. This is exacerbated by services like Google Search which contain inbuilt filters that may prevent users from accessing new information, instead redirecting them to websites that tessellate with their search history, thus resulting in a cocooned society, divergent from the egalitarian age of harmony and enlightenment depicted by Bechler.

Therefore, while the internet is heralded by many as a valuable tool for the general public, augmenting conciliation and awareness while shifting the power of expression away from big businesses and the mass media, an alternate perspective depicts it as an insulation blanket that can potentially isolate, fragment and divide our local and global communities.

Additionally, information creation on the internet can have far-reaching negative consequences in the social sphere, prioritising quantity over quality while depriving society at large of the works of talented professionals. As a result of this, going forward, we should appreciate the platform the internet bestows on us while being receptive to opposing viewpoints and placing an emphasis on originality, professionalism and respect as we navigate the online world.

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