We're sorry about the Internet...
April 14, 2018 6:29 PM   Subscribe

Following Mark Zuckerberg's two days of Congressional testimony, which included such gems as Sen. Ted Cruz making it clear that he believes the GOP is Facebook's victim, Rep. Joe Kennedy III making it clear he doesn't understand the difference between selling data to advertisers vs. allowing advertisers to target users based on on data, and Rep. Billy Long juuuust making sure that Facemash wasn't still up and running, New York Magazine has published An Apology for the Internet.

The article is a "how we got here" breakdown, with some insightful quotes from a number of Internet visionaries, and also Richard Stallman. (I kid, I kid.)
The Architects (in order of appearance):

Jaron Lanier, virtual-reality pioneer. Founded first company to sell VR goggles; worked at Atari and Microsoft.

Antonio García Martínez, ad-tech entrepreneur. Helped create Facebook’s ad machine.

Ellen Pao, former CEO of Reddit. Filed major gender-discrimination lawsuit against VC firm Kleiner Perkins.

Can Duruk, programmer and tech writer. Served as project lead at Uber.

Kate Losse, Facebook employee No. 51. Served as Mark Zuckerberg’s speechwriter.

Tristan Harris, product designer. Wrote internal Google presentation about addictive and unethical design.

Rich “Lowtax” Kyanka, entrepreneur who founded influential message board Something Awful.

Ethan Zuckerman, MIT media scholar. Invented the pop-up ad.

Dan McComas, former product chief at Reddit. Founded community-based platform Imzy.


Sandy Parakilas
, product manager at Uber. Ran privacy compliance for Facebook apps.

Guillaume Chaslot, AI researcher. Helped develop YouTube’s algorithmic recommendation system.

Roger McNamee, VC investor. Introduced Mark Zuckerberg to Sheryl Sandberg.

Richard Stallman, MIT programmer. Created legendary software GNU and Emacs.
NYMag also has more in-depth interviews with many of the folks above:
posted by jferg (31 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
From the Cuervo interview: "I think what is also worth noting is that the company has always had a very user-centric mind-set, one that is always responded very swiftly to"

Bullshit. If that were true, we'd have a chronological feed that didn't keep switching to some other algorithm, and just showed EVERYTHING you subscribed to by default, and with options to not see the 500 posts about vaping or whatever that one of your friends decided to like that day.

Whatever its purpose may have been originally, it is currently a Paperclip Optimizer for advertising.
posted by Foosnark at 7:31 PM on April 14 [43 favorites]


Didn't want to be this editorial in the post, but after having watched most of the Zuckerberg congressional appearance in the background while I was working, IMO Zuckerberg came out of the hearings looking better than nearly all of the Representatives, and a majority of the Senators ... which is a sad statement on our Congressional representation.
posted by jferg at 7:43 PM on April 14 [8 favorites]


with some insightful quotes from a number of Internet visionaries, and also Richard Stallman. (I kid, I kid.)

Stallman’s vision was/is *much* bigger than the Internet.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:04 PM on April 14 [7 favorites]


*ego
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:18 PM on April 14 [6 favorites]


Is now an OK time to bring up the Office of Technology Assessment and how it got defunded in 1995? Maybe it should be brought back?
posted by NoMich at 8:49 PM on April 14 [13 favorites]


What happened to the internet? Capitalism. This isn’t some huge mystery.
posted by Automocar at 9:10 PM on April 14 [37 favorites]


What happened to the internet? Capitalism. This isn’t some huge mystery

The Martinez Interview basically confirms this.
posted by eustatic at 10:03 PM on April 14


Didn't want to be this editorial in the post, but after having watched most of the Zuckerberg congressional appearance in the background while I was working, IMO Zuckerberg came out of the hearings looking better than nearly all of the Representatives, and a majority of the Senators ... which is a sad statement on our Congressional representation.

Really? Because it felt like he came across as what he truly is - a billionaire tycoon who doesn't actually care about the damage his actions cause (and why should he, since he's been getting softpedaled since he was a Harvard freshman.) Maybe the members of Congress aren't up to date on technology - that worries me less than what Zuckerberg represents.
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:49 PM on April 14 [15 favorites]


Also, the part of this that really pisses me off is the thread of "nobody could have known".

Fuck. That. Shit. None of this was any great mystery. Create a new arena with no barriers - congratulations, you just created a system that is perferctly tailored to centralization. Argue that in this new arena "government is the problem", and you've just kneecapped the one entity that is controlled by the people it represents and can actually act as the counterbalance to the centralized entities that are developing because no barriers, remember? Argue that mechanisms for accountability serve only to hamstring development, and it's no wonder that nobody gets held accountable anymore.

We got to where we are because everyone said "but this time it will be different." Turns out it wasn't.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:02 PM on April 14 [27 favorites]


Create a new arena with no barriers - congratulations, you just created a system that is perferctly tailored to centralization.

See that's the part that annoys me. Email as in gmail isn't something where Google had a tremendous advantage. It doesn't take that much to do a web based email site, add some spam filtering tech, and boom you have what gmail started as. Search, as in google search, takes scale, connectivity, and horsepower but there's no good reason that a distributed search engine could not have competed against early google search.

Facebook is different. When you have some big chunk of the people online plugged into your social network then you have an insurmountable advantage. What people want from Facebook is to keep track of their friends. Facebook puts so much crap in the way of doing that simple task. All we can do is wait for people to get tired of the crappy interface or wait for the youngs will migrate to a different platform.

If people put more thought and effort into their web presence, they could move away from centralized solutions. People will not but if they did, they could gut Facebook, Google, and all the rest.
posted by rdr at 12:13 AM on April 15


Facebook is different. When you have some big chunk of the people online plugged into your social network then you have an insurmountable advantage.

It didn't start out that way. It needed the collapse of competing social platforms such as Usenet, MySpace and LiveJournal to become dominant. Facebook's success is more due to the failures of its competitors then any innate quality.
posted by happyroach at 2:40 AM on April 15 [6 favorites]


I'm relying on Pied Piper's Richard Hendricks to save us with his decentralised internet. Though it isn't going to be easy.
posted by Paul Slade at 2:41 AM on April 15


Yeah, you're damn right Facebook didn't start that way. Facebook started as a way to rate college women based on their looks. It began as a misogynistic classifier, designed to sort intelligent women by the way that they looked, unquestionably shaming them in the process. Facebook isn't about connection and it never was. It was always about classifying people; it was always about privileged white men exerting their power.
posted by sockermom at 4:40 AM on April 15 [44 favorites]


That was a really interesting read. I love how the article makes it sound as if all the contributors were sitting around a table and confining themselves to pithy, sage observations. I'm going to bet the source material was not quite like that.

The prospect of a Netflix-like subscriber-centred model for social media is one of the more promising ideas. Netflix's rapid growth has also occurred in the face of competing user options which are "free" (Bittorrent, commercial TV) - its is just that Netflix worked out a way of making its modest subscription fee - a means of providing something measurably better than these alternatives. Subscription based social media would have all kinds of rather hidden advantages in terms of handling of privacy. But they would also need to be more compelling in terms of their content. There might be less pressure to put people in a content bubble, perhaps.
posted by rongorongo at 4:45 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]


What I want from Lanier is an apology for playing the digideroo
posted by thelonius at 5:01 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]


What happened to the internet? Capitalism. This isn’t some huge mystery.

Yup - 'disruption'/'disintermediation' is often dressed up as some kind of radical technological empowerment for the user/consumer/gig worker - but platforms are often at foundation just the replacement of one form of rentier class with another (one that IT network powered). I'm not informed enough to say that this is what was originally intended or desired - although there is a strong case I think that it was seen as a goal by some platform developers. But anyway, the piece also reminded me of this observation, made about the same part of the country, just a little earlier:
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
posted by carter at 6:20 AM on April 15 [10 favorites]


harder to figure out an effective remedy. Could a subscription model reorient the internet’s incentives, valuing user experience over ad-driven outrage? Could smart regulations provide greater data security? Or should we break up these new monopolies entirely in the hope that fostering more competition would give consumers more options?

They still don't understand that capitalism drives the problem.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:24 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]


Stallman is underappreciated here, as usual. His perspective is odd, but he has consistently been on the right side of every ethical issue in the software and internet world for the last 40 years. I can't think of a more reliable advocate for the individual computer user and programmer.
posted by idiopath at 7:03 AM on April 15 [25 favorites]


Stallman has a very good BS detector.
posted by carter at 7:21 AM on April 15 [3 favorites]


I miss John Perry Barlow.
posted by parki at 8:31 AM on April 15 [3 favorites]


as big and scary as Facebook is, i am very worried about all the sketchier, smaller scale data brokers and collections agencies and advertising middlemen who are building up dubious profiles on everybody and trading them with each other. see Maciej Ceglowski's point about the online advertising industry: it's a bubble, and when the music stops, these increasingly desperate adtech companies are going to start doing shadier and shadier, and probably illegal, stuff to try and stay afloat.

i think it is possible they will start to get involved (not directly, of course) in selling fake personal debts, identity theft, defrauding the elderly, blackmail, and so on. basically aiding and abetting the kind of stuff scammers already engage in, at a larger scale -- the scammers would pretend to want the data for legitimate marketing efforts and the adtech companies wouldn't ask too many questions.

Facebook is a real company with real revenue. it will hurt their business if the adtech bubble pops but it won't kill them. however if the whole industry is mired in crime and they get dragged down with it, that could be disastrous. for this reason, i'd think Facebook might welcome some modest regulation now, especially since it's also a great way to pull up the ladder behind them and hinder competition.
posted by vogon_poet at 10:00 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]


So much in these articles... Like in the interview with Kate Losse: "What’s wrong with connecting people? Nothing, right?"

Nothing until you bring together people that aren't like you. And then you get November 2016.
posted by morspin at 11:55 AM on April 15


The framing of this article pisses me off. The problem is not how companies sold advertising. The problem is advertising and it always was. From the very first banner ad a whole lot of people, myself included, predicted this outcome. An internet that looks like TV.

I was pretty vocal at the end of the 90s about this, as were a lot of other people who understand that advertising is rent-taking on human attention. Advertising is the problem, not what was built to sell that advertising.
posted by Revvy at 12:23 PM on April 15 [5 favorites]


See that's the part that annoys me. Email as in gmail isn't something where Google had a tremendous advantage. It doesn't take that much to do a web based email site, add some spam filtering tech, and boom you have what gmail started as.

What made gmail become the defacto:

* Web mail sucked, but was semi-functional-HTML refresh the page every click (hotmail/yahoo). Roll-your-own server solution Squrilmail was super basic. Maybe I'm wrong but is there an open source webmail client even close to Gmail functionality?
* Invite only when rolled out created excitement
* People, especially techy geeks, trusted Google at the time
* Web mail before this only offered limited storage in the MB, Gmail started with GB's of free storage
* Spam ruined other webmail, when Gmail arrived Hotmail felt 75/25 spam to real
* Native Email clients were (are) bloat city and because the server you used had ridiculous MB quotas you had to delete messages off the server, thereby having your emails only be accessible on your main computer.
posted by wcfields at 2:33 PM on April 15 [6 favorites]


It needed the collapse of competing social platforms such as Usenet, MySpace and LiveJournal to become dominant.

I think that's reversing the order of things a bit. Those largely collapsed because of Facebook.

Facebook's huge advantage over all other social-type platforms was basically an accident. Because it started out in a restricted user space where identities were already online (e.g, Harvard), it overcame the biggest hurdle to adoption of services like MySpace or LiveJournal, which is that for the first time on the internet, people signed up with their own names. When it gained wider adoption, the norm was established, so it was a far more useful platform for finding people than any other offering out there.

The platform itself sucked compared to LiveJournal and even MySpace (which gives me headaches just to think about), but unlike those, on Facebook you could find long-lost friends and acquaintances.

I won't give anyone credit for planning it that way, but it's how it happened.
posted by Ickster at 2:50 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]


~It needed the collapse of competing social platforms such as Usenet, MySpace and LiveJournal to become dominant.

~I think that's reversing the order of things a bit. Those largely collapsed because of Facebook


Eh, at least in Usenet’s case, it was pretty much always a geek thing and never found traction with the general public. Then, when the largest ISP in the country (Comcast) pulled access from their service, Usenet became even more of a relatively unknown, niche space. Facebook really had squat to do with Usenet’s fading into irrelevence.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:30 PM on April 15 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I would say the modern Usenet is Reddit, not Facebook. It's a collection of forums on different topics in which people post using pseudonyms.
posted by bookman117 at 4:19 PM on April 15 [3 favorites]


I was on LiveJournal for fandom purposes for many years and it was the combination of Russia and Tumblr (for some fucking reason) that killed it. The real name thing was a major fandom DO NOT WANT for Facebook.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:47 PM on April 15 [4 favorites]


An internet that looks like TV

I'm old enough to remember when TV itself was ruined. All the promises of world-wide communication, connectivity, information, sacrificed for cigarette and soap ads. Revvy, right there with you with a comment I made online to wide-eyed SV microserfs back in the mid-nineties: "They're going to ruin it, just like they did TV".
posted by Chitownfats at 7:47 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]


It took us 25 years but I guess we finally fixed this problem.
posted by pwnguin at 9:24 PM on April 15


What made gmail become the defacto:

Google's search engine. Not only could you keep all your emails (GB instead of MB storage), you could find them again later - you didn't need to remember what folder you'd put them in; you just needed to recall a word or phrase in the email.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:35 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


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