Niall McMahon

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Outline Notes: Criticising the Social Experience of the Internet


Outline notes for a critical assesssment of the social experience of the internet. These were compiled as part of my lectures about digital innovation, delivered to first year students in the School of Computing at Dublin City University.

The 1990s

Back in the early times of the World Wide Web, in the early 90s, the founding cohort were hopeful. In a summer 1996 interview with the World Wide Web Journal, in an issue called The Web After Five Years, Tim Berners-Lee was optimistic. He looked forward to greater bi-directionality on the web and less friction in the publishing process. In 1998, Jaron Lanier wrote that, "[t]he Internet has created the most precise mirror of people as as a whole that we've yet had ... we can breathe a sigh of relief. We are basically OK". The new century began with optimism about the world wide web.

Still, the past was usually more complex that people remember. In the same issue of the World Wide Web Journal, Berners-Lee discusses the challenges. One was to maintain the web open, free from exploitation by one dominant commercial player. Berners-Lee acknowledged this but was hopeful that the incentives to keep the web from fragmenting in this way would be enough. That working together would trump fragmentation.


In the beginning, at the turn of the millenium, people were still figuring out how to make money online. And the model that won out - at least until recently - was the surveillance and advertising model. In return for services that cost nothing, or very little, people would consent to sharing their personal data and viewing advertisements.

For example, when Google launched Gmail in 2004, the aim to reach as many people as possible meant that the model of offering a free service supported by advertising won out over a paid service. As a step further, however, Gmail required users to allow access to their personal data, their emails, to allow targetted delivery of advertising. This was controversial at the time, despite Google's assurances that only computer systems would review emails.


And despite Tim Berners-Lee's best hopes, the battle for the Internet is far from settled in favour of a future of openness and egalitarianism. Today, it can be argued that:


Tim Berners-Lee, in 2019, wrote that he broadly sees three sources of dysfunction affecting today’s web:

  1. Deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour, and online harassment.
  2. System design that creates perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation.
  3. Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse.

Improving behaviour at an individual level and as a society is one goal. This is mostly a structural issue although, as always, personal choice can help. Negative externalities created by corporations must be internalised as costs. Tim Berners-Lee's Contract for the Web is a good statement of intent but nothing less than a technological and social overhaul will have an impact.

After Tim Berners-Lee and Cyphers and Doctorow, some of the structural things that may help solve these problems include:

Making the internet better is perhaps one of the most important areas for technical innovation for the future, alongside solving the problems of climate change and AI.


Surveillance: Advertising and Monopoly

Surveillance and Control