Why we cannot have nice things
Posted on Tuesday October 27, 2015
This blog post was originally meant to be released on my third anniversary on the social media network called App.net, which was on August 22. However, life got in the way and I did not have time to finish the post until now, 2 months after that date.
Unlike a year or two ago, I will not go through what has happened on App.net during the last year. Instead, this blog post was in part inspired by the following articles: Why Twitter’s Dying (And What You Can Learn From It) by Umair Haque and A Not So Short List of People to Blame for Internet Content Woes by Adam C. Engst.
As it is today, the landscape of social media networks looks depressive. There are a handful of services that have a lot of users and that are considered to be a part of the core Internet experience. Yet, only a couple of them have been able to make the service self-sustaining. The others have just pumped VC/investor funding to the service in the hopes of finding a way it could become profitable without being able to make a positive number under the line.
But there is one thing that is common to all these social media networks: they show advertisements to their users who, in return, get to use the service for “free”. How those ads are displayed to the users depends on the service. Many consider those ads and the intrusive user tracking they do to be annoying, and they blame them to be the reason why they do not find social media enjoyable anymore. I used to be in that camp, but I have found a much better explanation why these free services seem to suck the joy out of the whole social media experience.
In short, the reason is, as Mr. Engst suggests for the ad blocking controversy, we, the people. Because the services are free, anyone can join the service. And with anyone I mean literally anyone. And those people can have whatever agenda they want. And that has lead to situations where one can create anonymous accounts and use them to harass and attack against other people just because they did something the bully did not like. Having a civilized conversation online has become a difficult task and social media networks where one can expect to stay (mostly) safe from abuse are far and few between if not completely non-existent.
The obvious follow-up question for that previous paragraph is Why. I have no answer to that but I may have some ideas why we act like idiots online. One thing that, in my opinion, contributes to the bad behavior is the fact that we humans make everything a race. There is not a thing that we would not make a competition out of. Sports, business, life, you name it. Online we can see this happening with people trying to get the maximum reach (that is, the number of followers), to make the wittiest joke (counted by the number of retweets/likes/whatever, for example), to stir the pot the hardest (that is, result in the biggest number of follow-up posts), et cetera.
Another contributing factor to the horrible online behavior related to making everything a race is that people seem to have unjustly high expectations for everything. No matter what cool things others do and how fast the things become popular, there are always people for whom nothing is enough. This can be seen, for example, every time a new service is launched to compete against a well-established player. No matter how fast it grows, these people keep on comparing it to the 800-pound gorilla that have had a lot more time to gain its popularity. Also, even if people are getting a service/app/whatever for free, they will find any fault, missing feature, and/or lack/slowness of support to be a totally plausible reason to yell at the developer/service provider/publisher/whatever.
Finally, we people are also cheap bastards. That can be proved by looking at what is the dominant business model for online services and publications. Even if there were a paid alternative, let it be superior or equally good, to the free, ad-supported service, people tend to lean towards the option where they do not need to pay a dime. And because the services want to maximize their (ad) revenues, they are willing to get as high number of users as possible, which leads to the situation where the online bullies can run rampant on those services. And now we are back in the original problem.
The title of this post says cannot, not will not. That means that I believe that there is still hope. If we would start acting like civilized adults again, we could make the whole Internet experience much, much better for all of us, and especially for those who have been the target of abuse. Please, prove the pessimists wrong and make this hope come true.