The internet is the place for the free and accessible exchange of information. The modern day agora.
Advances in technology have led to an unprecedented exchange of cultures, viewpoints, and ideas in the virtual space, with 59% of the global population online. As we improve, the lines between the cyber and physical spaces are blurred, and our realities become mashed into one beautiful mosaic of the human experience -- the Democratization of Information.
The internet was founded by a combination of university faculty, students and military administrators who had access to expensive technology (mostly white men because coding education was exclusionary). Early internet companies were controlled by white men, so they hired people like them (white men). This is why we have white male dominated sectors of tech still to this day.
“Like all technologies, it[the internet] has been shaped not just by critical technical decisions made at various stages in its history, but also by accident and by economic, social, and cultural forces.” - The evolution of the Internet: from military experiment to General Purpose Technology by John Naughton
The initial user base of the internet were physicists communicating across the world. People that already knew each other in real life (IRL). They formed the framework for internet culture from their specific viewpoint.
“Technical meritocracy was likewise an inheritance from the early days of the ARPANET design – a prevailing ethos that ideas should succeed (or fail, as many did) on their technical merits, rather than on the organisational status of whoever proposed them” - The evolution of the Internet: from military experiment to General Purpose Technology by John Naughton
Once the internet was privatized in the 90s and the advent of the personal computer access to it was no longer exclusive to the rich—the historic differentiator—but it was still restricted to those who could afford access to a computer and a modem (and to those who lived in areas where it was accessible. ie middle class white men).
“as long as a given network ‘spoke’ TCP/IP (as it were) it was free to join the Internet. And because the system was not owned or controlled by anybody (unlike the ARPANET), there were no gatekeepers to control admission to it.” - The evolution of the Internet: from military experiment to General Purpose Technology by John Naughton
As a result, early internet culture evolved around a single viewpoint even though the goal of the internet set out to change the way information was exchanged.
It was a place for the white male nerd to be himself for the first time.
The freedom to be a nerd was new. But when other types of people started using the internet to express themselves, the original intent of the internet as a platform for the democratization of information started to be realized. But the creator class felt their safe space threatened, so they put gates up.
This is what has been happening in gaming culture. These white males (no longer just nerds) are having their play space threatened by the democratization of information. The response has been to push back and push out these other viewpoints by being toxic instead of accepting diversity. The bullied have become the bullies.
The internet is not toxic by nature. There is a core group of people who have traditionally been in these spaces that are trying to keep it exclusively their space. The more that diversity enters into the online space, the more types of people gaining platforms, the more pushback, and often the creation of echo chambers.
The internet was designed by its users as a way to connect people rather than systems. This is done through a system that is designed to get packets from point A to point B and does so indiscriminately, TCP/IP. It does not prioritize any data packet over any other data packet.
“This philosophy – of leaving innovation to the edges of the network – had profound implications. As Van Schewick (2012) describes it, the TCP/IP design created an architecture for ‘permissionless innovation’ which enabled the explosion of disruptive creativity that is perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Internet.” - The evolution of the Internet: from military experiment to General Purpose Technology by John Naughton
Social media is the end to end user software platform developed to finally and fully serve this purpose of connecting people.
Once you reach a critical mass of data it becomes less about that information and more about how it is delivered.
Who controls our attention? Who controls what information gets in front of who’s eyes?
We can only consume so much content, and it is in the platform’s best interest to deliver content that we enjoy quickly and efficiently so that we keep coming back. This is where algorithms come in. By algorithm I mean a set of instructions that evaluates content and delivers it to the appropriate audience. Google PageRank was one of the first to be successful. PageRank is why when you search on google you are likely to find what you are looking for on the first page.
The power information holds is becoming entirely dependent on the platforms of delivery (Social Media). Facebook controls 55.9% of all global internet attention. Their algorithm gets to decide what 55.9% of the online world sees on a daily basis. This is the kind of power that can sway an election and destroy faith in democracy.
But, that ignores the agency of the world’s population to engage in spaces other than Facebook (Twitter, TikTok, Pinterest, etc.). Individual responsibility also plays a role in the dissemination of information. We have the power to control our echo chambers. To engage (or not engage) with content on our feeds, to influence the algorithm. There is a little thing called google that you can use to easily follow up on information you are served on social media platforms.
But even google is problematic.
When you search for something on google you are searching on google’s copy of the internet that resides on their servers. They can decide what does and doesn’t get copied. They effectively control what (or who) exists on the internet. They also control the order in which results are presented to the user. Hint: You can pay to show up on the top of the page.
Facebook is a brand-focused platform. Paying users have more power than non-paying users. Those who pay can largely circumvent the algorithm to deliver content to whomever they wish. The Facebook doesn’t care about its user experience as much as it cares about its advertisers’ experience. The user has quite a bit less influence on their feed than on platforms like TikTok and Twitter.
On Twitter you can opt out of algorithmic delivery of content all together.
TikTok’s algorithm is run by a machine learning Artificial Intelligence. TikTok is a user-focused platform. The creators don’t have much control over how their content is delivered. It is entirely dependent on the profile the AI builds around the user based on how you engage with content and how it categorizes content to deliver to a specific user and which accounts you follow. TikTok’s greatest strength is the For You page that intelligently delivers content the AI believes you will find enjoyable, and it does this extremely well. The only ads I’ve been seeing are right when you open the app. Currently you can’t pay for algorithmic priority but I’m sure that will change once Bytedance wishes to monetize.
Influence of the collective individual
We can influence the algorithms by feeding it better content and only engaging with the good information. Since content is valued by engagement we have the power, as users, to make information effectively disappear by choosing to collectively not engage. Negative engagement is still engagement, and any sort of engagement amplifies the content.
This is why it is important for us to like, share, engage, create and decentralize the spread of good information so that we can gain control over the algorithms. The sheer volume of information produced can increase the likelihood of something appearing in front of someone’s face.
There is a key piece of this puzzle we can play a role in.
The more you engage with content the more power you have over your feed. You are telling the algorithm what you consider good content. Even if you negatively respond to something, it's still engagement, and engagement is all the algorithms really care about. So to ensure good information gets spread, only engage with good information and ignore bad information completely. Do not engage negatively, only positively.
We can fill people’s feeds with good content by producing more of it. The more people creating quality content, the greater the chance good information will be seen.
Everyone in the whole world has their own valuable viewpoint—something valuable they can share with the world. It’s important for everyone to identify their value and put it out there because the more good information out there, the less power bad information holds.
Just because you’ve seen this information somewhere else doesn’t mean there isn’t value in bringing it to a different space.
There is value in the contextualization of information.
We can apply some basic principles of entrepreneurship to the spread of ideas.
There are three ways to start a business:
Come up with something new - Invention
Improve something - Innovation
Bring something existing to a new market
Our new currency is information—data.
You spend it by taking information you think is valuable, putting it into your context, and sharing it so that other people can see it after it’s passed through your context. It’s like a global game of telephone to extract and refine truth from the original message. An evolution of ideas through the democratization of information. A call to action that creates a better world.
This is called marketing. You need to get people to “buy” what you are “selling” and what you are selling are ideas. You are asking them to change their way of seeing the world which is a BIG ask.
“We have the control over the micro to influence the macro” - Gary Vee.
We have control over our individual ways of being in the world, and the way that we communicate with those around us, and an unprecedented connection to potentially the entire world through social media.
The micro effects of our existence are no longer location based, though they are still limited by cultural and language barriers, region codes and laws.
For the first time in history the impact of an individual life can be global even if you are not a celebrity.
Fame is no longer exclusive. The separation between the Kylie Jenners of the world and the average Joe is much smaller than it used to be. The only separation is their amount of followers.
We can choose to give platforms to voices we care about amplifying them. If we do that collectively, then the voices that are being heard will be the ones speaking truth. That is the hope.
There are ways to game the system and use money to influence it, but we should always be pushing towards the power of the individual over money through the use of social media and the innovation of new social platforms, so they don’t all fall under the same banner of a Mark Zuckerberg or even one single country like the U.S. or China.
We need to be speaking globally, we need to be learning each other's languages, and we need to be translating content into each other’s context. We need to be accepting of what feels true with skepticism and verification.
The more we put out there, the greater the ability we have to check each other's ideas.
People will call each other out. You will hear the same thing from a whole bunch of different sources. The big danger here is the idea that everyone else is wrong and only you and your circle are right.
You should operate under the assumption that what you say and do is wrong so that you don’t say and do things that are wrong. Think through the negative effects of your words and actions versus the alternatives and pick the one that has a good negative outcome.
If I’m wrong about saying “Don’t wear a mask,” people die. If I’m wrong about saying “Wear a mask,” then people just end up wearing masks. This is called risk analysis.
Another way of looking at this is to move through life making choices based on probability.
What is the difference between getting your news from Twitter and Fox News other than a tremendous amount of money and branding around one and not the other? The difference is Twitter information is passing through more filters (people’s contexts + algorithm) and getting refined to a more pure form of 240 characters.
We are building a better world together not just by ourselves in the dark little corners of our rooms.
Even if I were building something alone, I would be building it for myself and that still has meaning.
Your ideas and creations may not change the world by themselves but they will build the foundation for the next idea and creation.
The democratization of information brings us closer to certainty than if we try and gain a complete understanding of reality through our own individual perspectives. The collective human experience will bring us towards the truth of human existence.