"It's easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism."
"I think the internet is broken," the cofounder of Twitter says, referring to the recent spread of graphic violence, harassment, and fake news online.
"The trouble with the internet… is that it rewards extremes," goes the interview. "Say you're driving down the road and see a car crash. Of course you look. Everyone looks. The internet interprets behavior like this to mean everyone is asking for car crashes, so it tries to supply them."
It soon becomes clear that Williams is not talking about the global system of interconnected networks that is "the internet," rather the news and social media apps that rely on it. Specifically Facebook and Twitter.
It's interesting to reflect on why "the internet is broken" makes for a great soundbite at this point in history. The truth is Facebook and Twitter are becoming increasingly intertwined with our everyday experiences of the internet.
Ovum forecasts that Facebook will have 2.1 billion monthly active users (MAUs) by the end of this year – equal to three out of five internet users. And for some consumers in emerging markets, Facebook is the internet, thanks in part to its efforts to partner with mobile operators to offer free access to its apps. Twitter has fewer MAUs, at around 300 million, and a smaller share of digital advertising revenues, but it is integral to how news is generated and shared.
In other words, it's becoming harder to imagine an internet without Facebook and Twitter.
Williams hopes that his latest digital publishing start-up, Medium, will encourage more civilized and thoughtful debate. And the NYT article does a very good job of highlighting the challenges Medium faces in making his vision commercially viable.
A further argument against is more fundamental. This theory, so vividly articulated by Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror, posits that smartphones, social networks, and other forms of digital technology merely reflect human nature, both good and bad (but mostly bad, in the case of Brooker's sci-fi TV series).
It's a modern twist on the age-old excuse of the cynical gutter press: "We're just giving readers what they want."
But can we imagine a world with a "better internet" (to hijack Williams's phrase)? Let's try three scenarios:
Of the above scenarios, I'm least confident about the first. Why? Because mechanisms to "reward extremes," to quote Williams, are part of the DNA of Facebook and Twitter.
But such mechanisms are not in the internet's DNA. Yes, Facebook and Twitter will remain major players, but at least part of the future will belong to born-safe start-ups that can imagine more friendly places for consumers to be.
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