In the early 2000’s, messenger apps such as ICQ, IRC, Yahoo Chat and MSN Messenger connected people in ways that were previously unthinkable. For a society limited to phone calls or, shudder, actual hand-written letters, messaging a stranger or a friend separated by miles of distance was absolutely revelatory. IRC especially was an acutely hidden underground network of chat channels and communities, stretching into the very earth of the internet like winding never-ending caves, and your own discovery hinged on your own bravery, your own desire to dig deeper. Those early days of internet chat was a true wild west – just as likely to see the worst as you were to see the best, to form unbreakable bonds with people you’ve never seen before or to risk the unknown and witness true human depravity. Being involved with the internet at this time, in retrospect, feels almost romantic, especially with what this beast eventually became.
This December saw an, unfortunately, historic vote by the FCC to repeal Net Neutrality laws, laws only 2 years old that enshrined a level financial playing field for all users of the internet, from businesses to lowly social media peons – you wouldn’t be taken advantage of as long as Net Neutrality was there to make sure everyone played fair. Now, with those laws in direct threat of being broken down, the only thing preventing human greed from trampling on the breathless freedom of the internet is human nature’s own penchant for greed. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is adamant that the repealing of Net Neutrality won’t harm how we use the internet, but all you need is a history book and no time at all to find that human greed is as natural as oxygen and water – it’s in our blood.
Ajit is partially correct – it isn’t necessarily the end of it all. This is not the nuclear annihilation some people almost wish it was – it doesn’t have to go down that way. We, as humans, just have to work harder to maintain fairness and equality in our browsing habits. Well, if you know anything about the human race, you’ll know we’ve got our work cut out. But isn’t it also true that the Net Neutrality laws are only two years old? That’s correct. There was nothing stopping huge conglomerates from seizing the internet two years ago, and they never did. Theoretically, you might think that it won’t happen now. It’s hard to say for sure, but what we can say is those same conglomerates might not have seized control, but they definitely wished they did.
Early on in the internets lifecycle, the US Navy was tasked with creating a form of encryption for data transmitted across the internet so they can communicate from point A to point B, without points C, D, E and F from seeing their silent whispers. This encryption technology forms the basis of internet encryption used everywhere and the US Government would love to have it all for themselves… But they can’t. Nowadays, encryption is nothing more than an Onion Router application download away and it might be slow as hell, but no one will see all those sex stories you’re sending to your loved one at night except point A and point B. That this technology was going to be held from the grasp of the public, that this huge global superpower wanted to leverage this new internet thingymajig for their own ends probably doesn’t surprise you, but it’s just the beginnings of a long slide into a loss of control for the average internet user.
And it wasn’t just the governments either. It was those cool college kids that made social networking so huge. If only they knew then what horrible monster they were brewing in their labs – what began as a cute experiment to keep in touch with friends has become an algorithm-driven popularity contest. A one-legged egg-and-spoon race for likes, views and comments has spawned a monstrous culture of all-eyes-on-me attention seeking. Not only does social media abuse the human’s natural predilection for loud noises and flashing colours, it outright preys upon it. Social media, especially in 2017, is much less about keeping in touch with old pals and more about burning all of our neighbours to the ground for seemingly innocuous infractions. When you weaponize your morality with the incendiary fire of social media, something truly scary and Lovecraftian happens. Whole communities of torch-wielding Cthulhu fascism reigns supreme, where victims are villains, and villains are victims and right, wrong and truth becomes a footnote to histrionic bellowing. Pretty soon, complicated issues that demand intense debate and serious intellectual hand-wringing are reduced to demeaning us-vs-them rhetoric. It might be easier than ever to say hello to your buddy, but they might not hear you over the ravenous screaming.
Youtube, too, sought to empower the individual once upon a time. It put the average person in front of a camera and made them superstars overnight. It made passion projects resonate with hidden crowds of needy fans that were, until 10 years ago, kept completely in the dark. But as with anything in life, with great power comes almost no understanding of responsibility. Whether it’s with meme videos, lifestyle bloggers, fashion guru’s or passionate gamers, YouTube quickly became a hobbyists first port of call for news, information and analysis on your favourite hobby. It embarrassed the traditional TV schedule culture by giving you endless content at the drop of a hat. It gave rise to online streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu and helped kill off an industry that was already out-dated before the internet even existed. But with increasing corporate interest in YouTube, the advertising-funded platform has been forced to curate it’s content to a nigh-on cancerous degree. The so-called ad-pocalypse is born partially from necessity, and partially from the corporate mega-conglomerates twisting the screws at Youtube HQ to drive internet traffic towards their gigantic eldritch gaze. Those willing to colour in between the lines and remain smiley, happy brand ambassadors remain untouched by this viral disease but the academic analysis that made the platform so special is now having to rely on Patreon pledges and viewer funding to stay afloat.
The truth is – the internet has always slowly been going the way of complete control. Empowering every human on the planet with the power of instantaneous, borderless communication was, for the establishment, too powerful a tool not to take advantage of. And while it may have helped topple awful regimes in the middle east, it’s only emboldened fascism here in the west and its algorithm-driven war on culture has created a beast that demonizes the outsider, a beast that boils down the world into bleak ones-and-zeroes and a beast that we may not be able to contain until it destructively implodes on itself. Average Joe’s who may have been empowered to become full-time hobbyists are now at the behest corporate paymasters who demand their protection money by way of advertising and marketing. Now, the FCC has come for your net neutrality, and while it’s not the final nail in the coffin, it’s certainly getting close. Relying on human goodwill to maintain the balance of the internet is a mistake waiting to buckle and break – we needed net neutrality for a reason. Because without it, the combined influences of consumerism and social media mean we can’t rely on ourselves to be fair.