For better or for worse, if you’re reading this, you’re participating in a vast sociological experiment.
It’s easy to forget—or never realize in the first place—that the internet, or more accurately the web interface built on the internet infrastructure, is the world’s first true mass communication channel. Sure, television, radio, newspapers, and books played similar roles as tools to distribute media content from producers to audiences. But the pre-web media world’s relatively rigid relationships between producers and audiences gave broadcasters and print publishers far more top-down power to sway public opinion. The internet’s participatory design profoundly warped this old limited-feedback model. With increased competition, audiences get more options. And with every click, stream, and purchase, they’ve begun to shape what’s clicked on, streamed, and purchased by others. They’ve even become producers themselves. It’s a revolution in mass communication: Instead of the media controlling the masses, the masses now control the media.
So what does the social experiment that is the internet tell us about us?
The landscape of the web is an unimaginably vast collection of shared ideas and information that is expanding at a dizzying rate. In 1994 there were about 3,000 live websites. Today, there are more than 1 billion.
The astronomical growth of the web is thanks in large part to the founding principles that governed the small collective of computer science pioneers who developed the structures that grew into the modern internet. From the birth of ARPANet in the 1960s, the culture of networked communication platform development was inextricably tied to support for an open exchange of information. For the whole thing to work, people needed to link computers to one another, create a common language for them to communicate, and develop a standard information management system for them to access. By the early ’90s, when all of the components for what could become the World Wide Web were in place, the major players of the time solidified this culture of open exchange. The first public website, launched by Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 1991, not only explained the basics of the World Wide Web, but also provided instructions for how individuals could set up their own servers and share information. A few years later, the European organization he developed the project under made the astounding decision to relinquish “all intellectual property rights to this code, both source and binary and permission is given to anyone to use, duplicate, modify and distribute it.” The building blocks of the World Wide Web were released to the public domain, opening the world’s largest sandbox to a multitude of eager builders.
The sheer volume of content people now create, publish, and share through the internet is staggering. Each day more than 95 million photos and videos are shared on Instagram. Each hour 250 million new posts are published on Facebook. Each minute 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube. And every second Google processes an average of 40,000 search queries.
And the masses are not only contributing content—they’re determining what gets prioritized among the information overload. That’s because the browsing process itself is largely controlled by internet users’ collective actions. For example, Google’s complex algorithm, which determines which pages are presented in response to a search term, is heavily weighted to consider factors such as user engagement with site content, the number and quality of inbound links, and relevance to content of a user’s search query. In other words, the more people click over to a website or refer to it on their own pages, the higher up in the search results it appears. The trillions of microactions performed by the billions of users of the web at any given time play a major role in determining the browsing experience of each individual Google user.
There are other important ways in which the knowledge and experiences of our peers shape our use of the internet. To illustrate this social nature of navigation, I used my search history to reconstruct a recent online shopping process I went through to find a birthday gift for my 2-year-old niece. I started by Googling the search terms “gift ideas for toddlers.” The first page of search results—an important ranking since fewer than 10 percent of Google users bother to click through to the second page—included links to Pinterest boards featuring user-generated collections of toddler toys, a recent article on educational gifts for young children from a South Dakota newspaper, a blog post listing gift ideas organized by age and interests, and a 2008 Good Housekeeping article with a title that exactly matched the wording in my original query.
After collecting gift ideas from these Google search results, I went to Amazon, the internet retail behemoth that accounted for more than $107 billion in sales in 2015. There, my online shopping experience was informed by thousands of customer reviews, comments, and purchase histories that influenced how the products were ranked and presented on the site. After finally deciding on a collection of art supplies—a kit of finger paints and colored pom-poms—Amazon suggested that an extra paper pad and an ergonomic paintbrush were “frequently bought” with my selection, so I ordered those, too.
Although mediated by for-profit internet giants Amazon and Google, every aspect of my online shopping experience was influenced by the activities of other internet users. User clicks and purchases determined which websites and items I saw. User-generated content filled the pages I used to research gift ideas. Users from the online parenting community curated the Pinterest boards I browsed. And user reviews and recommendations on Amazon guided my purchasing choices.
This example, mundane as it may be, speaks to much larger issues of how human behavior and information technology intersect. As Berners-Lee described 25 years after launching the first public website, our participatory power has made the internet “an incredibly intimate reflection of our interests, priorities, disagreements and values.” The amalgamated mass of individual ideas shapes the collective experiences of all other users.
So the question is: How can we shape the internet of tomorrow into something we want?
The modern internet is far from the cyber utopia envisioned by early digital pioneers. The web is a continually evolving expression of shared humanity, rife with the same issues and power struggles that influence all our lives. Every snap, click, post, and share is an implicit vote of support for the material being shared and distributed.
Users have unprecedented control over media production and consumption, but with that comes shared responsibility. On the internet, attention is currency. The time we spend when we log on—the websites we view, posts we share, reviews we write, and platforms we use—shape the web of the future.
Internet pioneers fought for the principles of open access and shared control because they believed that by working together, people could build something amazing. Every time we choose to use the web to indulge and nurture the worst in ourselves by stoking anger, exploiting the weak, or fostering misinformation and ignorance, we flout the foundational principles of the web.
To shape the web of tomorrow, we must take responsibility for our actions today.
This article is part of the “Who Controls the Internet?” installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.