Is the Internet Broken, or are We Broken?

I read this recent quote from an article about Ev Williams this week and something seemed oddly familiar about it:

The trouble with the internet, Mr. Williams says, is that it rewards extremes. 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.

His goal is to break this pattern. “If I learn that every time I drive down this road I’m going to see more and more car crashes,” he says, “I’m going to take a different road.”

Now first, let’s admit that he’s right, we all stop to look at the internet version of a car crash, and the various social media and search algorithms interpret that to mean that we want to see more of that.

But isn’t that the same thing we used to say about television? Remember “If it’s bleeds, it leads?” What was that all about? It was about the fact that to attract viewers the networks showed us the car crashes that they knew we’d look at.

Flash forward and for all the new technologies and interactions that the internet has brought to us, and all the advanced algorithms end up back in the same place. “If it bleeds, the algorithm will make sure it leads”.

The internet is not the problem. The problem is that we continue to reward the people who show us car crashes. With all the things we could choose to pay attention to, we pay attention to the extremes. We reward extreme behaviors, and we reward extremists by giving them attention.

We complain about fake news and extremist political views, then click and share every crappy headline that fits with our own views, without checking to see if it’s true. We spend an inordinate amount of time giving trolls attention.

In Ev’s parlance, we don’t learn to take another road. We continue to turn around and look at the crashes again. That’s not the fault of the internet…

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