The internet was supposed to be the great leveller. A revolutionary new medium that would allow anyone, anywhere to share his views and opinions with the world. A medium that would lead to robust and civil discourse amongst the citizens of planet Earth, with people holding different viewpoints exchanging ideas and finding inspiration. It would spell the end of big companies, with “competition being only a click away”, and numerous promising startups hiding in garages everywhere, ready to burst onto the scene. With the cost of reproduction and distribution approaching zero, anyone could start a blog, be a journalist, be heard!
Now take another good look around you. Where is the internet that we were promised?
In response to this question, associate professor of media and public affairs Matthew Hindman is telling his readers not to hold their breath. Despite much belief and fervent wishing to the contrary, he strongly argues that the internet is not a level playing field. A handful of multinational firms have attained a virtual monopoly on digital audiences and online revenue (a virtual virtual monopoly?) With The Internet Trap, Hindman explores how we got here and what the impacts are on business, news, and politics.
Amidst all the books that I review on biology and related sciences, this book is perhaps an unusual choice. I hope my pen name speaks for itself. One of my favourite bloggers, Mark Manson, eloquently summarised my feelings on the impact of the internet with his post Everything Is Fucked and I’m Pretty Sure It’s the Internet’s Fault.
“There is serious money to be made in trying to monopolise that most precious of commodities: your time”
When I read about Hindman’s book, I was wondering what new views it would add. After all, in recent years there has been a veritable outpouring of distress and concern. Authors worry that the algorithms running the internet are isolating us in filter bubbles, exposing us only to views we already agree with (see The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You, but also the forthcoming critique Are Filter Bubbles Real?), are turning us into easily offended bigots (see Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another and Rage Inside the Machine: The Prejudice of Algorithms, and How to Stop the Internet Making Bigots of Us All), are eroding intelligent thought (see The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember and World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech), and are overwhelming us with too much of everything (see The Internet Trap: Five Costs of Living Online). Others decry the invasive character of both social media (see Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection) and new internet business models (see What’s Yours Is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy). In short, many authors are very concerned about what the internet is doing to us, the poor users. And this is where this book makes a novel and interesting contribution.
At its heart, this book all about what is called the attention economy. There is serious money to be made in trying to monopolise that most precious of commodities: your time. The epigraph to chapter 2, quoting former Facebook employee Jeff Hammerbacher, reads:
“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”
The main thrust of Hindman’s argument is that the ability of firms to attract users and retain their attention is what determines their survival online. And bigger firms can throw more of everything (money, manpower, and infrastructure) at achieving this aim. His descriptions of the data centres and other hardware that power online giants like Google should give pause to anyone who thinks that the internet makes things “free” or that infrastructure has become redundant just because information can be sent digitally. I found his point that Google’s facilities are “industrial mills, digital smelters refining not ore but information” a powerful comparison. The same economies of scale that apply to conventional industry are at play here.
Thus, through relentless software development and endless comparative testing of user experiences (so-called A/B testing), large firms such as Facebook and Google have edged out the competition. Smaller firms simply cannot compete and have progressively lost more and more of their online audience. The other big lesson to draw is that small differences (for example minuscule differences in a page’s loading time) matter when it comes to retaining your audience and compound over time. As Hindman points out, when that happens, they rapidly cease to be small differences. And, the author says, let us not forget switching costs: all of us are resistant to change. Once we have learned to use a certain website or software, we become locked-in and less likely and willing to try something new. Most of us will recognise the frustration of having to learn to use new software or upgrade to the latest version of our preferred operating system. (Hell, I stuck with Windows XP ten years past its use-by date.)
“Google’s facilities are “industrial mills, digital smelters refining not ore but information””
In the process, the big internet firms have become fiendishly effective at retaining our attention, at creating an-as-frictionless-as-possible online experience. To keep us mindlessly scrolling and clicking has been elevated to an art form and has become their raison d’être (see also The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads). It has gotten to the point where internet addiction is now a serious problem (see also Irresistible: Why You Are Addicted to Technology and How to Set Yourself Free). Something that, I think, is not sufficiently recognised, though calls for resistance have been issued (see for example Stand out of our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy and How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy). Maybe computers should come with a health warning? Or you may at least want to reconsider putting a smartphone or tablet in the hands of a young child who has yet to learn restraint.
The middle part of this book goes beyond merely verbally making these points. Hindman spends a chapter building a formal economic model of online content production, another chapter analysing a large dataset of web traffic that reveals some remarkable patterns, and two chapters on local news websites. This is where the book gets a bit more nitty-gritty, though without losing readability – technical details have been relegated to the appendix. The analysis of local news websites and the recommendations Hindman gives to strengthen local journalism are US-centric due to the source data used, but they will no doubt apply wider. I found these chapters “only” reasonably interesting, but that was really because the first few chapters made such convincing points and outshine this part of the book.
“[…] big digital firms have become fiendishly effective at retaining our attention, at creating an-as-frictionless-as-possible online experience”
In my opinion, The Internet Trap is a smart and opinionated argument that, as Hindman points out a few times, goes against much established internet scholarship. It runs counter to frequently aired opinions, even those of industry-insiders such as aforementioned quote by Google’s Larry Page that the “competition is only a click away” (see also 21 Digital Myths: Reality Distortion Antidote). Encouragingly, Hindman is not afraid to openly admit his own past mistakes in that context, such as his claim from The Myth of Digital Democracy that “the internet is reducing the cost structure of media firms and content producers: it lowers the cost of distribution”. Any author who will go on record to admit he was wrong goes up a few notches in my estimation. If, like me, you are sometimes concerned with the concentration of online power in the hands of just a few large monopolies, how this affects us all, or wonder how we got here, this book is highly recommended and sure to provide food for thought.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
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