October 13, 2019

The Internet Is Too Darn Big

“One of my fondest memories of the internet involves me sitting alone in a neighborhood restaurant, watching the snow fall. It was a Friday evening and I was feeling lonely, so I tweeted about it. Then two friends, Tim and Robin, people I hadn’t even met at that point, “kept me company” as I ate alone, chatting with me on Twitter while the snow fell.

Such memories feel almost anachronistic now. Small, quiet, moments of intimacy seem out of step with the massive machine that is the contemporary social web. Yet strangely, it’s the very size of networks like Facebook and Twitter that facilitates the rare intimacies that still emerge. Without the internet, I’d never have friends thousands of miles away, or connect with family scattered across the globe. Sheer scale is also what allows the internet to be such an enormous repository of information: The fact that you can look up almost any topic on Wikipedia or YouTube is a function of just how many people use and collectively contribute to those platforms.

Digital companies, lacking a clear business model, followed the Google ideal and simply scaled up and figured out an ad-based business after the fact that was sustained by how many eyeballs were captured. That size then led to a series of benefits: reach, a more democratic or meritocratic set of ideals, and the ability for people across the globe to connect. Alas, that scale then became the root cause of all the ills of the web. This is an odd paradox. It seems worth asking: Is the internet today simply too big?”

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