Evan Williams is broken


The internet is not broken.  As an infrastructure it is probably more robust than ever.

What could be regarded as deficient are attitudes and expectations by internet business owners.  And maybe the inability or unwillingness of journalists to apply critical analysis to the tech hype they repeat so credulously, like stenographers rather than reporters.  To be real journalists they would have to be able to say openly what a sham most of the tech company valuations are.  And that’s Strengstens Verboten!

Twitter co-founder and Medium wunderkind Evan Williams is either a cretin or deliberately lying to suggest the internet is broken, the way he is quoted by the New York Times’s David Streitfeld, who, incredibly, doesn’t follow up to ask what the hell that means.

People are using Facebook to showcase suicides, beatings and murder, in real time. Twitter is a hive of trolling and abuse that it seems unable to stop. Fake news, whether created for ideology or profit, runs rampant. Four out of 10 adult internet users said in a Pew survey that they had been harassed online. And that was before the presidential campaign heated up last year.

“I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Mr. Williams says. “I was wrong about that.”

How much of this is astonishingly credulous naïveté, and how much is bone-headed ignorance about the society Streitfeld and Williams live in?  The train of thought behind this lament runs something like this: America is the greatest nation on Earth > America is a democracy > democracy is greatness > better democracy is more people having a say.  It takes education and some maturity to understand that every statement in that chain of unreason is simple-minded nonsense.

Leaving aside American exceptionalism, the USA, like all other Western liberal democracies, was never a pure democracy: there are filters to trim popular will via a representative system; a restraint on power represented by bicameral legislatures; checks and balances by making the executive, legislature, and judiciary independent of each other; and a now abandoned notion of noblesse oblige, which should make public service honourable for the powerful who mobilise its offices.

That these filters, checks, and balances are all visibly failing in the USA is shamefully footnoted in a 2016 Economist Intelligence Unit report that has it slipping from a full democracy to a flawed one ‘because of a further erosion of trust in government and elected officials there’.  I wonder what the 2017 report will say.

Designing social media with no filters, checks and balances, and no concept of just how quickly an unregulated society becomes the kingdom of the flies was always going to expose the inevitable anarchy that underlies the Randian libertarianism US technology entrepreneurs built into their software.  Not because they have sincere political beliefs, but because the infantile selfishness of this brand of libertarianism is easier to conflate with a fantasy world of algorithmic purity than trying to understand politics as it is practiced in the real world.

Could there be a worse possible design foundation?  Oh yes there could.  And American internet corporations found it: let everyone do anything they want anonymously. Now we have the unrestrained id of Randian toddler terrorism without consequence.

When Twitter was founded in 2006, the internet was hardly new, though the tsunami of casual internet use made possible by mobile phones was still a couple of years away (the iPhone debuted in June 2007).  Williams should have been able to understand even then what would transpire on an open network permitting anonymous users to shout at the world on any subject without any restraint.

It isn’t the internet that’s broken.  It’s the education system that created Williams that deserves a long hard look for failing to equip him with the understandings that would permit him to act as a responsible adult in civil society.  An education system that also created a book reviewer like Streitfeld, who manages to completely side-step the capacity in the USA to avoid personal responsibility as a root cause for whatever is ‘broken’.

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

Utter nonsense.  Commercial media models do that, but with their own checks and balances, called editorial policy and state regulation (where this hasn’t been dismantled by free marketeers).  Twitter was designed with zero checks and balances.  It was always going to be the domain of the lords of the flies.

Mr. Williams isn’t the only one trying to fix this mess, of course. If he and others can’t find a path forward, if they can’t solve what he calls “the architecture of content creation, distribution and monetization on the internet,” there are unsettling implications for the future of news and ideas.

Monetisation aside, if fixing the mess were really a priority, it could be fixed overnight: demand proof of real-world identity and make accepting real world consequences for online behaviours part of the terms of service.  That option was always open to all social media companies.  And ignored, for a variety of reasons that boil down to cowardice wrapped in faux civil liberties ideals about protecting people from persecution.  The bad news is that if people must resort to pseudonyms, they are already oppressed and persecuted.  One might also ask whether anonymity has prevented the now anonymous bullies from persecuting their anonymous victims.

What if social media companies themselves funded real-world prosecutions of online bullies?  Has that ever been tried?

As for how you make internet content aggregation pay, like everything else that is profitable you must offer something of value.  That means reducing, not increasing the maelstrom of crap people will pour into open platforms.  It means gatekeeping and elitism.  It means actually paying people for content – if it’s worth paying for.

And if Williams really wants to avoid advertising models, it means inventing some other form of exchanging value between contributors, consumers, and the platform proprietor.  That’s hard.  No one else has done it without selling user data on the sly.  But that’s a separate issue from the ‘broken’ theme.

The bottom line is that you can’t have a children’s playground unattended by responsible adults and expect all the kids to play nicely with each other.  That doesn’t even happen in the most scrutinised domains of adult interaction.

If his vision was clear — get rid of the gatekeepers and let people talk — the road was not.

Is that a polite way of describing a juvenile failure of judgement?

President Trump has said he believes Twitter put him in the White House. Recently, Mr. Williams heard the claim for the first time. He mulled it over for a bit, sitting in his Medium office, which is noteworthy only for not having a desk.

“It’s a very bad thing, Twitter’s role in that,” he said finally. “If it’s true that he wouldn’t be president if it weren’t for Twitter, then yeah, I’m sorry.”

Is there a more dignified way of saying: ‘Well, duuh!’?

“The problem is that not everyone is going to be cool, because humans are humans,” he says. “There’s a lock on our office door and our homes at night. The internet was started without the expectation that we’d have to do that online.”

It would be hard to invent dialogue like that to illustrate someone as an A-grade dipshit.  The internet was started with the full expectation that the world would be annihilated by nuclear war.  Only idiots could come to Williams’s bafflingly childish conclusion.

“I think we will fix these things,” Mr. Williams says. Just don’t hold your breath. The work has barely begun, he says. “Twenty years isn’t very long to change how society works.”

No you won’t, sonny Jim.  To fix how society works you need to engage with it rather than building idealised abstractions of it that function to alienate users from everything that is actually social.

Streitfeld devotes significant word count exploring Williams’s Medium foray, but without really adding anything to the ‘broken’ theme, except, perhaps, that Williams is still making a career of not knowing how to fix whatever needs fixing.

How Medium can be worth $600 million, without a visible revenue stream not based on advertising, escapes me.  Worse, why did Streitfeld never explore that question?  Maybe the Gray Lady ought to restrict him to literary critique, where questions about reality aren’t de rigueur.


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