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10 Depressing Reasons The Internet Is Destroying Itself
Since you’re here, you probably agree the Internet is a pretty awesome place. It’s given us e-mail, memes, videos of cats playing piano, and more amazing lists than you can shake a proverbial stick at. It’s also freed up information and helped topple dictatorships. Not bad for something once dismissed as a passing fad.
But there are storm clouds gathering on the online horizon. Halfway through the second decade of the 21st century, it’s starting to look like our sunny utopia won’t last much longer. Across the world, cultural trends, governments, and corporations are uniting to suck what joy is left from the Internet, leaving it a shell of its former self.
10Outrage Is Becoming The Default Setting
When was the last time you got really, really angry over something online? Don’t worry, we won’t judge. Getting outraged on the Internet has been a national pastime since the invention of Twitter. Only back then, we used to get worked up over racist politicians and horrible videos of people stomping cats. Today, we hit the roof over literally anything.
Last year, Slate decided to monitor the spread of outrage across the whole of 2014. Their analysis makes for some eye-opening reading. While plenty of us took time to get angry over the situation in Syria or net neutrality laws, plenty more of us got worked up over absolutely nothing. A dumb magazine cover carried the same weight as the riots in Ferguson. An Irish pub banning “loud Americans” triggered the same fury as Russia’s human rights clampdown in Sochi. Anti-racists tried to get Stephen Colbert fired because he made an anti-racist joke. In 2014, outrage wasn’t just out of control. It was counterproductive.
That’s before we get into Gamergate. Although it started life as a genuine battle over women’s rights and bias in games journalism, before long it morphed into something much uglier. TechCrunch claimed most of those involved by the end didn’t care about anything other than getting a rise out of people. In a thoughtful piece, they argued this is the likely future of Internet debates: a bunch of trolls using outrage simply as a way to sow chaos. With Slate estimating that not a single day went by in 2014 without an Internet lynch mob forming, this is only likely to get worse.
9It Pays To Be A Jerk
One of the reasons it’s so easy to get outraged is because there’s a lot to get outraged about. Go look around on any decently sized website, and you’ll eventually stumble across a headline or think piece so obviously objectionable, you’ll wonder why it ever got published. There’s a very simple reason for this. On today’s Internet, it pays to be a jerk.
We should be clear that being a jerk doesn’t simply mean having an opinion. Guys like Glenn Greenwald and Rush Limbaugh are at least passionate about something. They care about what they’re saying, even if they present it in a blunt way. Heck, we’ve even run controversial think pieces here on Listverse. What’s changed in the last couple of years is you no longer even need an opinion to get the hate clicks in. You simply need to be hateable.
Last month, Cracked.com ran a column by a writer who gets paid just to be a jerk. By his own account, the guy is now both rich and highly sought-after, simply for his ability to push all of your buttons. It’s basic trolling, devoid of any greater passion, and it’s the easiest way to make money online today.
Thanks to a reaction writer Helen Jane calls “flank biting,” we often try to relieve boredom at work by reading stuff that makes us mad. This drives up the clicks on hateable articles, resulting in websites commissioning more and more of them, until you reach a point where writers can’t afford to produce nonabrasive work even if they wanted to. Unless we all change our reading habits fast, this problem isn’t going to go away.
8Bots Outnumber People
Imagine living in a city where robots vastly outnumber people. Now imagine a quarter of those robots are programmed to do nothing more than attack and rob every single human they pass. How safe would you feel? Because that’s exactly what the modern Internet has become.
The year 2014 marked the first time in history that bots outnumbered people online. On Amazon’s cloud servers, bots make up a staggering 78 percent of traffic. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. Bots allow Google to return useful results instead of pages of spam sites. They keep your Facebook news feed going and generally hold the Internet together. Unfortunately, as the use of regular bots has grown, so has the use of malicious bots. Like some dystopian sci-fi film, 23 percent of bots now want to steal your credit card information, get into your e-mail, or just screw your online experience up. And their numbers are growing.
On some websites, over a third of traffic is now malicious bots. After barely registering in 2013, they’re now swarming over mobile devices. Thanks to large corporations like Amazon and T-Mobile using setups that are crying out to be abused, doing anything online is becoming increasingly tiresome for those of us who value our privacy and bank accounts. Unless large websites start doing more to improve security, bad bots are going to become a very real problem.
7Governments Are Destroying Internet Security
You may remember the fuss about the NSA installing “backdoors” into all methods of electronic communication. This would mean no message could be sent online that couldn’t be read, and no activity undertaken that couldn’t be monitored. While there are worthwhile debates to be had about privacy versus security, there’s a greater risk. Installing backdoors would completely compromise the security of the Internet.
The moment a door is opened in a company’s encryption, it can’t be closed again. Anyone can use it, provided they have the know-how. There is no ‘golden key’ only the good guys can use. This means gangsters, terrorist, thieves, and malicious hackers can all access your encrypted information. In other words, the minute Apple sticks a backdoor in their code, your passwords, PayPal, and credit card information are available for anyone to use.
Currently, many governments are planning to utilize these backdoors on a large scale. Under David Cameron, the UK is at the forefront of this. If plans go ahead, they would make any transaction carried out online in the UK extremely vulnerable to hacking. Imagine an Internet where buying anything, sending anything, or downloading anything might result in your bank account being emptied and your security compromised. Unless governments wise up, that might be the Internet we’ll soon be getting.
6Corporations Are Creating Absurd Monopolies
Ever since it first took off, the Internet has had a habit of creating monopolies. Google is now so big that it controls 90 percent of the search market in Europe and has been accused by the EU of breaking antitrust laws. If Facebook was a country, it would be the largest on Earth. But while such monopolies have been around for a while, it’s only now that they’re finally threatening to destroy the Internet.
You’ve probably heard of the net neutrality law signed by the FCC. Passed in the face of stiff opposition, the law ensures the Internet doesn’t become like a toll road—with one fast lane for the rich and a traffic-clogged dirt track for the rest of us. Broadband giants Comcast and AT&T are already working their hardest to rip the law to shreds. AT&T is bullying the government to let them expand their monopoly in return for abiding by the law “for a few years,” while still planning to sue the FCC. Comcast has been caught astroturfing the issue (creating a fake grassroots movement that champions a cause). Both companies seem pretty confident they’ll get the new law overturned before the decade’s out.
Broadband monopolies are already so bad in the US that 30 percent of households only have one choice of provider. This has resulted in some of the worst Internet infrastructure in the developed world. The providers are also getting away with gangster-like behavior: forcing streaming providers to pay extra to ensure their films play properly across their network. Unless someone steps in to curb their power soon, you can bet net neutrality as a concept will be over.
5Everyone Is Using DDoS Attacks
Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks are the quickest and easiest way to knock a website offline. A few years ago, they were largely associated with kids on 4Chan and Russia getting even with its frenemies. They were annoying but rare enough to still make the news when they happened. Fast-forward to 2015, and just about everyone is using them, all the time.
Akamai Technologies’ last State of the Internet report discovered that DDoS attacks had gone haywire by the end of 2014. Attacks had risen 90 percent from the end of 2013, and 57 percent from mid-2014. Now, 28 such attacks happen every single hour, with the problem almost certainly set to grow over the coming 12 months. Far from being evidence that hacktivists are growing in number, it is evidence that people are now using DDoS for the stupidest of reasons.
In a recent article, BBC Future reported on two day spas using DDoS attacks to try and hurt each other’s business. Across the world, companies and governments are unleashing them on their rivals like they’re acceptable business practice. As launching a DDoS attack gets ever easier, we’re likely to see more and more people using them for asinine purposes.
4Everyone Is Astroturfing
As we mentioned earlier, astroturfing is when a corporation or government creates a fake “grassroots” movement to give the impression ordinary people agree with their goals. It’s been used by countries like Russia and China for a long, long time, but now it’s hitting the mainstream. In the past five years, everyone has become an astroturfer.
Last year, the NFL set up an astroturfing website called Protect Football on Free TV. It managed to rope in thousands of people, despite advocating a policy that was clearly detrimental to football fans (and lucrative for the NFL). EA Games has been accused of doing something similar with paid-for Reddit accounts, and the billionaire Koch brothers tried their best to do the same with the net neutrality bill.
This explosion of astroturfing is ruining Internet debate. Real people start getting drowned out in comments sections and forums, as fake or paid-for personalities distort the debate. This makes it impossible to either have an honest discussion or read someone else’s opinion without being sure if they’re deliberately trying to influence you. The scary part is: It works. As we’ve mentioned before, being exposed to astroturfing can cause you to lose all confidence in previously held beliefs.
3‘Free’ Apps Are Screwing Us
Most of us are probably aware that free apps are too good to be true. We know they mine our data and sell our details on to bigger companies. But that’s not all they do. Plenty of your favorite free apps are seemingly out to destroy you.
Take Hola Unblocker. A free plug-in that allows you to get around location restrictions—like watching US Netflix in the UK, for example—Hola is used by millions worldwide. They fund this by selling your bandwidth to companies without telling you. This means anyone with the money can use your IP address to do anything they like, from downloading child porn to arranging drug deals. Even scarier, downloading Hola gives the company the ability to install and run anything on your computer without telling you, while also bypassing your virus checker.
That’s just one example. Maybe the only free plug-in you use is AdBlockPlus, to get rid of all those annoying auto-play videos. Well, it recently came to light that ABP was selling companies the option to get around their software. This means not only do you still see ads, but ABP is running itself like an old-school mob protection racket.
Other apps like Instagram and Four Square leak so much data about you into the ether that any follower can spy on you with ease, pinpointing your exact location. They may claim they’re free, but we’re paying for them in other ways.
2Unpaid Content Is Clogging Up The Internet With Nonsense
Have you ever gone online and found yourself wading through a swamp of badly written copy-paste articles? Have you ever wondered where it all comes from? It’s not bloggers you want to blame. It’s the content farms paying their writers zilch for their effort.
We’ve mentioned before how this business model is bad for writers, but it’s terrible for everyone else, too. Content farms and websites like Bleacher Report dazzle wannabe writers with promises of “exposure” and “likes.” Instead of being paid in money, you’ll get paid in experience. Even better, if you can command a certain number of clicks or produce a certain number of articles, you might get a shot at a paid job.
That last bit’s important, because it provides an incentive for writers to produce as much work as they can, as quickly as they can, getting the maximum number of clicks. This means controversial headlines, ideas ripped from similar websites, or outright plagiarism. And it means variations on those articles getting posted again, and again, and again, until the Internet is so awash with junk as to be basically worthless.
But that only affects the lower-tier websites, right? Unfortunately not. Respected outlets like the Guardian‘s Australian division have been accused of exploiting freelancers, and unpaid or low-paid gigs are becoming the norm even for seasoned pros.
More to the point, a website that pays nothing for its content and gets lots of hits clearly has a more lucrative business model than one that pays its journalists to take on a long story. So you get a situation where respected editors can’t fund in-depth pieces or have to produce crappy clickbait alongside their serious stuff to do so. Meanwhile, young writers look at the salaries on offer to journalists and go into PR instead, leading to a future dearth of decent articles.
1It’s Not Too Late To Change
After all that doom and gloom, it might be tempting to think the Internet is well and truly screwed. Well, here’s the uplifting part: It’s really not. Sure, some stuff like astroturfing and DDoS attacks will probably just keep on getting worse. But the Internet has shown time and time again that it can defy our worst expectations and change things for the better.
Take net neutrality. At one point, it looked like a foregone conclusion that AT&T and Comcast would get their way. Then activism took hold. Websites blacked out their front pages. People got involved. In 2015, net neutrality was written into law by the FCC. As we reported above, large companies are still sure it won’t last (and it’s very possible it won’t). However, if the history of this battle shows us anything, it’s that getting involved can make a real difference. And the Internet has proven remarkably good at undercutting the expectations of big companies.
As for the rest of it—well, we can stop clicking on things that will make us mad. We can support quality content by avoiding Bleacher Report like the plague and sharing articles we like as much as possible. We can get wise with our apps, petition our governments to stop this backdoor nonsense, and try to get mad a little less.
Because that’s the great thing about the Internet: It empowers us to do so much. Maybe we can take that power and use it to make the online world a better place for everyone. It’s got to be better than leaping on Twitter to rage over a Stephen Colbert joke, right?