Essays on Technology and Culture

The Anti-Social Web

The web has become noisier and noisier of late, with the constant chatter of its denizens. Not just the din of ads, trackers, and signup forms, which can be avoided with minimal effort, but with “social” interactions. Not just our streams, like Facebook and Twitter, but on social aggregators, news sites, anywhere that needs people to come, and people to stay. Social is the glue on the flypaper of the modern web, and the flies will not stop buzzing.

Why is “social” so prevalent? It’s easy, it’s cheap—if you don’t want to bother with moderation—and it’s effective. More clicks, more impressions, more ad views, more metrics: social is an easy way to get it. The voices of friends and strangers alike cry out into a din, filling the Internet, that void that cannot be filled, with endless noise.

I want out.

Part of why is because too many of the voices you can make out above the din are those of anger, violence, racism and sexism, transphobia, and hatred of all kinds. They drown out the good voices, the voices of kindness, understanding, acceptance, and support. And, worst, the people running the sites, setting out the flypaper for us to land on, they don’t see this as a problem. To them, the noise is just noise, a sign that people are coming and people are staying. Sure, if someone gets too loud, too obnoxious, does something truly beyond the pale, they get a smack down, but this happens all too rarely.

I find myself seeking places of calm online, or making them myself with clever hacks from other people just as fed up as I am. There is a wonderful browser extension called “Shut Up” that hides comment sections on websites, so that when you hit the bottom of an article, you don’t have to see someone screaming vitriol into your face. A clever programmer recently found a way to create a fake comment section where the only comments a user sees are their own. You, the site owner, see nothing.

This isn’t to say I want to become a digital hermit. We all, even the introverts, need some human contact in our lives. There are some wonderful oases on the social web. If only they weren’t enmeshed between the garbage fires. It just seems like there’s more garbage fires than oases these days. Fourteen years ago, I met the love of my life on a message board for a now defunct humor website. The web was different then, less interconnected and more siloed. There’s always been a social component to the Internet, but it happened at a slower, quieter pace. You could negotiate it on your terms.

There’s an idea, now twenty years old, of calm technology, “in which technology, rather than panicking us, would help us focus on the things that were really important to us.” A more recent manifestation is “The Slow Web”. Neither have gained much traction, largely because calm and slow isn’t the sort of thing that gets the big VC bucks. The current social web, and its constant demands, constant clamoring, and constant conflict, is the opposite of calm technology. Part of it is a function of volume in that there’s more people using the Internet and its social spaces now than ever before, and we’re still navigating the societal changes that come when everyone has a megaphone. I’m sure it’ll shake out in time, but that doesn’t mean we all have to be standing in the middle of it.