Rabbit Holes

Happy birthday to the World Wide Web; direct democracy on Mars; and more.


  • The World Wide Web is 29 years old today, and its inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has this message up to mark the occasion: “How do we get the other half of the world connected? Are we sure the rest of the world wants to connect to the web we have today?”

  • Key quote:

    The web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today. What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared. These dominant platforms are able to lock in their position by creating barriers for competitors. They acquire startup challengers, buy up new innovations and hire the industry’s top talent. Add to this the competitive advantage that their user data gives them and we can expect the next 20 years to be far less innovative than the last. What’s more, the fact that power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponise the web at scale. In recent years, we’ve seen conspiracy theories trend on social media platforms, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts stoke social tensions, external actors interfere in elections, and criminals steal troves of personal data.

     

  • What kind of web do we have today? “YouTube leads viewers down a rabbit hole of extremism, while Google racks up the ad sales.” That’s our friend, technosociologist Zeynep Tufekci, amplifying her critique of YouTube’s recommended videos algorithm in her latest New York Times op-ed. Her own anecdotal observations are backed up by a former Google engineer named Guillaume Chaslot, whose own tracking of YouTube’s algorithm has found that it has a strong tendency towards incendiary content, and during 2016 it was many more times likely to recommend pro-Trump videos than pro-Clinton videos, no matter which candidate’s videos you started with.

  • Tufekci’s Twitter is now full of examples illustrating her point. Historian Laim Hogan reports searching for a video on the history of slavery, watching a serious academic talk, and then “The next video queued up to autoplay was a discussion of ‘white slavery’ by two Holocaust deniers.

  • A new Gallup poll finds that Americans (58 percent) are more worried about technology’s threat to their jobs than immigration and offshoring (42 percent).

  • Just 11 percent of American adults say they don’t use the internet, and they are especially people over 65, rural, and with less than a high school education, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. Only 2 percent of 18-29-year-olds say they don’t use the net.

  • One of those 18-year-olds, Emma González of Parkland, Florida, was an Internet user, but didn’t know how to use Twitter when her name started trending after she gave a powerful speech about gun control in the aftermath of the shootings at her high school, Jonah Engel Bromwich reports for The New York Times. Now she has 1.2 million followers.

  • Must read: González in her own words.

  • Facebook’s ongoing refusal to share data on how information moves across its individual users’ pages is stymying researchers’ efforts to better understand, and combat, the ways that misinformation gets spread via the platform, Marc Scott writes for Politico.

  • Elon Musk told an audience at South by Southwest that his Mars colony will be a direct democracy, “where everyone votes on every issue.” He added,”Mars will need everything from iron foundries to pizza joints to night clubs. Mars should really have great bars,” according to Natalie Jarvey of the Hollywood Reporter. But no unions, right Elon?

  • Deep thoughts to ponder: Faced with the newest effort to change tech’s direction (the Center for Humane Technology), Michael Sacasas writes, “all efforts to apply ethics to technology or to envision a more humane technology will flounder because there is no robust public consensus about either human flourishing or ethical norms.”

  • Congrats! Canada’s Digital Service has hired its first CEO, Aaron Snow, who was previously co-founder and executive director of 18F under President Obama.