Who Killed the Hyperlink?

There is a story in the Quran about a group of Christians who escaped persecution by taking refuge in a cave. There they fell into a very long sleep which they thought only lasted a day or two. But it actually had lasted for centuries. When they woke they were obviously very hungry. It was only when they went down to the city to buy some food that they realized how much time had passed. When they wanted to pay, nobody accepted their money.

This is what happened to me in 2014, when I was freed from a six-year-long imprisonment in Tehran, over my web activism.

I had been a pioneer in tech journalism and blogging in Iran, and for that reason they came to call me the blogfather. I had many readers, friends — and of course enemies.

After I was freed, I realized that the currency we all used in those days had become obsolete. I’m talking about those blue underlined bits of text, where you could click and be transferred to another web page, to an unknown place, to another world. They were called hyperlinks.

I understood that most of the blogs I used to read were abandoned. The vibrant Persian blogosphere to which I had dedicated myself was a graveyard.

I started searching for bloggers and surprisingly enough, I found them all in a place called Facebook. In 2008, before I was arrested in Tehran, I thought of Facebook as a great place to keep in touch with new and old friends. To maintain a social network of the people I knew in person.

What happened during my absence was that Facebook had become a publishing platform as well as a social network. First, most readers of blogs moved to Facebook, and then authors had to follow.

Facebook is a closed publishing platform, something like a password-protected blog, which I always hated. It is also a very centralized and limiting one. You can’t host it on your own domain name, and you can’t change what it looks like.

But soon I discovered the main problem with Facebook is something deeper: it doesn’t like hyperlinks.

Let’s go back a little bit. The hyperlink was the foundation of Tim Berners-Lee’s invention, the world wide web. It was what made the web so incredibly diverse, open, non-linear, and decentralized. It was the biggest achievement of human civilization since the emergence of alphabets, writing, and the printing press.

Blogs best illustrated the potential of the hyperlink. In the era of blogging, we used to read and discuss all the time. We used to challenge each other, make arguments, provide evidence, investigate, discover—we used to think quite a lot. And most of that would have been impossible without hyperlinks.

In those days, people who had many hyperlinks, either from or to her web page, were wealthy.

Now on Facebook, and increasingly on most social media, instead of links, we have likes. Instead of thinking, we have a reality show.

On Facebook, which to most people on the planet will soon mean the entire internet, links are treated as objects, not as relations. They are not supposed to enrich your text—they are themselves open to a popularity contest.

Links are less and less encouraged, because social networks make money only if you are inside of them. Instagram completely bans hyperlinks, and Facebook with its Instant Articles project has found a way to even further minimize links.

Meanwhile, smartphones pose a different threat. Web pages are filled with ads and scripts that slow down everything. So fewer people follow links on mobile web browsers, or open several tabs, because it’s just a hassle. And quality web-based media are losing more and more money, because people are using adblockers.

The result is that with the demise of links, the web is dying.

Now the internet is comprised of social media apps rather than websites, and these apps are not even connected.

But the new internet is also different in other ways. It’s catching up quickly with the offline world and its dominant social values.

Let’s look at algorithms that social network now use to show us what we need to know. What they pick is based on two things: how recent they are, and how many likes they have received. Basically they only show you what is new and popular.

These are two of the most dominant social values of our time: newness and popularity. Anything else is doomed to silence, to a quiet death. Isn’t this like our societies’ obsession with young celebrities, and our increasing negligence of the elderly and minorities?

Facebook’s news feed algorithms reinforce our views and opinions because they work according to our habits. But at the same time, they suppress minorities, because a minority opinion never gets enough likes to appear on people’s newsfeeds.

It also radicalizes them, not only by producing a sense of frustration that comes from imposed silence, but also by depriving them (like all of us) from being challenged.

Facebook, and other similar social networks, have put an end to the utopian vision we were all inspired by, a decade ago: a diverse, open, non-linear, and decentralized space that promoted dialogue and tolerance.

Now when we log on to Facebook and scroll down and see all those entertaining pictures and videos, there is nothing left of that utopian vision.

This is not the internet I knew before I went to jail. This linear, passive, centralized, and homogenous stream of still or moving images is nothing but television.

A personalized television, with many of its features.

It has a prime time, when more people are tuned in and can see the stream. It is heavily dependent on celebrities. It treats the most serious topics in a shallow, rushed, and emotional way. It is obsessed with soundbites and infographics. It is closed and self-referential.

The new internet is clearly not a place for thinking and debate, as it used to be. No wonder all those so-called ‘Facebook and Twitter revolutions’ around the world collapsed. When algorithms replace charismatic leaders, they divide everyone, fragmenting their unity of will and vision, and leading them into fighting each other rather than pushing for their cause.

There is another aspect to this shift from library-internet to television-internet. We seem to be moving from a word-centered to an image-centered society. Look at what is happening to news outlets. They are rapidly losing readers, especially among the younger people. They are creating or expanding video departments while downsizing their newsrooms. Look at emojis and how they’re forming a universal pre-alphabetic language. Look at the shifts in our trends: from blogs, to Twitter, to Instagram. Less and less text, more and more video.

This is recreating the social formation of the old historical times, where a tiny elite of religious scholars and politicians were able to read, write, and think. This was how they controlled their largely illiterate people and justified their continued dominance.

Soon anyone who can read more than 140 characters (yes, I’m exaggerating) will be considered as literate. The rest, hooked to their old or new tvs, will be amused to death, as Neil Postman said. This is already happening in the culture that invented television and is now dominated by it. Donald Trump was produced by the old and new television and is on his way to rule over the most TV-centered society in the world.

So where are the points of resistance in all this? How can we re-imagine a space that nurtures debate, diversity, and understanding?

One way out of this horrifying tunnel is to re-imagine new algorithms with new kinds of social values, such as diversity and quality. It is possible. If we have created algorithms that enforce our habits, we can also get them to challenge those habits. DJs do this all the time. Their selections are not based on what’s new and what’s popular. They play old tracks we all loved in the past, and they surprise us with great stuff we would never have listened to otherwise.

Maybe it’s time for states to intervene and push big social networks to open up their algorithms, and to allow third-party developers to create different kinds of algorithms as plugins.

The truth is that our habits are destroying us. The hyperlink was a powerful, brilliant idea and enabled us to leave our comfort zone. We must revive hyperlinks, to help save the world from growing conflicts. What we need now, more than ever, is not to be comforted. It is to be surprised.

Hossein Derakhshan (@h0d3r) is an Iranian-Canadian author, freelance journalist and media analyst. He is the author of “The Web We Have to Save” (Matter) and the creator of Link-age, a collaborative art project to promote hyperlinks and open web.