The best metaphor for the net is to think of it as a mirror held up to human nature. All human life really is there. There’s no ideology, fetish, behaviour, obsession, perversion, eccentricity or fad that doesn’t find expression somewhere online. And while much of what we see reflected back to us is uplifting, banal, intriguing, harmless or fascinating, some of it is truly awful, for the simple reason that human nature is not only infinitely diverse but also sometimes unspeakably cruel.
In the early days of the internet and, later, the web, this didn’t matter so much. But once cyberspace was captured by a few giant platforms, particularly Google, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, then it became problematic. The business models of these platforms depended on encouraging people to upload content to them in digital torrents. “Broadcast yourself”, remember, was once the motto of YouTube.
And people did – as they slit the throats of hostages in the deserts of Arabia, raped three-year-old girls, shot an old man in the street, firebombed the villages of ethnic minorities or hanged themselves on camera…
All of which posed a problem for the social media brands, which liked to present themselves as facilitators of creativity, connectivity and good clean fun, an image threatened by the tide of crud that was coming at them. So they started employing people to filter and manage it. They were called “moderators” and for a long time they were kept firmly under wraps, so that nobody knew about them.
That cloak of invisibility began to fray as journalists and scholars started to probe this dark underbelly of social media…
This morning’s Observer column:
For many years, Silicon Valley companies didn’t even bother to have lobbyists in Washington. As late as 2015, Eric Schmidt, then the executive chairman of Google, was predicting that authoritarian governments would wither away in a comprehensively networked world, which made some of us wonder what exactly Dr Schmidt was smoking.
During that period, governments generally played along with this myth of their irrelevance. Presidents and prime ministers queued up for invitations to the campuses of the Silicon Valley giants. And insofar as the tech moguls paid any attention to presidential politics, it was to support the Democrats. Schmidt, for example, played a big role in Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency.
Unsurprisingly, the valley was thunderstruck by the election of Donald Trump…
I’m insatiably curious about how writers write — and accordingly loved this section of Tyler Cowen’s interview with Masha Gessen:
COWEN: What is your most unusual writing habit?
GESSEN: I write by hand.
COWEN: You write by hand?
GESSEN: I write by hand. I write longhand.
COWEN: And someone types it into a computer? Or that never happens?
GESSEN: [laughs] No, I write books longhand, and then I type them up chapter by chapter. I write a chapter out longhand and then type it.
COWEN: Why is that good for you?
GESSEN: Because I think that the process of writing longhand is more linear. If you ever look at how you write, or if I ever look at how I write, if I just write on a computer, unless it’s . . . A column is also pretty linear. I outline it, and then I just fill in every paragraph, and I do that on a computer.
But if I write a very long piece, I don’t notice how much I jump around when I’m writing on a computer. You can’t do that on paper. You have to keep going. Then it poses a narrative structure that is unbreakable. One sentence has to follow the previous sentence. You can’t go back and reinsert it. It keeps me very focused, I find.
The other thing it does is that when I’m typing it up, I’m reading it on paper, and I think that there’s a difference. When the book is ready, I will then print it out and edit it again on paper. But every time you read, when you’re reading on paper and you’re reading on screen, you’re seeing completely different things.
Interesting. Maybe I should go back to writing longhand.