First Click: The small 'i' internet

April 12th, 2016


A music video recently posted online seems to be chasing me around the web. It first popped up on my radar courtesy of an Israeli friend — which made sense because the band performing the song hails from Tel Aviv. A couple of days later a Spanish buddy messaged me the same video, then I saw it on Twitter, and this morning I awoke to see we’d even written about it on The Verge. It’s a beautifully animated short film full of little technical doodads, gizmos, pulleys, cogs, and mechanisms. As a technology writer, I was in the middle of its target demographic.

It dawned on me that the only way that video and I weren’t going to cross paths this week was if I wasn’t on the internet. My work and social groups online, overlapping as they do, tend to be unfortunately homogeneous, and at least one person would have found Jane Bordeaux’s "Ma'agalim" compelling enough to share. At the same time, I’m sure new music videos have also been posted by death metal bands and improv jazz musicians, but neither made their way into my small sphere of the internet.

The AP's change of no longer capitalizing the word "internet" feels appropriate, given how each of us have an individualized, idiosyncratic version of it.

Take a critical look at your Twitter timeline, Facebook news feed, or YouTube homepage, and you’ll probably reach a similar conclusion. These are not the limitless vistas that the internet initially promised, but rather trimmed-down selections of it. The judgments we exercise when choosing our friends, the people we follow, and the videos we watch are amplified by services aiming to tailor the web to our tastes. Those "You Might Also Like" algorithms generate greater traffic and apparent engagement for the websites offering them, but they do little to stimulate a reader’s interest to explore unfamiliar topics.

The more tailored the internet becomes, the less serendipity it allows

Back in the days of linear TV and printed newspapers, there was a certain serendipity to discovering new things. I first got into following the NFL through Sunday Night Football broadcasts that were playing in the background during late-night revision sessions at college. Opening up the paper to read the latest sports headlines would occasionally expose me to information about world affairs or the contemporary economic outlook.

But on the web, with its vast and unwieldy size, reducing the exposure to new things is now a service that companies provide. Google tailors search results in accordance with prior searches, and it also offers customizable results that include content from your friends. Twitter recently rolled out an algorithmic timeline option that prioritizes tweets according to which ones it thinks you’ll find most interesting.

Some form of curation of the internet is obviously necessary, though I worry that if we go too far, we’ll all end up in our own discrete echo chambers. So to counter that trend, I think I’m going to start following a few more death metal fans.

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