The Internet is a reflection of us, and we don’t like what we see
We love to hate social media and search because they’re an uncomfortable mirror of our culture.
Another day, another public relations disaster for Silicon Valley. Whether they’re selling highly targeted ads to hate groups, allowing Russian hackers to pose as angry Muslims, or spreading misinformation after a mass shooting, the refrain is the same:
“Google and Facebook, you have a responsibility to filter the Internet.”
The problem, of course, is that Google and Facebook aren’t really filtering companies, and they definitely aren’t journalism companies. They’re advertising companies, and their goal is not to shape the world — but simply to reflect it and then sell ads to people looking at that reflection.
Facebook is full of misinformation and conspiracy theories because humans love disseminating misinformation and subscribing to conspiracy theories. Facebook’s mission isn’t to create a better world — it’s simply to augment the world that already exists by making communication easier. That includes the good parts of life — like event invitations and vacation photos — and the horrible stuff too.
When we ask Google and Facebook to contribute to what we believe would be a kinder, safer, more inclusive society, they say, “We didn’t sign up for that.”
They rarely take serious political or cultural stances, and they waffle under pressure when they do. They intentionally foster platforms that are open to just about all speech — including speech that is provably false or openly hateful by most people’s standards. They’re built to scale, not to set an admirable example. It sucks that they’re not on board with the mission to build a better culture, but they also have the right to make that choice.
If we stopped looking to Facebook, Google and tech companies to be cultural leaders, how would our behavior change?
Will we become more intentional about what we read and how we learn? Can we stop trusting algorithms that prioritize ad sales over the best interest of individuals? Will we stop allowing our News Feed to act as our daily front page for learning about the world?
I propose that we begin to change the Internet by changing the way we, as individuals, engage with the world. Use Facebook to look at family photos — and find some serious journalists to help you stay informed about current events. Use Google to get directions and check movie listings — but remember that the goal of search is to inspire ad clicks, not to help you learn.
The Internet can be a vicious and horrible place because it is a reflection of the vicious, horrible parts of our world. It can also be a tool for learning and connecting in healthy, positive ways — as long as you keep in mind that Silicon Valley will probably not be on your side. Healthy behavior rarely sells ads.
Rob Howard is the founder and CEO of Howard Development & Consulting, the web development firm that creative agencies trust when every pixel matters. His startups have been featured in Entertainment Weekly and Newsweek, and his clients have included The World Bank, Harvard and MIT.