One of my fondest memories of the internet involves me sitting alone in a neighborhood restaurant, watching the snow fall. It was a Friday evening and I was feeling lonely, so I tweeted about it. Then two friends, Tim and Robin, people I hadn't even met at that point, "kept me company" as I ate alone, chatting with me on Twitter while the snow fell.
Such memories feel almost anachronistic now. Small, quiet, moments of intimacy seem out of step with the massive machine that is the contemporary social web. Yet strangely, it's the very size of networks like Facebook and Twitter that facilitates the rare intimacies that still emerge. Without the internet, I'd never have friends thousands of miles away, or connect with family scattered across the globe. Sheer scale is also what allows the internet to be such an enormous repository of information: The fact that you can look up almost any topic on Wikipedia or YouTube is a function of just how many people use and collectively contribute to those platforms.
Digital companies, lacking a clear business model, followed the Google ideal and simply scaled up and figured out an ad-based business after the fact that was sustained by how many eyeballs were captured. That size then led to a series of benefits: reach, a more democratic or meritocratic set of ideals, and the ability for people across the globe to connect. Alas, that scale then became the root cause of all the ills of the web. This is an odd paradox. It seems worth asking: Is the internet today simply too big?
Perusing the news at any given point in the past couple of years, it's hard not to get that sense. Recently we learned that Facebook's human moderators work in awful conditions and frequently get PTSD from the content they are forced to view. YouTube's ongoing problem with harmful content pitched to kids seems to be unsolved. This is just the tip of the iceberg, part of a miasma of problems with the internet that includes polarization, cyberwarfare and election interference, the rise of the alt-right and other racist and misogynist movements, the decimation of news media — the list goes on and on.
We usually attribute these many issues to the carelessness or even immorality of the tech giants like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. And there are some good reasons for doing so. But what underpins all these issues is sheer size.
Think about the content Facebook is forced to sort through: everything from anti-vax conspiracy theories to child pornography and violence. There is so much of this content that moderating it requires algorithms, which inevitably miss and falsely label some material. So, thousands of human moderators are then exposed to awful content for very little pay and in bad working conditions. Underlying all of this, the reach of the network itself is what draws people to post such content, as it's where it gets the most attention. Scale produces a vicious cycle wherein size facilitates both the problems and the "solutions."
Similarly, Twitter's userbase of hundreds of millions is what allows for the targeted, radically asymmetrical nature of harassment, where one user can be barraged by thousands of replies. The very interconnection that enables the best of the internet also helps foster its worst.
What are we to do if we want to reclaim the best of the internet while combatting its worst? While the tech giants have work to do, it seems that one way to think about this is to distinguish between the usefulness of infrastructure at scale versus the usefulness of certain networks. On one hand, it's beneficial for everyone to be potentially connected by a neutral set of wires and hardware. On the other hand, enormous, multi-billion user networks like Facebook aren't the only way we can connect.
Now that the internet is normal and accessible for billions, perhaps we need to think about the tech giants as necessary evils that kickstarted the early internet but have outlived their usefulness. In their place, imagine a set of standards — say, a calendar that anyone can access and that is interoperable with others' but doesn't require you to be on Facebook. It's an ideal of digital technology that rests on the concept that the internet is a way of connecting people but companies shouldn't entirely own the networks on which we connect.
Earlier this year, writer Max Read suggested that the best of the internet was now to be found in the group text chat. He argued that they feel so intimate and because their dynamic "occurs at human scale, with distinct reactions from a handful of friends … rather than at the alien scale of behemoth platforms." It's about finding the best of the internet without the worst — connection enabled by how large and ubiquitous the internet is, but without the internet's scale infecting how we use it on a daily basis.
It's not clear how such a change would come about. The tech giants not only wield enormous political and economic power, they have also deeply and perhaps even irrevocably integrated themselves into our lives. But as ideals go, a return to a smaller internet is one worth fighting for.