What was the internet created for? If you asked this question to a random person on the street, they might say something about the exchange of information, or the sharing of ideas.
This has more or less been true for the entire history of the internet. Its first users – American researchers in the Department of Defense – wanted a reliable way to share intelligence during the Cold War. Since then, this selective network of spies, soldiers and contracted academics has evolved into a tangled web of more than 3.4 billion people.
Of course, these days people aren’t just using the internet to plan missile strikes or overthrow South American governments. Somehow, the world wide web has become something even more insidious.
You might think that expanding internet access to billions of people would diversify how people spend their time online. Instead, most interactions on the internet happen within just a handful of platforms like Facebook and TikTok.
Adding up the users from each of these companies, the message is clear: if you are on the internet, you are on social media. Almost half the people on Earth use one of these platforms, and at this point, many of us wouldn’t know how to live without them.
These days, social media is synonymous with the internet. But half of the entire world didn’t get siloed onto a few websites by accident. These sites are gathering places for a reason: they knowingly exploit human behavior to drive engagement.
Even behind the scenes, corporations like Amazon Web Services have dominated the infrastructure for an internet of any kind. Without a doubt, online experiences have become monopolized by just a handful of company logos – from the ground up.
What are we losing by inherently restricting the ways people can exist online?
Our limited channels for interaction with the internet push us to accept that our free time is being monetized. Content creators and communications experts are forced to emotionally invest in psychologically iffy platforms just to keep up with their jobs.
Our attention, opinions, identities, and entire social lives are inherently tied to cycles of dopamine and self-comparison. We are continuously polarized by inflammatory content, and most of our social movements have been jacked and propelled exclusively by hot air from Twitter.
Why are we settling for an online lifestyle diversified by how many characters or seconds of video you’re allowed to post? Human communication is the most nuanced thing in the universe, and we’re boiling down a chance to connect with every living person on earth into a bunch of rules accidentally made up by Mark Zuckerberg.
This will take some serious thinking outside-of-the-box, and a huge waste of time and money reversing the stifling patterns of monopolization already written into law. But we are still in the budding days of one of the weirdest, coolest things humanity has ever done, and it would be a pity to think we’ll be stuck the way we are forever.