Thursday, August 16, 2012

What's Wrong with the Internet?

I saw this video on Galleycat last night, and it stuck in my head, so I'll share it with you:

I like its message: We should remember that the internet is populated with real people, similar to ourselves. I'm going to try to be a kinder person online. And I wish everyone would do the same.

But I also wish there were winged unicorns flying outside my office window farting rainbows.

We've had the internet for 21 years. If simply connecting people online were enough to create kind and productive spaces, then we'd read the comments on YouTube videos and smile in delight. 4chan would be a marvel of helpfulness instead of the communal cesspool of the internet.

The video, wonderful and well-intentioned as it is, places the onus for the problem in exactly the wrong place. It exhorts people to adapt to the internet when instead we should demand that the internet adapt to us.

Simply put, the internet is defective.

Very few physical spaces are as dysfunctional our online world. Parts of Somalia, maybe. In general, we design physical spaces to encourage civility. Consider restaurants. There's a general expectation that you'll get good service and that you'll tip for it. Could I sit down, get good service, and not tip? Sure--in fact, from an objectivist point of view, that's an optimal strategy if I don't plan on returning to that restaurant. But because of the design of the system, even the people who wear their butts as hats online generally tip in restaurants.

Some corners of the internet are better than others. Actively moderated blogs, for example. John Scalzi does a great job keeping Whatever more or less civil. But active moderation is kind of like placing a band-aid over the gushing fundamental design flaw in the internet.

Could we design an internet to encourage civility? Sure, and it's only going to get easier as bandwidth increases. Flamewars rarely happen in real life in part because you can see the person you're hurting. Even without ubiquitous face-to-face communication, we could improve the internet dramatically with design changes. Consider what our online world might be like if we implemented just two changes:

1) End transient anonymity. Allow only one online identity per person--real or anonymous. Make that identity persistent from site to site. By making identity persistent, your behavior online would follow you, just as it does in real life.

2) Attach a reputation score to these persistent identities. This is no different than what we do with businesses now. Google nearly any business and you can find ratings and reviews. This makes most businesses careful to interact online only in positive ways.

Perhaps those aren't perfect solutions. I'm sure smarter folks than I can come up with better ways to redesign the internet. The important point is this: We need to design an online world to better serve people, not just exhort people to change themselves to fit the internet as it exists today.