There’s a lot of noise about net neutrality but it’s worth defining what net neutrality is, and why we’ve already lost it. One of the big fears around an internet that isn’t neutral is that companies and Internet Service Providers would be able to create internet fast lanes and so by definition internet slow lanes. This would mean that Disney or Nike or any big company could pay for their website to load faster and be easier to access than your local mom and pop shop or other smaller entity.
This idea is offensive to many people and many people rightfully protest legislation designed to strip net neutrality because intrinsically we all understand that the internet was designed to be a democracy of ideas — a place where your ideas could grow and thrive based on how good they were, on how much they resonated with the rest of the world, regardless of where you, or they, were.
The internet is meant to be the consciousness of civilization, where we collectively come together to debate and discuss our ideas regardless of where they come from.
But our democracy of ideas has been undermined by big tech. Opaque, unknowable algorithms determines what we discuss, what we see and when we see it. This is old news to a lot of people but there are still people who stop me at this point in the conversation to get clarity so I’ll say it as simply as possible:
In order to get you to spend more time looking at your phone, social media platforms, including YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and others have created a system, an algorithm, that only shows you content that it believes will make you more addicted to (“engaged with”) the experience.
Your experience — or your Facebook feed as an example — is heavily guarded and platforms charge an exorbitant premium to access it, which is often too much for small time artists, bands and other independent creators. If the algorithm that Facebook uses believes that you are more likely to keep looking at your phone if it shows you a video of a dog barking at a roomba, it will show you that instead of the update from the childhood friend you haven’t spoken to in a long time. If it believes that you will spend more time looking at your phone it if it shows you a shocking but completely untrue video about how all the food you eat is synthetic and unhealthy, it will show you that instead of the details of the gig your local band is playing.
Currently my Facebook feed consists of one or two of the same updates from the same friends I’ve interacted with regularly, and every third post is a sponsored post from someone trying desperately to sell me life insurance, a smart air conditioner or a book on how to make a living selling things online.
I do not see anything from The Oatmeal, Post Secret or anything from any of the numerous bands, creators or artists I follow, with the rare exception of when one of them gives Mark Zuckerberg another few hundred dollars so that they can actually reach the people who have liked their pages, who have indicated to the platform, “I would like to know when these people create new work.”
You might argue that this is how advertising has always worked — I would argue that there is a marked and clear difference between a multinational insurance company that I’ve never heard of intruding into my online experience and the girl I saw playing a solo acoustic set at the bar I was at last week, and that it is unethical and immoral and willfully ignorant at best to equate the two.
I would further argue Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the other social media platforms are the world’s worst communication platforms disguised as the best.
They are tools that literally only work if you pay them to work and they have become so dominant, such monopolies over our universal digital experience that you have no choice but to engage with them.
You might think that you would be willing to pay to grow an audience for your online presence and then stop once you’ve reached whatever you would consider a critical mass — but that’s not how these platforms work — even after you have a large audience, Facebook and others will charge you to reach even a small fraction of them.
What I’m desperately trying to say is Net Neutrality is already over and we have already lost because, for most of us, the internet simple does not exist anymore.
When was the last time you visited a blog? A forum? A webpage? Unless something exists on Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Tumblr or Twitter, it doesn’t exist. We don’t browse. We flit from silo to silo, from platform to platform and we only see what these platforms want us to see and what big companies pay for us to see.
Net neutrality is lost if your local independent business, the comic shop down the road, the small used bookstore, can’t be seen unless they pay.
Net neutrality is lost if it means that a rich kid with wealthy parents can afford to get their art shown to everyone across the world and you can’t, regardless of how good your work is.
Net neutrality is lost if big tech companies hide us from each other and charge us to see each other.
This was a war that we didn’t know was being waged and no one was aware of losing. It was a war between big tech and small time webcomic artists, stand-up comedians and insta-poets. They had billions of dollars on their side and the smartest, most well-paid people in the history of our civilization, hell bent on two things — getting a few more dollars out of that art student, creative mom or the guy who draws on his lunch break at Burger King, and getting you to stare at your phone for a few more seconds.
I understand that art and culture have never been fair, that there have always been gatekeepers to audiences but the internet was an accomplishment of our collective humanity, paid for with tax dollars, that for the first time in our history leveled that playing field and without so much as a whimper, we have let it go. It has been taken from us in the middle of the night and we have woken up blind.
Yes, there are many reasons to be angry at social media platforms currently, they have undermined democracy, made people angrier across the world by showing us the worst sides of each other, told us that we would be more connected while making us feel more isolated, created a cultural depression where we constantly feel like we are not doing as well as we should but even though you are already aware of these things, and some web comic about dogs by the guy who lives in the apartment next door doesn’t seem important, I would argue that it is.
Art and culture are important. Our ability to express ourselves and see ourselves in the work of others is important. Feeling like we are part of something bigger, something human is important and art and culture give us that.
The internet was meant to be a communal, shared museum, a place to celebrate the sum total of human intelligence and our creative spirit.
For many people who don’t have access to the kind of money, education or the connections you need to make it in contemporary society, art was a way out. If you were good enough, if you could summon something beautiful out of the void and share it with the world, no matter where you were from the Philippines to Africa to Louisiana, you could find a small audience that would love and respect your work and who knows, they might even pay you for it.
That way out doesn’t exist anymore. It lasted for about ten years and now it’s over and if you didn’t make it through, tough luck. So I’m angry about all this and I’m angry because no one really understands or knows that this has happened and I’m angry because there are young creative people who don’t even know they’ve been robbed. All they know is they’re taking the advice of older creative people like me of, “Just do what you do every day,” and they’re failing. They’re looking at their websites and no one’s visiting them, they’re looking at the amount of people who are engaging with their work on Instagram or Facebook, and it doesn’t look like they’re reaching anyone.
So they tell themselves the only story that makes sense: I am not good enough.
Instead of the truth: You have been robbed. Something has been taken from you that you didn’t even know you had.
The next Pablo Picasso or Maya Angelo has given up because no one is responding to their work and even though there are many who would say that shouldn’t matter, that you should simply ignore what people say about your work or who interacts with you — that’s not how art works if you actually want to make a living from it. You have to have moments in your career when you check to see if what you do is working and resonating with people.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others have stolen something priceless from us and it’s time to regulate them, break them up through legislation if needed, and get rid of the algorithms that are destroying the very fabric of our society.
The internet doesn’t belong to these people. It belongs to you and me.
It’s time to take it back.