Forgive me - this isn't specifically about travel. But these themes are pertinent for any sector - travel included.
I've been working in online for the best part of a decade. I've been thinking about how things have changed and how I feel about that. I started blogging in 2008. Hardly anyone had heard of Twitter and Facebook - likewise YouTube. No one had a smart phone. Browsing the net on your phone was a pipedream.
Things have changed. A lot. Has the Net lived up to its early promise? I don't think so. Here are four things that I hate about the internet today. How do you feel about them?
1) Commercialisation of User Generate Content
Remember the early days? People just contributed stuff. Feeling part of a community was enough. I'm thinking particularly of Trip Advisor. People just shared opinions to help each other out and because it was fun.
It's now an incredibly profitable accommodation booking and advertising website. It doesn't strike anyone as outrageous that without the reviews that people provide freely, the site wouldn't function. The site free-rides of the back of this internet -enabled trend of people wanting to devote their time and energies to telling people their opinions. Indeed they've introduced all sorts of badges and rewards (non-monetary of course) to keep people doing it. I fell for it myself for a while. I don't review on TA at all now.
Similarly, the content on Facebook costs Facebook nothing. And Google. Remember how much less cluttered the search results page on Google was? Increasingly the results we see are paid for rather than organic. That's particularly worrying for the little guys, the bloggers, the non-commerical people just writing and sharing stuff because they love it and have something to say. They are getting crowded out by the people with money.
2) The dumb-as-crap advertising revenue model
When I started this blog I was amazed at the conversations. People found me and started to subscribe to my posts. The conversations were exciting and empowering. Fifty comments wasn't unusual. These days a little blog on the internet is competing with some absolute giants spewing out content at a rate of hundreds of articles a day. Much of what’s published by these big publishers is short term, tacky stuff aimed purely at picking up traffic. And because these companies are too dumb or lazy or scared to try other methods of monetization it's a chase to the bottom.
The most recent iteration of this is fake news. No one gives a crap about what they are publishing as long as it gets people's attention. Online content is increasingly focussed on the stupid, the downright nasty and the temporary. That's sad. Little guys writing potentially great content are totally drowned out by all this noise – and Google and Facebook seem quite content to allow the situation to continue – because they don't care as long as the ad dollars keep pouring in. It's turning us into idiots.
3) Being nudged and the lack of privacy
The idea that lots of stuff online was free or far cheaper was almost magical in 2008. Why buy a newspaper when you could read it online for free? Why go to a bookshop when you can buy a book on Amazon and get it mailed to you cheaper? Can you imagine? In the old days you actually paid a monthly fee to have an email account! It's all free now.
But there's a massive sting in the tail. As users of these services – services that need to make money – we're guinea pigs. I've touched on this before. It's getting more and more intense the way that these online services are harvesting data and using it aggressively to maximise the value they can screw out of people in the long term. So you may get a cheaper deal now, but they know all about you. You've coughed up your email address, you've shown them what you're interested in. Get ready for the non-stop attempts to make you buy more or watch more. Emails you don't want, friend suggestions you don't know, notification alerts you don't want, suggestions for other products you’re not interested in.
My wife wanted to buy something from ASOS yesterday. She couldn't check out as a guest. She had to provide her date of birth among other things to complete the purchase. This brazen data collection and these attempts to nudge us into habits we might not want to acquire feels to me like the tip of an iceberg. Facebook sticks suggested friends in your 'friend requests' – trying to nudge you into friending people, it tries to get you to turn on notifications by suggesting it's a 'system' requirement. Update to the latest version of any app and guess what? All the notifications are turned back on, even if you turned them off.
The Facebook app on my iPhone recently picked up a link about a health issue that I had shared with someone using iMessage. It suggested I share it with my friends. Fail to log out of the Facebook app and it monitors what you're doing elsewhere on your iPhone. It tracks your behaviour even when you're not using Facebook. And of course, it's actually quite difficult to log out – because of course, they don't want you to.
The next generation of voice controlled assistants like Alexa, Siri, Google Now and Amazon's Echo are all logging everything you say and that data is stored and analysed and used to sell you stuff.
4) Algorithms push us to extremes
This one has had a lot of coverage recently. I think it was Eli Pariser who first coined the phrase 'filter bubble'. Algorithms serve us up more and more of the stuff they think we like. So if you start reading stuff that's to one side of the political spectrum you'll just get served more and more of it by Facebook and Google or whatever news feed you use.
Imagine if you had the power to influence those first choices someone made around the kind of news the read, or the people they followed or friended? You'd trap them in that algorithm-powered filter bubble and they'd probably not realise. Well… it's happening. Powerful organisations are getting into SEO in a big way. They're spending big to influence the Google search algorithm by publishing vast amounts of dubious and biased information.
Read this excellent piece by Carole Cadwalladr if you want to know more. Start typing 'Are jews… ' into Google and auto complete would suggest 'Are Jews… evil?'. Try it with 'Are women…' and likewise you used to get 'Are women… evil?' Interestingly it looks as if Google has manually changed these two examples almost certainly because of the article I link to above. Carole's follow up piece is well worth a read too. As she says in the first piece most people think Google literally 'is' the truth. Kids assume it's like an encyclopaedia.
I don't like the internet very much now. How do you feel about it?