The Six Year Transformation
A friend recently pointed me toward an essay published on Medium in 2015. It’s written by Hossein Derakshan, a Canadian-Iranian blogger who helped instigate the Persian-language blogging revolution during the first decade of the 21st century, and whose online truth-telling eventually lead to his imprisonment in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison from 2008 to 2014.
In his essay, Derakshan explores the radical shift in internet culture that occurred between when he entered prison in 2008 and his release six years later. As Derakshan explains, in 2008, the source of the internet’s potency was the hyperlink:
“The hyperlink was my currency six years ago…[it] provided a diversity and decentralisation that the real world lacked. The hyperlink represented the open, interconnected spirit of the world wide web…a way to abandon centralization — all the links, lines and hierarchies — and replace them with something more distributed, a system of nodes and networks.”
If the hyperlink was “currency,” as Derakshan elaborates, then blogs were the market in which this currency was exchanged. You might start a web browsing session at a site you knew well, but a few dozen clicks later might find yourself at a novel corner of the blogosphere, digesting insights from a bright mind you would have never otherwise known existed.
When Derakshan emerged from prison in 2014, however, the internet had changed. Social media had dethroned the blog, and in doing so, replaced the hyperlink’s central position within online culture with something altogether new, “The Stream.”
As he details:
“The Stream now dominates the way people receive information on the web. Fewer users are directly checking dedicated webpages, instead getting fed by a never-ending flow of information that’s picked for them by complex — and secretive — algorithms.
The Stream means you don’t need to open so many websites any more. You don’t need numerous tabs. You don’t even need a web browser. You open Twitter or Facebook on your smartphone and dive deep in. The mountain has come to you. Algorithms have picked everything for you.”
What we lost in this shift from the hyperlink to The Stream was the ability to encounter diverse ideas, radical insight, and transformative new perspectives. What we got instead was more of what we already know, delivered like a pre-masticated paste, easy to digest and sure to please:
“[N]ot only do the algorithms behind the Stream equate newness and popularity with importance, they also tend to show us more of what we’ve already liked. These services carefully scan our behaviour and delicately tailor our news feeds with posts, pictures and videos that they think we would most likely want to see.”
Derakshan’s analysis provides a sharp take on some of the issues I’ve been discussing in recent posts. This shift from the wild and exciting decentralized web of the 1990s and 2000’s, to the creepy, Huxley-esque walled gardens of today’s social media monopolies has many different consequences, from privacy, to distraction, to manipulation.
But as Derakshan emphasizes, perhaps one of the biggest impacts of this transformation is that it’s denuding the internet of many of the attributes that made it so disruptive and exciting in the first place.