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The Internet is Dead.
Algorithmic Curation, Bots, Paywalls, and the Marginalization of Human Interaction.
If you had the privilege of being online during the remarkable era of the 1990s, you would undoubtedly recall the grand vision and exhilarating promise that the internet held.
Like a mythical information superhighway, it captivated our imagination and beckoned us to explore its virtual landscapes, comparable to the legendary El Dorado of old. Whispers of boundless possibilities echoed in our ears, painting a vivid picture of an expansive and open savanna, where information freely roamed, communication flowed unhindered, and like-minded individuals from the farthest reaches of the globe could effortlessly converge.
In those early days, we were promised a digital frontier where anyone could become a digital nomad, liberated from the constraints of physical boundaries. With the internet as our gateway, we were to gallivant through lush fields of knowledge, traversing uncharted territories without encountering tollbooths or checkpoints. The allure was intoxicating, igniting our collective imagination with the limitless potential that lay before us.
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Indeed, those early days of the internet were a time of unbridled optimism. It was a time when pioneers embraced the untamed wilderness of cyberspace, eagerly building the foundations of a digital realm that would forever reshape human interaction and redefine the boundaries of what was possible. The internet held the promise of a brave new world, a place where barriers would be shattered, and the collective wisdom of humanity could flourish.
In a utopia where ideas held the value of currency, where gatekeepers were relics of a forgotten era, the landscape began to change. However, akin to the gold rushes of old, settlers emerged, bringing with them fences and tolls, gradually transforming the dwelling of free spirits into bustling marketplaces and rigid customs offices.
Now, we find ourselves pondering: where does that boundless prairie, once envisioned as our shared realm, reside today? Maybe it is time to take a conspiracy theory for granted: The Internet is dead.
The concept of the “dead Internet” suggests the majority of Internet activity is now dominated by bots and automatically generated content, controlled through algorithmic curation, while organic human activity is marginalized. According to this theory, these sophisticated bots are believed to have been created, at least in part, to manipulate algorithms and enhance search results with the ultimate aim of influencing consumer behavior. Additionally, proponents of the theory claim that government agencies employ bots to manipulate public opinion. The proposed timeline for the onset of this “death” of the Internet typically centers around the years 2016 or 2017.
Indeed, recently, it appears that the dwindling embers of the initial promise of the Internet are fading more than ever before. Though this outcome has been in the making for quite some time, it seems to have accelerated recently, particularly with the advent of the AI revolution, which now stands at our very doorstep.
Throughout the evolution of the modern web, we have all engaged in communication and content sharing on platforms that harbor animosity towards us. They crave to amass our data, only to employ it for censorship and bans whenever our views diverge from their chosen narratives.
Yet, with the emergence of AI, these platforms are growing increasingly concerned that our valuable data and content will be harvested, transformed into commodities, and exploited for training AI models.
Amidst the realm of our own creation, where our words, ideas, and thoughts form the essence of the content, the platforms view it differently—as their own, ripe for maximal monetization.
Thus, the era of the great clawback ensues. Platforms increasingly devise methods to raise the drawbridge, confining users within their walled gardens, restricting their departure or pursuit of alternative monetization avenues. Simultaneously, they seek means to charge companies and entities for access to the content and value users contribute.
In the current cyber landscape, a storm has been brewing over recent weeks. On June 30th, 2023, Reddit wielded its magical wand one last time, setting in motion changes that have left its community in turmoil.
Renowned for its diverse communities, Reddit, like a vibrant mosaic, has long been cherished for its appeal. However, this move to impose a price tag on access to its API has shaken the very foundations of this platform. At first glance, one might dismiss it as a mere technical adjustment, but the outcry reveals a much deeper concern.
The shifting dynamics of digital labor and the appropriation of community contributions for monetization, particularly in the realm of AI-related endeavors, come to the forefront. During spring, Reddit made headlines with its announcement to introduce charges for API access.
Steve Huffman, the CEO of Reddit, voiced his frustration in an interview with the New York Times, criticizing giants like OpenAI and Google for extracting Reddit's invaluable data without providing appropriate compensation. However, the decision to levy substantial fees for API access seemed like an exaggerated response to a relatively minor issue.
Third-party applications such as Apollo and Reddit is Fun, which played a significant role in shaping Reddit's ecosystem, expressed their farewell. According to Christian Selig, the founder of Apollo, the new fees could have amounted to a staggering $20 million annually, compelling Apollo to cease its operations.
The rebels of Reddit refused to remain passive. Moderators from approximately 9,000 subreddits revolted, shrouding their communities in digital shadows by turning them private. The reverberations of this revolt cascaded across the internet, even leaving a trace on Google's search results. Yet, Huffman, seemingly unfazed, remained resolute.
However, if one delves deeper, whispers of a labor movement can be discerned amidst this chaos. In an era where AI has transitioned from a distant vision to an ever-present force, the tide is shifting in how internet content and efforts are appraised.
Reddit is increasingly nudging users towards its proprietary app, as it seeks to unleash the streams of revenue and explores potential acquisition or public listing opportunities. In many ways, Reddit's actions mirror the footsteps of Twitter.
In March, after an intriguing saga of announcements, delays, and even criticisms, Twitter unveiled its new API pricing structure. The social media giant now presents users with three distinct tiers: There is a skeletal free level, a basic level priced at $100 per month, and a costly enterprise level.
Although these changes may not significantly impact most users, Twitter has implemented other alterations that do bear consequences. These alterations are strategically devised to retain users within its own platform.
Upon the publication of Twitter's algorithm, it became evident that external links to the open web receive lower rankings compared to posts uploaded directly onto the platform. This move, intended to enhance user engagement on the platform and keep individuals within the app, aligns with Twitter's objectives.
However, it further disincentivizes users from posting content on their own websites and blogs, effectively confining articles to the app. Consequently, finding information, especially older content, becomes less convenient.
On the open web, information can be easily searched through search engine indexing and shared via simple links across various platforms. Furthermore, it can be readily archived for future reference.
However, in a more recent development (although it has been revised for now), Twitter implemented a change that Elon Musk stated was a temporary measure but serves as a clear indication of forthcoming trends. Twitter blocked web access to its posts. This decision required users to create an account and sign in to the app in order to view tweets. Consequently, tweets became more challenging to archive and share, effectively confining them within the Twitter app and limiting discoverability.
Furthermore, if a user were to be banned on Twitter (although it is less likely since Musk assumed control), all of their content would instantly vanish without a trace, as if their presence had never existed.
In addition to these changes, Twitter recently experimented with imposing limitations on the number of posts users could view per day. This move stirred frustration among many users, as they had to pay for the privilege of accessing more tweets.
While Elon Musk claimed that this measure was intended to deter companies from scraping Twitter posts and that it was temporary, it serves as a reminder that these platforms are ultimately businesses. They may introduce user friction to cut costs or increase revenue.
Similarly, Amazon-owned Twitch recently implemented new rules aimed at locking users into their platform. On June 6th, 2023, Twitch exerted its influence, provoking outrage among its vast community of creators. The source of contention lay in the revised Terms of Service, which sought to bind creators within the confines of Twitch's walled garden.
The recent decree prohibits creators from venturing across “Twitch-like domains” alongside their streams on the platform, as stated in the Terms of Service. Within this rule, buried beneath flamboyant language, lies an unwavering loyalty to Twitch, effectively stifling the previously unhindered flow of creativity between platforms such as YouTube, Rumble, and Kick.
Twitch insists that users exclusively stream on their platform, forbidding simultaneous broadcasts on other platforms. Amidst the criticism, Twitch's resounding silence hangs heavy, leaving creators yearning for an apology akin to the one issued following the branded content controversy.
On June 6th, 2023, the gaming community was jolted as screenshots of Twitch's freshly minted guidelines on branded content circulated rapidly on social media. These new regulations dictated how streamers should present sponsorships and other paid promotions.
The spotlight intensified as influential creators within the platform raised their voices. Leading the charge were numerous popular streamers. When MrBeast, flirted with the notion of defecting to rival platforms as a form of protest against Twitch, it became evident that the tides were not in Twitch's favor.
This autocratic attempt to bind creators in an exclusive alliance with the platform for their monetization needs reeks of desperate territoriality. YouTube, like other platforms, is making efforts to extract more revenue from its user base.
As platform revenue growth has slowed in recent years, the company is now seeking to maximize profits from its existing users. One of the initial indications of this strategy was YouTube's attempt to charge users for what would typically be a standard mobile device feature—listening to videos with the phone locked. This move signaled YouTube's intention to exert more control over users' experiences.
Additionally, YouTube's app is known for its intrusive privacy practices and pervasive tracking advertisements. Consequently, some users preferred using alternative clients that allowed them to watch YouTube videos without being subjected to excessive tracking.
One such app was YouTube Vanced, which gained popularity for its ability to bypass invasive video ads. However, last year, YouTube Vancedfaced a legal blow from Google, resulting in its demise.
The third-party app, designed for Android devices, received a cease-and-desist letter from Google, compelling the creators to remove all references to YouTube, change the logo, and eliminate any links related to YouTube products. In a conversation with The Verge via Discord, an administrator from the Vanced team revealed these developments. Due to legal reasons, the Vanced project had to be terminated, marking an end to its distribution and further development.
YouTube has recently conducted an experiment by limiting the number of videos that users can watch if they have an ad blocker enabled to combat YouTube's invasive tracking ads.
In this global “small experiment,” a warning prompt appears for users with ad blockers enabled, urging them to either disable the ad blocker or face restrictions on the number of videos they can view.
This new development, initially discovered by an observant Reddit user, involves YouTube displaying a notice to users stating, “video player will be blocked after three videos.” The message further explains that if an ad blocker is detected, video playback will be blocked unless YouTube is whitelisted or the ad blocker is disabled.
As the social media giants raise their drawbridges and the shadows of their towering castles lengthen, a noteworthy phenomenon is emerging in the underbrush—a renaissance of sorts. Seeds of creativity and freedom, long dormant in the fertile soils of the internet, are sprouting into magnificent trees.
The Davids of the online world are gathering their slingshots and stones. As discontent grows among creators seeking greater autonomy and equitable rewards, alternative platforms are blossoming like daisies.
New players are entering the field, such as Rumble, with enticing offers for creators. Rumble promises not only greater creative freedom and open web accessibility, but also the ability to monetize quickly. Another platform, Kick, gains traction as it rivals Twitch with its gaming-focused streams and fewer restrictions on creators.
But the intrigue doesn't end there. In the vast expanse of the internet, whispers of something more powerful can be heard: decentralization. Platforms like Odyssey, based on blockchain technology, beckon users with the assurance of boundless freedom. They emphasize the idea that it's your content, your data, and your rules—a nostalgic echo of the early days of the web.
Amidst this transformative landscape, a decentralized social media protocol called Nostr emerges. It weaves a web within the web, offering a refuge from the prying eyes and control of social media giants. Nostr paints a vision of a world where information flows freely and censorship holds no power.
Will these advancements spell doom for the entrenched giants in their towering citadels? Only time will reveal the answer. However, one thing is certain: change is underway. The evolving landscape of platforms and technologies signals a shift in the way creators and users engage with social media.
The true power to shape this world has always lain in your hands. Choose well!
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