More on what the internet is good for

70% U.S. adults think the internet has been “mostly a good for society”, according to Pew, down from 76% four years ago. (88% think it’s been “mostly a good” for themselves, down from 90%)

But here’s one particularly interesting part:

Most (62% of those with a positive view) mentioned how the internet makes information much easier and faster to access. Meanwhile, 23% of this group mentioned the ability to connect with other people, or the ways in which the internet helps them keep more closely in touch with friends and family.

In other words, sure, connection is part of the case for the internet. But access to information is far more important.

That fits with research I’ve written about before, that we value search engines and maps way more than social media (though email ranks highly as well). Similarly, New York Times readers said they’d give up Facebook well before they’d give up Google.

As I wrote in January:

We don’t need more ways to argue with strangers nor do we need more cheap entertainment. We have a universe of information at our fingertips. We need more services that use it to make us better off.

That’s what the next phase of the internet should be about.

 

Turn off WiFi to read, and other clever media designs

The Disconnect is a literary magazine published on the web with a fun wrinkle: You can only read it if your wifi is off.

It’s a clever idea, if only for the other things it makes you consider.

Imagine building a “cool take”, an article template that puts up a paywall if it starts going too viral. (If your response is that no publisher would do that, because they want the eyeballs, remember some subscription publishers worry about putting too much of their best stuff “in front of the wall”.)

My idea is a stunt, just like The Disconnect. But it’s neat to think about how you might address problems in our current media environment purely through design, and at the publisher level rather than through changes to platforms.

The tech giants are different from one another

This bit from Matt Yglesias’ piece on the case against Facebook is important:

That Facebook’s relentless growth threatens the existence of news organizations is something that should make the architects of that relentless growth feel bad about themselves. They are helping to erode public officials’ accountability, foster public ignorance, and degrade the quality of American democracy.

Google, of course, poses similar threats to the journalism ecosystem through its own digital advertising industry. But Googlers can also make a strong case that Google makes valuable contributions to the information climate. I learn useful, real information via Google every day. And while web search is far from a perfect technology, Google really does usually surface accurate, reliable information on the topics you search for. Facebook’s imperative to maximize engagement, by contrast, lands it in an endless cycle of sensationalism and nonsense.

Whatever you think about the relative merits of Facebook and Google, Yglesias is right to note that the tech companies make dramatically different things. And that gets weirdly overlooked when we think about their affect on society.

The point of an organization is to produce something socially useful. As I wrote in my piece on that subject:

This is why corporate mission statements actually are important. They might not always be accurate or specific, but asking for one is a way of posing the basic question of justification. What is the purpose of your organization? What socially useful goal have you set for yourself?

What do the tech companies do? Google makes information available to people (and then shows them ads). Facebook helps people communicate with each other, and offers entertainment. Netflix offers entertainment. Apple builds computers, which at this point mostly means mobile phones. Microsoft makes software for computers, with a particular emphasis on productivity and work. Amazon lets you buy stuff over the internet.

Yes, several of these companies do more than that. But as a starting point, it’s worth thinking about how different these activities are. One way to get at that is this New York Times interactive about which tech company you could most easily do without. Here’s how readers answered:

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You see differences in how people value different internet services when you ask them, too — or when you try to measure how much they’d pay for them.

What’s at stake with Facebook is different from what’s at stake with Google is different from what’s at stake with Amazon. That doesn’t end any conversations about how these companies should be treated, but it is important to mention somewhere along the way.