The week of September 21, 2014

Let’s make the Internet suck less

By Cooper Fleishman

In 2011, when the Daily Dot launched, Internet news was a niche subject. There was a disconnect between the real world, where news was made, and online communities, where news was discussed. Relatively few people cared about those groups—their mystifying traditions, their incomprehensible lingo—or noticed how their subtle influence bled into mainstream Internet culture and then, eventually, pop culture.

Tech writers were skeptical of a site that purported to be a hometown newspaper of Web-specific phenomena, like a viral video of a little girl playing with a dead squirrel. The problem with local news, as Mathew Ingram argued, is that no one outside of those neighborhoods gives a hoot.

But those humble online neighborhoods became villages, which became towns, then thriving metropolises, then the world as we knew it. Now, our entire lives unfold on the social Web, and Internet news is mainstream news. Turkish protesters fought a media blackout by relaying updates on Facebook. When the Islamic State began executing Westerners and spreading gruesome clips online, CNN reported on the group’s social media prowess.

How did this happen over just a few years? Facebook, which once felt like a small community of college friends sharing party photos, became a ubiquitous interface for our entire social life; it’s now, arguably, our single most influential online news source. Twitter, an unimpressive tool for tiny status updates in 2006, is a watercooler for the entire media industry. But it’s not just an invaluable tool for journalists—it’s a new, more social instant message. Tech-nerd link dump Reddit gobbled up early 2000s forum culture and became ground zero for viral news and video. Teens on YouTube and Vine have created a new Hollywood, and the mainstream entertainment industry is scrambling to adapt to it.

For tech writers (and anyone who’s been paying attention), this is a very exciting time. The future is now! Few could have predicted the social Web would look like this in 2014. For a lot of us who live and work online, however, the Internet’s biggest problems have grown accordingly, like an ant infestation spreading in a house under construction. And that’s why I’ve asked writers to do something impossibly hard: to imagine the Internet of the future. A better Web.

Leah Reich’s cover story, “How to detoxify the Web,” provides a heartbreaking glimpse at how hate speech, harassment, and abuse, unchecked since the social Web’s anarchic beginnings, have made the Internet a hostile forum for innovative ideas. To address the Internet’s troll problem, Reich draws from the years she spent giving online sex advice to teenagers in the late ’90s, and she does so with unexpected compassion.

Jess Zimmerman takes a similar tack in her brilliant plot to rescue online comments. She imagines a Web where the lunacy of the comment section can be redeemed, reinvented as a lucrative engine for positive ideas. I won’t spoil how. Meanwhile, S.E. Smith offers a simpler solution for curbing harassment: police it.

We asked Daily Dot staff writers Miles Klee and Aaron Sankin to think about the future of online privacy. Klee responded with a comprehensive overview of the right to be forgotten, a skewed system of reputation management that benefits only those who can afford it. Sankin dove into the problem with a “free” Internet, revealing how much privacy we surrender to corporations when we demand a lot for nothing.

Beejoli Shah turns the lens back at us: Diversifying the Web starts with the media, she argues, and it’s well past time the gatekeepers of news looked beyond themselves. Nick Douglas shines a light on the horror of “Around the Web” links to warn us of a news industry devoid of substance. And for some bright ideas about the future of media, we talk to the Toast’s Mallory Ortberg, the “queen of Internet irreverence.”

Aaron Sankin returns in “Google’s ambitious plan to change the Internet forever” to imagine what our society would be like if blazing-fast Internet access were available worldwide. E.A. Weiss discusses the need to bring Web access to the developing world.

This is what we can do to make the Internet better—a place we grudgingly love, despite its shortcomings. We must be the troll cesspool we wish to see on the Web (Gandhi said that, right?). No, really: Like it or not, this is our world now, and the future is in our hands. The social Web revolution starts with us.

If not, the next generation is going to wipe us all out.