There’s a place for everyone on the web

ø

The internet is the ultimate level playing field. It is now possible for anybody with internet access to create a website and promote it for no money and minimal effort. An enormous amount of content has been created by people sitting in their room and yet is seen by millions of people around the world. This means however unpopular and outlandish your viewpoint, the internet gives you the best opportunity to get it seen on a wide scale.
Everyone gets the opportunity to be heard on the Internet. Whilst unpopular opinions are often ignored or brushed away, everyone has an equal opportunity to convince others of their point of view. Whether it is in the comments section of a news article or on facebook, when you post your thoughts it will be given an equal standing, no matter the content of what you are saying.
Although it is true that majority viewpoints take the main stage, as they do in real life, it isn’t hard to find opposing opinions within discussions. It would be impossible for the internet to eliminate the natural promotion of the majority opinion within groups, but it does give minority viewpoints a much greater weight then they would in real life, where all widespread media limits minority opinion before the masses even get to hear their side of the argument.
It is also much easier to find people who share your views and talk with them. In the real world there may be limits, social or practical, stopping people with minority viewpoints from really being able to meet and discuss their opinions. The internet changes this for the better.
To say the internet stifles minority opinion is to put too much of the blame on the internet and too little on people themselves. There is nothing in the internet’s structure that means a point has to be popular to be seen, it is just people being stubborn and refusing to consider other views that means they are left on the outskirts of discussions.
All in all, the internet gives a voice to people who would never have the chance in the real world. The majority is always adept at stifling views they dislike, but on the internet it is possible for people holding these views to thrive amongst themselves and participate in debate to a much greater extent than ever seen before.

Even Online, Minority Viewpoints May Not Have the Voice That They Need

ø

The Internet can be a scary place at times, even as a spectator. But when actively participating in an online discussion, it can be downright terrifying. The anonymity and pseudonymity often employed online can turn conversations into verbal bloodbaths, with insults and personal attacks hurled around like peanuts at a baseball game. It’s enough to make one want to abstain from commenting online, and if the person in question has an unpopular viewpoint, it often can be.

The Internet, for all its promises of openness and understanding, is an unfortunate contradiction. While it offers a venue for people to say just about anything they’d like, the most vocal posters online can intimidate those who hold a less popular view into saying nothing at all.

Interestingly enough, it is oftentimes not the traditional “minority” viewpoints that are suppressed online. At the risk of sounding like Sean Hannity (God help me if I do), take a quick trip over to Reddit.com, the self-professed “front page” of the Internet, and see how many of the site’s posts are staunch attacks on all varities of theistic beliefs. Similarly, try starting up a conversation on the site that opposes the Occupy Wall Street movement and see how far that gets you. Reddit is just one site, but it is a tremendously popular site. It is unfortunately one where the majority is too aggressive for balanced discourse to ever emerge when it comes to certain topics.

That’s not to say that the more traditional minority viewpoints go unsuppressed, though. Vulgar hate speech is rampant on the Internet, much of it against groups defined by the “standard” minority labels of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Mainstream sites such as YouTube and major news sites are home to a wide range of such derogatory comments in their comments sections, making posting any rebuttals of such attacks an uphill battle for those in the minority.

It is worth noting that a variety of safe havens do exist online for those in the minority, be they religious or conservative sites or sites for LGBTQ identifiers. But such safe havens also exist in real life, and you would be hard pressed to argue that oppression of minority viewpoints does not occur there. While safe haven sites are wonderful, if people looking for an outlet for their feelings are forced to them, then suppression of viewpoints is occurring.

This is a problem with no easy solution. A significant amount of the blame can be laid at the feet of the ability for online commenters to be anonymous or hide behind pseudonyms, but even if the Internet is “tamed” via the binding of people’s real life identities to their online ones, the damage may have already been done, with users in minority groups too used to being intimidated to bother vocalizing their opinions outside of the aforementioned safe havens.

Ultimately, this problem is one of the core problems of the Internet: there is the vast potential for good, free expression online, but the nature of anonymity undermines it. Hopefully a happy solution can be reached, but given tendency for oppression of viewpoints online to occur, I worry that maybe things are too engrained in the public consciousness to ever fully change.

People should never be scared to share their ideas

ø

It takes confidence to post under your own name on the internet. With internet forums as savage as they are, the fear of failure or rejection can push people to sit silently on the sidelines of discussions. Even with a username rather than your real name, the comments can be linked back to you and you will forever be tied to them, forcing some people who could add to a discussion to just lurk.
Some people may say that this will lead to a natural filtering of the internet, where only the most confident and valid arguments are heard, but this is detrimental to the very idea of a free market of opinions. To get the best resolution to a debate requires input from as many people as possible, putting forward their viewpoint honestly. When fear drives them to stay silent it is bad for everyone and the result is worse than it would have been otherwise.
Yes raw, honest discussion may have ugly consequences, but amidst all the chaff the best ideas will rise to the top. Some people’s honest opinions may be ill informed or will not contribute, but as long as there are some people who add to the discussion then it is worth allowing anonymity. An honest discussion is much better than a restrained one, with people constantly worrying about they are perceived.
As well as this, anonymity offers people privacy in their online life. Many people want to be able to shed their real world identity and not have it be connected to anything they do on the internet. This is a fair demand; if people don’t want people on the internet looking into their life then they should be allowed to talk to others without attaching their real identity.
For some people, such as whistleblowers, this privacy is a necessity. If people know that their real identities cannot be linked to their comments, then they will be honest and release information that they know to be in the public good but otherwise couldn’t.
Anonymity fuels creativity and honesty. Society as a whole shouldn’t be afraid to hear what people truly think, and it is better if people can say it without repercussions. The only way the best ideas will come about is if the fear of being incorrect is made inconsequential.

Anonymity: Masking the True Potential of the Internet

ø

Anonymity is without a doubt one of the most important areas of discussion regarding the Internet. As Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook advocate for the establishment of a more transparent Internet, the question looms: is anonymity online good or bad?

Let’s go back to YouTube, which is quickly becoming a staple of my blog posts. The quality of YouTube comments can largely be considered a byproduct of anonymity (or pseudonymity, to be more precise). Since users do not have to reveal their real names in order to comment on the site, they are far less likely to have their comments traced back to their real-life identities. As a result, their inhibitions are brought closer to zero, and the particularly nasty or crude members show little restraint in posting a variety of hateful, offensive, and just plain stupid comments. For a better example, take a look at 4chan, which operates under complete anonymity for its members. Actually, on second thought, stay away from 4chan. Far, far away.

Now look at Facebook. Facebook, as I’m sure most of us know, is not a gold standard for civility or even coherence as far as posts go. However, when compared to anonymous sites, there is certainly a difference in the majority of the posts of the site’s users. When people are aware that their actual identity is going to be tied to what they post, they are more likely to think twice about what they’re posting and less likely to be offensive and hurtful just because they can.

What does this say about anonymity? Anonymity allows people to be less than human; to be cruel, shocking, and hateful, oftentimes to an extent far beyond what they would be capable of in person. Unfortunately, this suggests that anonymity is harmful to the sanctity of the Internet as a place for social networking and expression of thoughts and ideas.

An “unveiled Internet” offers accountability on the part of its users, and while this will cause many people to think twice about using the Internet, that is precisely the point: people will think twice about spewing hateful speech or being excessively belligerent for the sake of inciting an online riot of words. Eliminating anonymity would also severely pare back the reach of Internet trolls, who would be far more concerned with what they say if their real identities are in plain sight.

Facebook has taken tremendous strides towards conditioning us all to embrace the idea of this accountable Internet future, and for the most part, we have been fairly accepting of these actions. With the immense amount of Facebook integration across the Internet, the idea of being ourselves online is no longer a strange one. It is one that we have proven willing to adopt, and once we go all the way with it, I suspect that most of us will have no trouble adjusting.

In theory, anonymity should be a helpful resource for Internet users, but in practice, it has made the Internet a more aggressive and less friendly place to interact. To eliminate anonymity is to calm the Internet; rather than being a distorted, insane version of our everyday lives, it will become a natural extension of them, and that is what will truly be beneficial.

 

Quality is better than quantity

ø

Internet optimists often point to the breakdown of the old way of doing things as a benefit of the internet. But the way they mock professionals and traditional companies as being out of touch and seetheir failure as something to be heralded is profoundly misguided.
What professionalism means first and foremost is quality. Free, amateur content can never compete with the time, effort and money put into proprietary projects. What the internet leads to is a choice of quantity over quality. Yes youtube has billions of videos on it, but how much of that amateur video could ever contend with a cinematic masterpiece that would take years to make? Could Lord of the Rings have succeeded in a future where people would rather sit at home and watch cats on a screen rather than go to a movie theatre and watch something with some depth?
One of the fields in which this is most evident is news reporting. The internet allows minute to minute eye witness accounts of events happening around the globe, so much so that people don’t think they need traditional media outlets anymore. But newspapers and news stations do not just tell people facts about an event going in the world, they provide analysis and research as well as fact-checking the basic information. As well as this they investigate stories that amateurs on the internet just wouldn’t have the resources to do on their own.
Internet optimists sees the wisdom of crowds as comparable to that of an expert, but that simply isn’t the case. A multitude of bloggers may give their two cents on an issue, but their opinion is not as relevant as an in depth interview with the key players which only a news organisation can provide.
These companies don’t just provide the basics that anyone could cook up, they are the venture capitalists of modern culture. They provide the money so that artists or reporters can spend all their time working and creating quality material. No amateur can afford to spend all their time on their craft, and just adding more amateurs does not make up for that fact.
Free content is significantly lower quality than paid, professional content but the internet has ignored this fact and undervalued the role that traditional companies play.

Why User-Generated Content is Good for All of Us

ø

I concluded my previous blog post regarding piracy with the statement that the long-term damage dealt to the entertainment industry “is simply too high a price to pay for free content.” I stand by that assessment. It is essentially impossible for an entertainment provider to sell their product when that same exact product is being copied and distributed for free by pirates online.

But what about free content that isn’t the same, such as the myriad videos available on YouTube? That is a different case altogether. User-generated content does not steal from content providers to unfairly undermine them; instead, it competes with them in a manner that spurs innovation and increases the amount of content available to consumers.

YouTube is probably the easiest example, so I will stick with that. YouTube is a breeding ground for viral videos, and there are virtually no barriers to entry, so anybody can be a star if they have the right idea and a bit of luck. It is no longer necessary to break into the entertainment industry in a more traditional sense; each and every one of us can easily become a content provider if we so choose. That grants those of us who wish to remain consumers with a wealth of new options for viewing or listening to.

And where the availability of free content via piracy unfairly hurts the more established content providers, user-generated content acts as a legitimate form of competition, and even a source of revenue. Daniel Tosh has made an entire career out of adding off-color commentary to user-generated videos, and Internet celebrities can often become part of the more traditional entertainment industry, such as Lucas Cruikshank and his “Fred” character, who became the subject of a feature film that premiered on Nickelodeon in 2010  http://www.comingsoon.net/news/movienews…).

In addition to being a source for new intellectual properties and ideas, user-generated content can also be used by established content providers to promote their for-pay products. Certainly, Facebook is a gold mine for the most important user-generated content: word of mouth. The right online promotion on Facebook (such as the common technique of revealing a teaser for a game, album, or movie upon reaching a certain number of “likes”) can get people talking about a specific release, spreading awareness.

Alternatively, companies can just make user-generated content a part of the product itself, such as Sony and its LittleBigPlanet franchise for its PlayStation products, which allows users to create their own levels for the game and share them with friends. Embracing user-generated content encourages users to continue to stay engaged with a product while simultaneously acting as marketing agents for the product.

This is a “free” that helps instead of hurting. User-generated content offers more options for consumers without being menacing enough to destroy established business models. In a sense, it is the best of both worlds, and one of the best developments that the Internet has offered in its history. I suspect that it will continue to increase in relevancy in the future, and I wholly embrace the impact that it will have on the entertainment industry.

Why society needs piracy

ø

When Disney were planning to create their first full length animated film in the 1930s they needed a safe choice of story, one that they could rely on to be popular so they could take a risk on their new innovative techniques. What could be a better choice than ‘Snow White’, a well known and liked fairytale from the Brothers Grimm. This rehash of an existing story allowed Disney to develop new techniques in film-making and the outcome was revolutionary. Hollywood itself became the centre of the movie industry when movie makers wanted to get away from Edison and his agents in New York so they could use his patented equipment. The movie industry was based upon evading patent laws to innovate but now they are the strongest proponents for strongly enforced intellectual property laws.
There exists a similar story in the music story from sheet-music printers who protested recorded music, and the people who recorded music went on to protest popular radio.

By stamping down on copyright abuse, the industries are stifling innovation within their respective fields. Piracy has already shown that there is a gap in the market for easy to access media which they are only starting to counter with free to stream such as Spotify or Hulu, they should learn from the popularity of piracy, not attempt to stifle.

Looking at the music industry, there is evidence that stopping downloads showed no increase in sales, on the contrary, piracy has been shown to promote innovation and actually lead to an increase in sales (see sources). It is also obvious that the loss in popularity is massive. It would be more beneficial for artists if the fight against copyright was given up and instead, people were pushed to share files and tell their friends about new music.

But the industries want to keep their monopoly on success, they don’t really care about the real talent or how much new creators can break through. Artists can now flourish without corporate backing by uploading their own content and spreading through word of mouth. Only the professionals are against piracy, the amateurs use it to their advantage. Filesharing allows people to see content they would never have thought of seeking out before. Music was around for generations before copyright and was never short of innovation, to say new music would die without it is just wrong.

Still, most can agree the concept of copyright is good, giving artists security of earnings, but where did it go wrong? Author and former IP lawyer Barry Eisner explains: ‘extending the monopoly past the point at which it creates the incentive itself is harmful to society, because doing so keeps copyrighted works out of the public domain. Think of it this way: anything beyond what’s required to incentivise artists is a windfall to artists and a detriment to society.’

This is the real issue that needs to look at. Although artists should gain from their work, when there power over it extends too much it becomes detrimental to society with little or no added benefit to the incentive it gives. Copyright needs reforming in society’s favour.

Sources:
http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20100303/1430578394.shtml
http://boingboing.net/2011/12/03/swiss-govt-study-downloadin.html
http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20110725/04104115231/new-study-piracy-increases-quality-content.shtml
http://pubs.doc.ic.ac.uk/piracy-and-innovation/

How “Free” Content Has a Cost

ø

Everybody pirates. At least, that’s what it seems like at times. In 2010, films such as Avatar and Kick Ass saw over 16 million and 10 million illegal BitTorrent downloads, respectively (http://www.indyposted.com/144925/the-10-most-pirated-movies-of-2010/). The gaming industry saw games such as Call of Duty: Black Ops and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 illegally downloaded over 3.5 million times each (http://gamepolitics.com/2010/12/29/most-pirated-games-2010). As for music, I think it’s likely that everyone knows the piracy rates for that one: according to the NPD Retail Tracking Group, 63% of all music obtained by consumers is pirated (http://www.riaa.com/physicalpiracy.php?content_selector=piracy-online-scope-of-the-problem).

Ignoring the legality (or lack thereof) of the topic at hand, what exactly makes this troubling? After all, Avatar still made over $760 million domestically (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=avatar.htm) at the box office, while Call of Duty had the biggest entertainment launch of all time at its release (http://www.forbes.com/sites/oliverchiang/2010/11/11/call-of-duty-black-ops-claims-biggest-entertainment-launch-in-history/), only to be surpassed by this year’s installment (http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2011-11-11-call-of-duty-modern-warfare-3-biggest-entertainment-launch-ever). And Lady Gaga didn’t have any trouble shifting over a million copies of her newest album in its opening week (http://www.ladygaga.com/news/default.aspx?nid=35633).

That’s the problem, though. The big releases aren’t being affected. James Cameron, the Call of Duty brand, and Lady Gaga are surefire hits in their respective industries, so even in the face of massive piracy, their products are going to rake in millions upon millions of dollars. The damage is being dealt towards smaller releases, and as a result, the film, music, and gaming industries are gravitating away from riskier ventures in favor of these guaranteed moneymakers.

While this is beneficial to no one, it certainly does its fair share of damage to both the people releasing the products and those consuming them. According to the RIAA, piracy has led to a 47% decrease in music sales since 1999 (http://www.riaa.com/physicalpiracy.php?content_selector=piracy-online-scope-of-the-problem). Gaming giant Ubisoft has ceased development of some of its titles, citing a 95% piracy rate (http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2011/11/24/piracy-stops-ghost-recon-future-soldier-pc/). As for the film industry, the producers of films ranging from The Hurt Locker to Far Cry have resorted to suing torrenters, who are blamed for the financial failure of those films (http://www.movieline.com/2010/05/kathryn-bigelows-oscar-afterglow-plagued-by-piracy-suits-international-outrage.php).

Of course, as consumers, we are more likely to be more concerned about how we are affected than whether or not Kathryn Bigelow will have to pawn her Oscar to make up for The Hurt Locker’s commercial failure. And for consumers, the effects of piracy are no less harmful. A limited range of offerings from the entertainment industry benefits no one, least of all the ones of us with less mainstream tastes. If piracy continues to plague the entertainment industry, the odds of risky projects like the upcoming Arrested Development resurrection and companion movie decrease, and the risky projects are often the true gems.

Ultimately, nobody wins with piracy. The short-term benefits of torrenting paid content without paying do not outweigh the long-term damage that will be dealt to parties on both sides of the issue. The cost of piracy (again disregarding the illegality of the act) is the growth and development of the entertainment industry, which hurts providers and consumers alike.

That is simply too high a price to pay for free content.

More information is always better

ø

It is easy to get lost in the internet, following hyperlink after hyperlink looking for nothing in particular. As any modern teenager knows, the internet has an infinite amount of useless information that can serve to distract from meaningful tasks. As well as this everyone has their ‘vitals’ they must check: their email, facebook, twitter etc. that they must check on every trip into cyberspace.

 

One of the many criticisms levelled by internet pessimists is that the internet bombards people with so much information and at such a fast rate that it decreases productivity and attention span. People try to take in as much information that is open to them as possible but the internet means this is a never-ending task that removes people from other important aspects of their lives. The abundance of choice offered by the internet is said to overwhelm people and they would be better off in ignorance.

 

The problem in this argument for me is that I find it hard to see this increased choice as a bad thing. Rational human beings make better decisions the more information they have. Giving people access to such a wealth of knowledge means they are naturally more informed and it also allows them to research before making any decisions.

 

At the moment, people do a decent job of filtering out the totally useless information from that which is an efficient use of time to take in and we are always improving. Human beings adapt to new technology. Even though I may want to subscribe to hundreds of RSS feeds, I subscribe to a small selection and skim through most posts in order to get the best and most useful information. People do this every day with information sources and as later generations grow up with better tools and more experience it will become easier to prioritise information.

 

Information abundance will always be preferred over scarcity. We want people to be informed as it means that debates and discussions will be both more rational and more diverse. People can draw on information to back up their point or to search for an alternative. Although an uninformed consensus would be more efficient, I find it hard to see how it is preferable. People always have the choice to avoid any information and make decisions as they would without the internet, they just choose to use the internet as the outcome is usually better for themselves.

 

Although people are bombarded with information everyday, they become better at choosing what to take in. This means the internet and its wealth of information is a net benefit to society as people get more quality information. Those who say that people should be kept in ignorance as they cannot handle the information underestimate the abilities of human just as the roman writer Seneca did when he said that Roman society was so overburdened with information that it became impossible to be truly knowledgable.

One Trillion Results for “Information Overload”

ø

In my previous blog post regarding society’s “stupidification” at the hands of the Internet, I addressed the idea that the abundance of information online could be making us stupid by allowing us to never have to remember anything. I still stand by my assertion that this is not the case. That is not to say, however, that there are not adverse effects of the prevalence of information online. In fact, it might be too much for us to handle.

In 2008, over one trillion unique URLs existed online (http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2008/07/we-knew-web-was-big.html). And that was over three years ago! The number has surely increased significantly since then. It is humanly impossible to ever comprehend (let alone read) even a single percent of the information that these sites contain. But let’s not pretend that it’s necessary to know every little bit of information ever. Let’s focus on a single topic to cut down on the number of relevant sites.

Say I want to look up information on Harvard and the Internet. A Google search for “Harvard” yields 192 million results. “Harvard and the Internet” nets 124 million results. Even the rather specific “Harvard and the Internet Phil Malone” brings in 536,000 results alone. Google’s ranking algorithm will certainly help weed out useful links, but “useful” doesn’t necessarily mean “comprehensive.” Result #7,256 might have some little known but interesting information about how our three topics of Harvard, the Internet, and Professor Malone relate together, but the odds of anybody sifting through that many links to find it are slim to none.

There is simply too much information online for us to ever look through everything that is out there in cyberspace. As a result, we become accustomed to never going past page 2 on Google, or are just content with reading a Wikipedia summary on a particular topic. With so much information out there, we trust large and reputable sites to weed out the useful information for us.

If only a fraction of the URLs in cyberspace existed, we wouldn’t be as likely to succumb to this laziness. But it’s essentially a necessity with no less than hundreds of thousands of results for just about any search imaginable. This huge amount of information really is overloading us, and it’s hurting our desire to turn to anywhere but a few large resources for information.

What are the ramifications of this? Well, as mentioned above, we become lazier when we realize that trying to get all of the information on a topic is just about impossible. In doing so, we place our trust almost exclusively in the biggest information sites, and anything that fails to reach these sites runs the risk of going unnoticed almost entirely.

It’s ironic, but the sheer volume of information online is making us restrict ourselves to less information than we can have. And with well over a trillion URLs and counting, it is only going to become harder to break this habit. The nature of the Internet might also make it so that there may be no effective remedy to the problem.

Maybe result #7,256 of a Google search on the problem might yield a solution. I don’t know about you though, but I’m not prepared to sort through all of that information.

Log in