What the _ _ _ _ Happened to the Internet

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It’s been a long time since I’ve gone on a good rant and I’m about to show my age with this one.

Lately, I find myself asking, ‘What the hell happened to the internet?’ Over the past decade, this once amazing research tool has slowly turned into one big advertisement seemingly designed to distract your focus and drain your pocketbook. This ‘erosion of usefulness’ appears to emerge from several angles.

I’m a child of the eighties and spent my childhood in the greatest decade the world has ever known. Witnessing first hand the rise of ‘peak usefulness’. The time between the post dial-up age and the current ‘unlimited’ broadband nightmare when the internet hit it’s sweet spot. A time when a web search would yield useful information instead of link after link of sponsored content with half written articles designed to game search engines for the sole purpose of selling product. None of these sites will actually shoot you straight but they sure as hell will tell you why you need their product. Unfortunately, this issue is quite a bit worse.

Shift in Purpose

The internet shifted from a data sharing network to a data gathering network.

Social media laid the groundwork for this shift by steeling the concept of forums and stripping the anonymity that helped foster a free exchange of information. But the real magic is in the data collection that social media platforms perfected by tracking and cataloging everything said, looked at and clicked on. Packaging this information and behavior into a ‘profile’ and then selling that information to a seemingly endless line of clients. This reality should keep a lot of users away but a nice sprinkling of highly addictive mechanics, think Vegas inspired, keeps most on the hook. Add cross platform integration and staying away from social media for personal use is difficult, to put it lightly. For businesses, nearly impossible as a social media presence is now associated with legitimacy.

As cliche as it sounds, data brokering has been weaponized and businesses of all kinds have taken note. Ever wonder why you tend to see the same things on repeat and start seeing ads for items or searches just performed. This data is being used in realtime as this web of influence and marketing grows. By influence I literally mean this data is used to shape what you see online. This is a form of censorship by any reasonable definition.

Read the primer about web personalization if you are interested in more as it’s a huge topic.

On a side note, internet forums (kudos to the one’s still hanging on) fostered a much greater exchange of knowledge and ideas than can be accomplished in the social media landscape. By providing an anonymous space, users are more creative, ask more questions and post more ideas.

Trickle Down Effect and Click Thru Rates

Throngs of users want to be internet famous and this is yet another area that has changed. Namely, content tends to focus on click thru rates and ad impressions. It’s one reason there is about 1 min of information in a 15 min video. Creators are focusing more on ad revenue and less on content. Making 15 minute videos on which way to turn a lightbulb with a 14 minute preamble on the content creators dog Bandit. All this accomplishes is frustration for the audience and makes access to sought after information more difficult. At least a few more ad impressions were made though.

This behavior is showing up on more and more sites as well. Think of all the sites with ads every paragraph and/or ads that load a second late to shift the page and increase accidental ad clicks. Notice how you are landing on these pages more than you used to. Once again it’s a shift in monetization over content. The content is secondary to these sites and therefore, making data not only harder to find, but harder to distinguish.

Walled Out

More sites are using walls. These come in many flavors such as ad block, cookie and pay walls. But the mechanics are the same, basically blocking content if the user isn’t willing to view ads, consent to being tracked, pay a fee or maybe even all of the above. I’m of the opinion that if you need to degrade the user experience and invade their privacy to remain online, you are doing something wrong. More often than not, these pages won’t contain what you are searching for anyway.

There’s More

As I’m writing this I realize I’m barely scratching the surface of these issues. What I can say is that these issues and more are stripping the usefulness of the internet as a research tool. I came across a book that appears to talk about this in much greater detail.The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser. It’s next on my reading list.

I wish I could say there is a solution but I really don’t believe that is the case. A lot of creators have either quite or moved to social platforms, invalidating their work as it gets lost feeding the media behemoths. Where they profit off the creator’s work in exchange for a few likes. The user base has flocked to these platforms as well and their browsing experience is influenced. The shift was so slow and subtle that most users don’t know any better.

That’s not to say you should make it easy either. Realize that virtually anything you are logged into is tracking/cataloguing information. Especially your cellphones. Log out of devices and programs when not in use, set browsers to reject cookies and clear cookies on exit. Browse with a VPN and use an adblocker. Most of all, quit going to sites that insist on tracking before letting you view content. Take back your visual space and the space inside your mind these companies are infecting.

Racing

If you made it this far congratulations. You may be scratching your head wondering what in the hell this has to do with racing? It has to do with time and racing is all about time. The time around a circuit, the time to change a tire, how long it takes to make it to the bathroom and back pre race…etc. Easy access to knowledge is a huge time saver. Especially in the garage. The internet used to be the ultimate time saver and in some cases it still is. But when searching for pertinent data on specific subjects to specific questions, I, along with many others have noted a distinct shift in the ability to find answers efficiently. And that costs time.

By Chris Simmons

Chris Simmons is a race car driver, instructor, business owner and all around gearhead. His passion for motorsport started in the drifting community over 10 years ago and progressed into wheel to wheel racing of all kinds. When off track Chris can be found training and working on a myriad of projects. After a hiatus from writing, he is back to share his passion, knowledge and experience in regard to motorsports on and off the track.

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