“Our present panics tend to arrive just as new parts of our economy, culture and politics are reconstituted within platform marketplaces”

The internet of the 1990s was a perfect canvas for alarmism: hard to define, easy to misunderstand, growing rapidly but not yet vital or even familiar to those most inclined to worry about it. But the internet of 2017 is fundamentally different: both a dominant medium and a medium dominated by a few companies. Earlier worries about the reliability of information online — anyone can publish anything! — addressed the emergence of an entire new category of networked communication, evoking anti-populist fears about the spread of television, radio and the printed word; today’s concerns about, for example, state-sponsored disinformation double as criticism of the companies that have annexed our networks: primarily Facebook, Google and Twitter.

The flip side of these companies’ new dominance is that, not unlike the first industrialists, they turn progress from something that manifests inevitably with the passage of time into something that is being done to us, for reasons that are out of our control but seem unnervingly and suddenly within someone else’s. This is a profound reorientation, which might explain why current anxieties about the internet make for such unlikely bedfellows. Conservative parents with moral complaints about inappropriate videos surfacing in YouTube kids’ channels find themselves inadvertently agreeing with leftist critiques of corporate power. Facebook’s inability to deal in any meaningful way with misinformation on the platform has loosely aligned an elitist critique of democratized news with populist anger at a company led by Silicon Valley elites. There are right-wing anti-monopolists and left-wing anti-monopolists setting their sights on Google and Facebook, claiming dangerous censorship or lack of responsible moderation or, sometimes, both at once — people who want different things, and who have incompatible goals, but who have intuited the same core premise. In these instances, the only people left telling us not to worry — rhyming their responses with the vindicated defenders of the nascent internet — have suspiciously much to lose.

Our present panics tend to arrive just as new parts of our economy, culture and politics are reconstituted within platform marketplaces — shifts that have turned out to be bigger than anyone anticipated. Aggravation about “fake news” followed the realization that the business and consumption of online news had been substantially captured by Facebook, which had strenuously resisted categorization as a media company. Children’s entertainment has migrated to new and unexpected venues faster and more completely than either parents or YouTube expected or accounted for. Twitter is now the most effective way to keep up with breaking news, a singular direct line to the president, and a conspicuously mismanaged experiment in centralized public discourse.

John Herrman, “On Technology”, The New York Times Magazine (10 December 2017), 20, 22.