Across the tech industry, a reckoning is afoot. Faced with the consequences (harassment, misinformation, radicalization, polarization) wrought by the unprecedented scale of its platforms, Big Tech is — at least publicly — looking inward. Facebook is optimizing its platform to encourage something it’s calling “time well spent,” while Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced two weeks ago the company would attempt “to help increase the collective health, openness, and civility of public conversation.” And, facing a barrage of reports detailing how its algorithms have surfaced and promoted divisive, disturbing, and conspiratorial videos, YouTube has announced changes to improve its news experience. Taken together, these announcements make for something significant: a broad acknowledgment that something needs to change.
But it’s not just the companies. A similar reckoning is taking place for those of us who live on these platforms, too. In the last two weeks alone, it’s taken the form of a number of familiar stunts that involve “unplugging” from or altering the way that we interact with the internet. Vice writer Eve Peyser spent a week in the woods filing analog columns about life away from computers; writers at Slate and the Verge installed a Twitter Demetricator, which strips all of the likes, retweets, and follower numbers from the social network, and wrote about living on the internet outside of “the rules of the platform’s never-ending popularity contest.” Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic conducted a similar experiment where he got rid of retweets in his feed and came to the conclusion that they’re awful. And last week, the unplugging phenomenon twice graced the pages of the New York Times: in the form of a profile of an Ohio man who has excised from his life all political news, and a column from Farhad Manjoo, who claimed he got his news only from print newspapers for two months and was happier and healthier for it.
The impulse to unplug is nothing new — so strong is our obsession with going off the grid that we have a national day dedicated to the pursuit (it was last week, did you notice?). The privileged, stressed-out masses have paid good money for years now to abscond to the woods for various digital detox camps. In journalism, unplugging stunts are a frequent occurrence (full disclosure: I’ve taken sabbaticals from Twitter, email, cash, and all phone apps in the name of a good tech stunt). The rationalization usually follows the same pattern: in order to understand the importance of something that takes up a great deal of space in your life, it’s helpful to remove it and reflect.
This is likely the thinking behind the rash of recent tech reset pieces — only this time around, there’s a particular aggressiveness to the stunts. Madrigal’s “Retweets Are Trash” headline pulls no punches; Peyser compares the internet she’s escaping to a utopian experiment gone wrong from a sci-fi novel, where “women are routinely sexually assaulted; people are beaten and sometimes murdered; and most curiously of all, the residents lean into the whole thing.” Unlike unplugging efforts from previous years, which felt like fun, curious social experiments, this batch has an urgency and even a hint of desperation to it — less exploratory mission to the moon and more last-ditch attempt to terraform Mars before the oceans rise.
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While fundamentally different, all six of these recent pieces agree on one thing: Something is wrong online. Fake news spreads faster and farther than the truth. Our recommendation algorithms are efficient, ruthless radicalization engines. This Monday, on the 29th anniversary of the creation of the World Wide Web, its creator, Tim Berners Lee, declared that “what was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms.” The current ecosystem is maddening, all-consuming, and unsustainable that necessitates some kind of distance. While the big tech companies try to put their houses in order, the rest of us are left to grapple with exactly where we fit into the toxic internet narrative. We’ve spent the last decade surrendering ourselves to exciting, dizzying, addictive, and — most importantly — free services that wound their way into and transformed every element of our lives. Now, thanks to a toxic political climate, a contentious election, and the specter of foreign interference, all via the platforms, we’re finally coming to and starting to ask questions. How much of this is the internet’s fault? How much of it is ours?
This question is what the best unplugging pieces hope to interrogate. Madrigal’s deep dive into turning off retweets and the pieces on the Demetricator are, ultimately, attempts at a diagnosis. Is Twitter fundamentally bad? Or is it just the retweets? Is it who I follow or is it...me? Am I better without it? With some, but not all, of it?
The answer isn’t simple. Turning off retweets and metrics can change our relationship with a piece of technology for the better, but it’s not a solution that works at scale. Strip out the metrics from Twitter for every user and the service is...not Twitter. The incentives are different and the behavior will change (if it's not abandoned). Similarly untenable is abstaining altogether. As the Verge’s Paul Miller found when he took a yearlong hiatus from the internet during 2012 and 2013, the disconnect comes at a price. “The real Paul and the real world are already inextricably linked to the internet,” he wrote. “Not to say that my life wasn't different without the internet, just that it wasn't real life.”
Our collective struggle to get a handle on what the internet has wrought is not unlike discussions happening now in open-plan offices across Silicon Valley. Something’s wrong, and Big Tech has (slowly) begun to admit some fault. But like the rest of us, these companies lack the perspective to understand precisely where they fit in all of this. They’re looking for quick fixes. Focusing on the vague metric of “time well spent” is not a solution — it’s a way to feel better and move forward in the short term without addressing the real, systemic issues below the problem.
For individuals, unplugging is a similarly straightforward — while exactly easy — way to make ourselves feel better about our relationship to all this technology. It gives us a small measure of control so we don’t even have to consider the unthinkable option: abandoning it altogether. And it’s for these reasons that most unplugging stunts reach the inevitable conclusion that, while the system may be broken, it’s also the one we live in. The conflict, toxicity, delight, and weirdness of being relentlessly connected is a human problem — not caused, but rapidly accelerated by, the internet.
In the end, no amount of Big Tech mission statement fiddling is likely to fix what’s actually broken. And no matter how much we create artificial rules to govern our internet consumption, we’re likely still going to feel like we’re being driven by, rather than driving, the glut of information. This is where we live now, even if little of it really feels like time well spent.