The Web Might Be 2.0, But Greed Has Always Been In Open Beta
from the history-doesn't-repeat-itself,-but-it-does-rhyme dept
Last week I wrote about the anti-twitter proclamations of Baroness Susan Greenfield, which I found ridiculous, to say the least. There was some debate in the comments about whether technology can be inherently good or bad, and whether it is just as naive to blindly accept technology as to blindly reject it. This is an important topic and it deserves more attention and discussion.
TechCrunch columnist Paul Carr recently mused about the overall moral ramifications of Web 2.0, the tech startup game and SEO-driven media. On one hand, I think the column is an excellent example of the right way to criticize technology: by focusing on how people use it, not on the technology itself. But the problem is that once you think that through, you realize there is very little in his observations that is new or unique to the web.
At first, Web 2.0 seemed like a perfect two-way street. Brilliant entrepreneurs who genuinely wanted to change the world built services that we all wanted to use. They became rich, and our lives became better connected. We were all in it together.
Fast forward just a handful of years, though, and something has gone very, very wrong with that particular social contract. We users have kept our side of the bargain — dutifully tagging our friends in artificially-aged photos, and checking in at bars, and writing reviews of restaurants. We’ve canceled our newspaper subscriptions, and instead spend our days clicking on slideshows of “celebrities who look like their cats” or obsessively tracking trending topics on Twitter. We’ve stopped buying books published by professional houses and instead reward authors who write, edit and distribute their own electronic works through self-publishing platforms. We’ve even handed the keys to our cars and our homes to strangers.
On the face of it, the entrepreneurs have continued down the same track too: inventing ever more Disruptive companies to further improve the world, and in doing so enjoying multi-billion dollar valuations and all the trappings of fame and fortune. Even richer have grown the angels, super-angels and VCs who carefully nurture young entrepreneurs, molding them into the next breed of Mark Zuckerbergs and Sean Parkers, reminding their charges that “what’s cool” is a billion dollars — and that every new user acquired is another dollar added to their eventual high score.
And yet. AND YET. You only have to look at a couple of mini-outrages that bubbled up in the past few days to realize just how misaligned the interests of some entrepreneurs have become with those of the human beings they rely on for their success.
The first such mini-outrage was a controversial Huffington Post article that bore the headline "Amy Winehouse’s Untimely Death Is a Wake Up Call for Small Business Owners", which Carr offers as an example of the way content sites will pander to keywords and trending topics, even when it seems heartless to do so. There is truth to this, but he mostly ignores the fact that it is hardly a new complaint or one unique to the web: for decades people have accused newspapers and broadcasters of exploiting tragedies, perpetuating scare stories and generally using every dirty trick in the book to boost circulation or ratings. Carr is an avid media critic, who certainly knows this, so it's unclear to me why he puts so much blame on new technology. He notes that "every so often we are reminded of the grimy truth: making money with online content is a question of attracting millions of eyeballs, whatever the moral cost", but that grimy truth clearly predates online content. The dark side of the media might not have disappeared as quickly and as cleanly as many people hoped at the dawn of the web, but, in sum, we certainly seem better off with fewer gatekeepers to communication. At the very least, it makes a more solid foundation on which to build a new and better media landscape.
The second example is a recent Airbnb scandal. In short, a woman's apartment was trashed by a stranger who rented it through the service, she blogged about it, and one of the co-founders called her personally with an insensitive plea for her to take down the post because of the impact it could have on Airbnb's growth and funding. He later asked her to help give it a positive spin. She made it all public, and the story picked up steam:
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, we also know for sure that investors in the company leaned on publications like TechCrunch to stop reporting the story. Their ludicrous wail of protest: AIRBNB IS RUN BY NICE GUYS! IT’S NOT FAIR TO CALL THEM OUT WHEN THEY SCREW UP!
The question of whether Airbnb is run by nice guys is irrelevant. For all I know CEO Brian Chesky is a modern day Mother Theresa who had to break off his important work curing kitten cancer to deal with this growing PR nightmare. What’s relevant — and all too obvious — is that good old Brian and his co-founders stand to make millions, if not billions, of dollars from the success of Airbnb. His investors stand to make even more. That kind of wealth can easily drive the most saintly of us to behave in inhuman ways — to become so remote from reality and humanity that users like EJ become (at best) PR problems to be solved and (at worst) irrelevant pieces of data; eyeballs or clicks or room nights to be monetized in the pursuit of an ever greater exit.
Again, my disagreement is not with his observations but with his curious focus on the web and the tech sector. None of the actual problems are new. The world is far from perfect, and society is fueled by a lot more greed, inhumanity and injustice than anyone likes to admit - most of it immeasurably more terrible than these examples. Carr's concerns have been echoing through history since the birth of industrialization, and they have ancestors before that, so it's hard to see how the web has made things worse.
In fact, I firmly believe it has made things better. To fall back on a cliche, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, and the democratization of communication and media makes society's problems a lot harder to ignore.