The Internet is awesome and it sucks. It’s the best party you’ve ever been to and everyone you’ve ever known was invited. Your favorite books and movies and video games are all here and you have time for all of them as long as you can ignore the Ponzi scheme guy who won’t shut up about his coin collection. Likeminded people congregate and for better or worse, you might meet someone new on your way to the kitchen. You can’t spend too much time on the Internet because the party never stops and there’s no way to leave. The Internet is an extension of our brain that’s made us the smartest, most deranged people in human history.
Today’s Internet is different from the one I grew up with. That’s okay. My life is different now than it was then. We used to wear chain wallets and the Internet used to look like a chain wallet. If you believe we’ve declined (we have), then you probably believe the Internet has declined (it has). The world might be better one day. Because the Internet is real life, it might be better too.
But I’m apprehensive. Our decline isn’t by chance. Today’s Internet is scarier and more exhausting than yesterday’s was because people built the Internet to be this way – typically to make money and often because they’re careless. The Internet has never been utopian, but it used to be the place for posting embarrassing journal entries and downloading mislabeled MP3s. Now it’s real life – the home of unfettered American capitalism, baby!
Uber used the Internet to connect people with cars, but the lax gig economy laws they’ve lobbied for have resulted in dangerously long shifts and a shameful lack of benefits for their drivers. Airbnb used the Internet to connect people with property squatters – one of many reasons my city has become virtually unlivable for people making an average salary. Amazon used the Internet to connect people with public-subsidized warehouses full of junk, but the added convenience is made possible by underpaid workers who are scolded for taking bathroom breaks during 10-hour shifts.
We can do our best to spend our money elsewhere, but it’s impossible to ignore how pervasive and avoidable these problems are. The world can feel bleak sometimes. We are tech workers though – designers, engineers, researchers, and others. Without our labor there could be no Internet – at least not at the scale we’re used to. So while building something responsibly is hard and thankless, I’m motivated knowing there’s still enough room on the Internet to create something that sucks a little less.
The Silicon Valley startup playbook is to focus on exciting investors and enticing tech giants rather than building something fun, useful, or even profitable. Flashy slide decks and prototypes lead to venture capital. Venture capital leads to an acquisition. Acquisitions make founders rich and the acquiring companies more monolithic. Some startups are comfortable with modest, sustainable profits, but why do that when you could be the next ten-figure acquisition from Google or Microsoft? And if that doesn’t work, you can always IPO and nickel-and-dime your customers when new investors demand bigger returns.
Greed isn’t limited to founders trying to win the startup lottery. After decades of trashing Google for its ad business, Apple has introduced scammy ad services of their own. Despite a market cap of over two fucking trillion dollars, gambling and crypto ads can now be found throughout Apple’s app store. Streaming services are fragmenting. Instagram and TikTok are feeling more like shopping malls as they become overrun with targeted shit to buy. Twitter briefly aspired to be the home for “high-yield money market accounts” before the majority of the company abandoned ship. Nobody’s asking for any of this. Products suffer when massive companies become discontent with simply being massive.
It might not be a path to limitless wealth, but it’s possible to start a modest, self-owned business that sustains its team without ruining its product. One of my favorite recent launches is Hell Gate – a worker-owned local news publication founded by five journalists who were frustrated with New York media companies’ instability. Media companies like Hell Gate, Racket, and Defector are limited – they only publish a few posts each day – but their writing isn’t compromised by sponsorships and their websites aren’t crippled by third-party ads. I’m thrilled to pay for their work because unlike most websites, I’m not on the defensive from tricks designed to put an ad in view for a second or two. And it helps knowing my contribution is supporting the people creating the content I love – not inflating an absent owner’s bank account.
The Internet’s largest companies are largely led by billionaires whose influence, connections, and hangers-on mean they don’t live anything resembling the lives you or I do. They often invest in companies to grow their own wealth and acquire emerging competition that threatens it. They choose which products their teams abandon or push to market. Smartphones exist as glass slabs because Steve Jobs - a cruel billionaire deified despite treating his team like cattle - paid people to design smartphones as glass slabs. The technology we rely on today wasn’t inevitable - it was the result of decisions made by relative few people who amass power on the backs of their employees.
Meta is a company whose underpaid moderators developed PTSD from fringe content shared by the people Facebook drove insane in the first place. Their dishonest advertising business gutted media companies and influenced elections. Facebook is why your family members have braindead opinions on vaccines. Some weirdos planned a coup in a Facebook group. Instagram is driving children insane. Even the most optimistic view of Meta can’t ignore the bad parts.
By 2023, Mark Zuckerberg will have funneled more money into the metaverse – something his own staff won’t even use – than the US spent on the Apollo program. This isn’t a new website or competitor clone. He’s attempting to create the fucking Matrix in an effort to control the lives lived inside of it. Even if we want a virtual space to disassociate in, do we want Meta’s vision of it? What makes us think it will become anything other than the 4chan-for-grandparents slum Facebook is?
It’s hard to solve real problems without having had any. While Instacart’s shoppers were subjected to unsafe grocery trips during the pandemic, the head of the company isolated in a $5 million gated villa. Like Uber, they are embroiled in gig economy controversy for stealing shoppers tips’ and effectively paying below minimum wage. We need more of the Internet to be built by people who buy their own groceries, have relied on public transportation, and have looked forward to a paycheck. Without being motivated by the real problems they’ve faced, how can tech executives know they’re solving any at all?
It’s not all bad. We’re emerging from a miserable, isolated pandemic that would have been more miserable and isolated without the Internet. Several of my friends are creating little newsletters in response to Twitter’s spiral and I haven’t felt this excited since zines were a thing. Until artificial intelligence ends artistic expression as we know it (only... half-kidding), creativity will thrive on Bandcamp and Tumblr and Itch.io and countless other websites that haven’t been overrun by the big tech oligarchy.
It’s always been easy for designers to focus on their craft. From cigarette ads in print magazines to shiny, wash traded NFTs rendered with WebGL, we have a history of designing for design’s sake without questioning the consequences. I get it – I’ve been designing the Internet for over 15 years because it’s fun. Sometimes I want to organize my team’s Figma library or beat my head against some gradients for a few hours. It’s easier to rely on our artistic intuition than it is to argue on principle.
But it’s also up to us. It’s up to the designers, engineers, researchers, and workers doing the real work to advocate for our real audience – not just our boards and bosses. We’re up against growth goals and pushy investors, but we’re the ones doing the work. We’re in a position to push back on crummy ideas because we can visualize what a better Internet can be. We can create prototypes and run tests to prove that even if our vision won’t have the same effect on metrics, it’ll make peoples’ lives on the Internet a little bit better. Even if we don’t always win, we can at least force the people whose pockets are full enough as it is to fight us for it.