Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Popular Science shuts off comments - a sad day for the internet and our species

We are breaking the Internet.  I'm not talking about some technical problem that will cause the volume of data to keep us from being able to download Netflix videos in HD.  I'm not talking about the fact that there are millions of new iPhones clogging up the cell towers.  No, I'm talking about us -- you, me and everyone -- ruining the ideal of the Internet.  We are breaking the very value proposition that makes the Internet the awesome thing that it could be.  The Internet has feet of clay.

For me, the big letdown started with filter bubbles.  In the early 90s, I was completely bought in to the idea that the Internet would bring us together.  It would become this great democratizing force that would give everyone a voice.  Free flowing information would break down barriers across societal boundaries.  It was going to be awesome.  Well, it has had some of that effect, but more recently it has also had a segregating effect.  Filter bubbles allow people to live in a world on the internet created just for them.  The Internet is adapting to show them only the information that is relevant to them, and in the process limiting the free flow of information.  Instead of hear about a lot of diverse opinions, complex analytics engines on far away servers whir away to make sure that I only get server content that is "relevant" to me.  My data is filtered to assure, among other things, that I will see information that I agree with.  I will tend to find more people who have the same opinion as me.  Rather than exposing me to more new ideas, it will reinforce my current beliefs.  I can live in a filter bubble with other people like me (who I can find now much more easily than in the pre-Internet world) and we can go on happily reinforcing our views and ignoring anything that might challenge us.  A TED talk on this topic by Eli Pariser explains the problem.

Today, the Internet took the next step down a long, lonely road of self destruction.  Popular Science announced that they were shutting off the user comments on their web site.  In a well written piece published today entitled "Why We're Shutting Off Our Comments," they explain why they feel compelled to stop allowing the general public to comment on their articles.  It basically boils down to trolls; people who post derogatory or inflammatory comments for whatever reason.  Rather than sane discourse, people post comments to sway or influence in spite of contrary facts.
Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to "debate" on television. 
They quote Brossard and Scheufele who wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times claiming that comments on web stories influence people's interpretation of the validity of the original story.  They want the scientific merits of their stories to stand on their own, not be influenced by any crazy person with a keyboard.  Rather than getting into a potentially biased process of editing users comments, they've taken the difficult decision to shut down all comments for everyone.

Really?  Seriously?

Lets just think about this for a second folks.  This is Popular Science, not some high brow scientific journal.  It is stories about flying cars and Mars colonies.  They bring interesting scientific trends and their implications to all of us.  They exist to inspire us, not to provide a platform for debate.  Yet, they find themselves so besieged with spam and misinformation that they feel compelled to cut off comments.  Do people really think that they can change facts by ignoring them or denying them?  This seems to me like a rather short term strategy because ultimately the truth will come out.  This isn't the democratization that the Internet was supposed to bring us, is it?  Please, can we focus on educating each other rather than fighting?  Can we reason with each other instead of arguing without evidence?  I feel sorry for the people at Popular Science.  And I feel sorry for us all.

Come on folks we're better than this.  I know we are smart enough to handle the power of this Internet thing, after all, we were smart enough to invent it (or was that just Al Gore?  I forget).  It is a very powerful tool and we really need to use it to make ourselves smarter, not misinform and obfuscate.  If you can't play nice, I'm going to pull the car over and come back there.  Don't tempt me because I will!  Right now I need everyone to take a deep breath and count to ten.  Now more than ever, it is up to you.  To counteract this ugliness in the world, I need all of you Digital Diner readers to redouble your efforts to build cool stuff, inspire each other and make the Internet a great place for us all.  It's the only way to keep the world safe for awesomeness.  It's up to you!  Let's go!

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