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The imaginary consensus

I ran across this Charlie Warzel piece from The Atlantic a week or two ago via a link from Alan Jacobs. Jacobs quotes the closing paragraph:

A shift away from a knowable internet might feel like a return to something smaller and purer. An internet with no discernable monoculture may feel, especially to those who’ve been continuously plugged into trending topics and viral culture, like a relief. But this new era of the internet is also one that entrenches tech giants and any forthcoming emergent platforms as the sole gatekeepers when it comes to tracking the way that information travels. We already know them to be unreliable narrators and poor stewards, but on a fragmented internet, where recommendation algorithms beat out the older follower model, we rely on these corporations to give us a sense of scale. This might sound overdramatic, but without an innate sense of what other people are doing, we might be losing a way to measure and evaluate ourselves. We’re left shadowboxing one another and arguing in the dark about problems, the size of which we can’t identify.

I think what Warzel says here is true from—as they say—a certain point of view.

However, I am inclined to look at this situation more broadly. For the last twenty-ish years, I think we had this idea that 1) we can understand the collective mood and interests of society as a whole and 2) that the Internet is the way to do that. If we can just assemble enough data, then we can point the algorithms at it and they will tell us what it all means. If we want to be even lazier and more slipshod about it, we can just look at the Trending Topics list.

For a while now, my theory has been that this notion that there used to be a consensus and now that’s all broken because of the internet is bogus.

I think that consensus was always an illusion. What the internet did change is that now it is obvious that it is an illusion.

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