Authoritarian Tech

When the internet stopped being fun

As this decade comes to a close, I keep hearing variations of the same nostalgia-tinged question about the internet: “When did we all stop having fun?” In November, the New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to the question. “The Internet Dream Became a Nightmare. What will become of it now?”  one headline ran. The digital edition was published with colorful nostalgic touches like fake pop-up ads and retro mouse cursors. 

In her new memoir, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, the New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino tracks down the website she built for herself at ten years old. Using her father’s office computer, she blogged, writing prophetically: “I’m going insane! I literally am addicted to the web!”  

“In 1999, it felt different to spend all day on the internet,” Tolentino writes. “People had been gathering on the internet in open forums, drawn, like butterflies, to the puddles and blossoms of other people’s curiosity and expertise.”

I remember 1999 too. At my London primary school, a Canadian boy, Pierce, told us about Google. “You can search for anything on Google, anything in the world, and you don’t need a web address, you can just use normal words,” he said. “And it will give you the answers.”

No one had heard of it. The concept seemed too huge and all-consuming for us to understand.

“What’s it called again?”

“Google.” 

We laughed at the strange name, and thought Pierce was probably making it up.

“I remember what the internet was like before it was being watched, and there has never been anything in the history of man like it,” Edward Snowden said in the 2014 documentary Citizenfour, describing how children once freely conversed with world-renowned experts halfway across the world. “We’ve seen the chilling of that model towards something where people self-police their own views.”

I was too young to really take part in this great conversation. Instead I played Miniclip games and watched the badger mushroom video on a loop, streamed on a website that wasn’t YouTube. The internet was at its heart, fun – the only spectre that loomed was my parents’ terror of “Chat Rooms.”

For Dr. Christopher Markou, an artificial intelligence expert at Cambridge University who I met in October at a tech conference in Armenia, the arrival of Facebook was a joyous moment. “It was really cool! I could go on and be like “who likes Radiohead at my University? And I could go and make friends with everyone who has the same music as me,” he said. “But as soon as the newsfeed came in, I was like, “Oh no. I opt out.”

What bothered Markou, who has ADHD, was how the newsfeed’s algorithm held his and his peers’ attention. Now, he says, “I’ve realized that the rest of the world has become like how I was told not to be,” he said.

TikTok clings to its joyful image

The story of TikTok, the short-form video app that’s a favorite platform among teens for selfie videos and singalongs, is somewhat of a fable for the larger tale of the internet. Faced with a looming U.S. national security investigation, and a California lawsuit claiming TikTok sent reams of data to China, TikTok is scrambling to show that at its heart, it’s still good fun.

Last week, I wrote about how the platform banned a user after she posted a make-up tutorial that discussed China’s imprisonment of Uyghur Muslims. TikTok said her phone was blocked in relation to a different video, a statement which appeared to fall flat when the platform then also removed the Uyghur video. The company said the video removal was a “human moderation error.”

In response to the criticism the platform received, TikTok’s Head of Safety Eric Han wrote a blogpost re-iterating the company’s “common goal of providing a platform that fulfils its core purpose of bringing creativity and joy to others.”

“The episode has highlighted a signature challenge facing TikTok: Famous for its lighthearted memes and singalong videos, the app increasingly finds itself facing scrutiny due to its close ties to a Chinese conglomerate that must adhere to the country’s strict censorship rules,” the Washington Post’s Drew Harwell and Tony Romm wrote last week.

But TikTok’s answer to staying “joyful” appears simply to eliminate content that sparks joyless responses. According to a leak by a TikTok whistleblower, the platform hides videos of people with disabilities, disfigurements, and autism – in the name of stamping out cyberbullying. 

My favorite Coda Stories this week: 

  • At the forefront of Europe’s battle for tech transparency For Coda, reporter Filip Brokes took a look at the ongoing battle between the European Union and tech giants like Facebook and Google.
  • Inside the China Cables: Video surveillance, confessions and ‘de-extremification’ in Xinjiang. I took a closer look at some of the language used in last week’s leak of documents instructing Xinjiang authorities how to run the region’s vast network of concentration camps for Uyghurs and other Muslims.
  • And on the subject of the lost days of the internet, do read Eduard Saakashvili’s news brief on the sale of the .org domain to an investment firm. The firm, Ethos Capital, is owned by three Republican billionaire families, who will now have the power to charge higher prices to the thousands of nonprofits who use .org in their URL, and will also be able to control and censor anything that gets posted to those domains.

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. We work with dozens of local and international reporters, video journalists, artists and designers to bring you stories you haven’t seen elsewhere, provide you with context missing from the news cycle and illuminate the continuity between the crises we cover. Support Coda now and join the conversation with our team. No amount is too small.

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Isobel Cockerell

Isobel Cockerell is a reporter with Coda Story. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, she has also reported for WIRED, USA Today, Rappler, The Daily Beast, the Huffington Post and others.

Get in touch via [email protected] Follow @isocockerell

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