In my last post I cited Paul Ford’s concept of “Why Wasn’t I Consulted” (WWIC) as one of the reasons why technology change can be such a challenging emotional experience, but somehow I feel like I missed the deeper and more important implications of his piece. Mr. Ford’s explanation of WWIC was part of an article he wrote in 2011 called “The Web Is a Customer Service Medium” and that concept itself deserves more attention. Eight years later, much of “The Web” has solidified into closed communities like Facebook, iTunes, Amazon, Twitter, Google, Reddit, and various news outlets which by their very nature isolate users. These communities all exhibit the Filter Bubble (which I wrote about three years ago), promote Confirmation Bias, and push users further and further into like minded / closed minded groups. This situation begs the question, is the web really still a customer service medium or has it transformed into something else?
To answer this, a short history lesson might be useful. Like early television where content was directly influenced by the movie and theater industries, the early web tried to leverage popular content such as publishing, shopping, and music/video distribution. The big difference was that unlike the forms that preceded it, the web was from its inception an inherently interactive medium. Groups of humans could for the first time communicate in real-time around the globe. An excellent book on this topic is “How the Internet Happened” which starts with the first websites and ends with the rise of the iPhone. My wife and I had our first experience of this in the early 1990s when she was researching an astronomical phenomena and was able to ask a professional astronomer in Australia about it through the USENET group, alt.astronomy. When she had a definitive answer in less than 24 hours, we knew the Internet would soon explode with new users.
So in the bigger sense Mr. Ford is still right, the web is a customer service medium. Facebook serves its “customers” by providing low friction, low commitment connectedness between large groups of people and they pay by giving Facebook advertisers access to that information. Google serves its customers by providing access to the global knowledge base, but also by providing the tools that their customers’ use to manage their entire online presence (email, calendar, contacts, photos, etc.).
However in another sense instead of serving, the web has devolved into a manipulation machine that has an addictive influence over people who do not make the effort to be discriminating in how they use it. Most people wouldn’t watch commercial after commercial on TV, believing every claim and purchasing every item, but people do allow (for example) Facebook, Google, MSNBC, or NPR to be their entire window on the world. To some, Facebook IS the Internet and this leads to what is possibly Mr. Ford’s most important point in his article, that with this amount of power and influence, some form of appropriate moderation is necessary to maintain healthy communities, for example to prevent what is often the groups that do the online equivalent of “yelling the loudest” from getting inappropriate amount of attention. This yelling can take many forms such as a multitude of fake accounts, sensationalistic / fake reporting, “click bait” headlines, manipulated photos / videos, or combinations of techniques. The difficulty of course is how to implement appropriate moderation without also imposing censorship which will be the topic for a future post.
I still maintain that being aware of one’s own WWIC syndrome is a strong component of dealing with the stress of technological change, but hopefully this post provides a broader view of WWIC’s importance. We might desperately WANT to be consulted, but this consultation implies a responsibility to be informed and mature enough to respond in a way that enhances the communities we interact in. The alternative is much of what we see today on Reddit (and other discussion forums), turning the web only into a place where we complain.