It’s also very bad things: 4chan and the Daily Stormer, revenge porn, fake news sites, racism on Reddit, eating disorder inspiration on Instagram, bullying, adults messaging kids on Roblox, harassment, scams, spam, incels.
The internet’s original sin was an insistence on freedom: it was made to be free, in many senses of the word. The internet wasn’t initially set up for profit; it grew out of a communications medium intended for the military and academics (some in the military wanted to limit Arpanet to defense use as late as the early 1980s). When it grew in popularity along with desktop computers, Usenet and other popular early internet applications were still largely used on university campuses with network access. Users would grumble that each September their message boards would be flooded with newbies, until eventually the “eternal September”—a constant flow of new users—arrived in the mid-’90s with the explosion of home internet access.
When the internet began to be built out commercially in the 1990s, its culture was, perversely, anticommercial. Many of the leading internet thinkers of the day belonged to a cohort of AdBusters-reading Gen Xers and antiestablishment Boomers. They were passionate about making software open source. Their very mantra was “Information wants to be free”—a phrase attributed to Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and the pioneering internet community the WELL. This ethos also extended to a passion for freedom of speech, and a sense of responsibility to protect it.
It just so happened that those people were quite often affluent white men in California, whose perspective failed to predict the dark side of the free-speech, free-access havens they were creating. (In fairness, who would have imagined that the end result of those early discussions would be Russian disinformation campaigns targeting Black Lives Matter? But I digress.)
The culture of free demanded a business model that could support it. And that was advertising. Through the 1990s and even into the early ’00s, advertising on the internet was an uneasy but tolerable trade-off. Early advertising was often ugly and annoying: spam emails for penis enlargement pills, badly designed banners, and (shudder) pop-up ads. It was crass but allowed the nice parts of the internet—message boards, blogs, and news sites—to be accessible to anyone with a connection.
But advertising and the internet are like that small submersible sent to explore the Titanic: the carbon fiber works very efficiently, until you apply enough pressure. Then the whole thing implodes.
Targeted advertising and the commodification of attention
In 1999, the ad company DoubleClick was planning to combine personal data with tracking cookies to follow people around the web so it could target its ads more effectively. This changed what people thought was possible. It turned the cookie, originally a neutral technology for storing Web data locally on users’ computers, into something used for tracking individuals across the internet for the purpose of monetizing them.
To the netizens of the turn of the century, this was an abomination. And after a complaint was filed with the US Federal Trade Commission, DoubleClick dialed back the specifics of its plans. But the idea of advertising based on personal profiles took hold. It was the beginning of the era of targeted advertising, and with it, the modern internet. Google bought DoubleClick for $3.1 billion in 2008. That year, Google’s revenue from advertising was $21 billion. Last year, Google parent company Alphabet took in $224.4 billion in revenue from advertising.
Our modern internet is built on highly targeted advertising using our personal data. That is what makes it free. The social platforms, most digital publishers, Google—all run on ad revenue. For the social platforms and Google, their business model is to deliver highly sophisticated targeted ads. (And business is good: in addition to Google’s billions, Meta took in $116 billion in revenue for 2022. Nearly half the people living on planet Earth are monthly active users of a Meta-owned product.) Meanwhile, the sheer extent of the personal data we happily hand over to them in exchange for using their services for free would make people from the year 2000 drop their flip phones in shock.