By Theodore Mattheiss
Elm Staff Writer
When the internet was first created back in 1991, it was hailed as a miracle that would allow humanity to come together like never before. Just by pressing a few buttons, a person could communicate with nearly anybody else on the planet. It stretches across countries and cultures; it is a window to the world and all it has to offer. Surely it would connect people of all demographics and walks of life, and they would come to understand one another. That was the dream: the internet would give us a well-connected, sympathetic world. If only it were that easy.
The reality of the situation is that the internet has indeed made it very easy for people to reach out to each other, but they tend to only seek out those with mutual interests and beliefs. Similar to how friend groups form around shared interests and like-mindedness, internet communities have become havens where one can enjoy the support of people who already think in exactly the same way they do. It has become all too easy to shut out anybody who offers a differing opinion or contrasting fact.
The truth is that people would rather feel secure than be informed, and so when they do choose to inform themselves, they do so with sources they’ve found that they already know will tell them what they want to hear.
Advertising and content suggestions on the internet that are powered by algorithms haven’t helped alleviate this trend. Websites have gotten quite smart over the past few decades and will adapt to a user’s taste and trends in an attempt to pull in more ad revenue. This is called targeted advertising, and it invariably means displaying more of the same information that the user likes to read, so even the process of “discovering” new sources of information has become bogus.
These sources aren’t new at all, not really. They’re just more of the same stuff the user reads already. The sense of discovery x still there, and this gives the user the sense that they “knew it all along” when they find new information that agrees with them.
If you want to see how strong this effect is, spend a week immersed in a side of the internet that you don’t normally frequent. Watch in awe as your whole world is immediately flipped by the drastic change in rhetoric and topics covered. Liberal or conservative, the narratives have become so tilted and vibrant that, after being submerged for a while, it’s hard not to think they make a lot of valid points, or at least see how somebody could reasonably buy into it. Even though the difference is night and day, each side sounds credible, because they exist independent of one another.
We spend a lot of our lives on the internet, and we’re living in different worlds. This can’t go on. The issues humanity faces are hard enough to sort out when everybody agrees on what’s true and what isn’t. If everybody has their own set of “facts” that they believe, sensible discourse becomes impossible.