The three cohorts of the internet

Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash

Growing up in the 90s, I distinctly remember this feeling of awe while discovering the internet for the first time. It was a magical experience with endless possibilities. From discovering new people, to learning new things or simply playing video games. It was a fantastic new world. There is a cohort of people within my age group that shared the same experience. This had a big impact during our formative years. For this group, there was a distinctly pre-internet and post-internet world. This group saw the advent of the Web 2.0 and the rise of social media globally.

This experience has definitely shaped my worldview. The internet, social media & new media specifically, was a force for good. More people sharing and connecting with each other was a net positive to society. My feelings are a little more mixed now. 

The second wave

There is now a second cohort of people that is much larger and more geographically diverse which is native to the internet. For them, there is no pre-internet world, it’s always existed as far as they are concerned. The way they consume information, create content and culture, starts and ends there. They’ve also understood that It’s an incredible learning tool.

The third wave

I believe a third cohort is coming of age now; the next generation of people born after 2005. This cohort is not just native to the internet but also understands that anything online needs to be taken with skepticism and not necessarily believed at first. They understand that the algorithms powering the information firehose are powerful and can’t be trusted entirely. It feels like a dramatic shift from my original worldview where the internet was a place of pure expression and creative freedom. What happened? 

Beautiful and messy 

Many pundits in the media believe that it’s all big techs’ fault. The big tech companies have created negative externalities with device addiction & misinformation, just like pollution is a by product of the oil and gas industry. 

On the other hand, the argument from tech is a free market one.  We’re not going back to a world with three cable channels. Big tech also feels unfairly targeted because traditional media outlets have been some of the biggest economic victims of this sea change. 

The reality is more nuanced. The smashing of gatekeepers and allowing the passion economy to flourish has created amazing opportunities for people to express themselves and to benefit from their work. Yet, the polarization effect of our media consumption seems quite real. It’s a weird sense of dystopia.  

We shape our tools and our tools shape us

The resulting purgatory we’re going through is creating huge contortions in the system. They are playing out in plain sight. It’s almost comical when the Wayback Machine has to issue a warning about misinformation. The recent election issue with the NY Post about Hunter Biden is also revealing. Many politicians blamed Twitter for blocking the story. Yet, the story was debunked as being bogus. So who’s really to blame here?

The advent of tools like GPT-3 will massively exacerbate the challenge. This language model generates news articles which human evaluators have difficulty distinguishing from articles written by humans. Just to give you a sense on the order of magnitude. This last version takes into account 175 billion parameters versus 17 billion for the previous version (GPT-2). You can guess how big the next one will be. Free and easy to use tools will continue to flood the market rendering misinformation cheap & easy. Reliable information will be concealed behind paywalls as a band-aid measure. 

One thing is for sure, the gatekeepers of yesteryear are fading in relevance. This new cohort will not trust anything that is online. This part sucks because the key to a strong society (imho) is having shared values and beliefs. It’s difficult to see people coming more closely together when the way we perceive the world can be radically different, even if we live across from each other. 

So how do you build trust when our information systems are decentralized and coordination is impossible?  We’ve opened Pandora’s box and the only way forward is going to necessarily be with more technology, not less. 

Our sense making systems

We can trace back several eras of how we communicated and learned from each other. From the printing press to radio to television. These epochs were relatively static marked by periods of upheaval. As we’re transitioning away from the last epoch, the internet is still in its infancy and I believe that the past “stability” will not return. The fragmentation will only continue with media resembling more of a barbell. There will be a few big winners that benefit from network effects; a few large traditional publishers that make the shift (think NY Times) and popular independent outlets with small teams but huge followings (think Joe Rogan podcast). The rest will be niche players with small but profitable followings. The lines between the two will continuously be blurred. Ultimately, how we make sense of the world, create culture and have social status is undergoing a massive transformation.

It seems like there are no easy solutions and it’s tough to see the dawn. At the same time, there is an incredible amount of innovation happening right now, largely thanks to the removal of barriers and reduction of friction. This third cohort of people are tinkering with these new tools and experimenting. I marvel at all the human ingenuity that is enabling these new models to emerge. Sure, it’s messy but it’s also beautiful to watch. I almost feel like a teenager again thinking about the possibilities.

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