Curation, filter bubbles, enshittification and information overload
Long time ago, information used to be hard to find. You had to go out there and look for it. Nowadays, a lot of information is at our fingertips at any moment.
Now we have the opposite problem: too much information. The challenge today is curation: we want to consume a reasonable amount of information that's relevant to us.
What's “reasonable” and what's “relevant” is tough to define as it is person-specific. What's reasonable and relevant to you may not be the same as what's reasonable and relevant to me.
From curation ...
Curation of information is nothing new: newspapers, radio and TV have done it since the beginning. We relied on the media to pick what's most important and only kept the choice of a source we trusted or liked.
As the Internet grew, the amount of information grew exponentially. One of the reasons for Google's early success is that it was very good at curating this information. While the other search engines could also find 10,000 pages matching your search, Google was the best at picking what was most useful, informative and relevant.
Other services were also trying their best at curation: Netflix had a great recommendation algorithm, and have for years organized a public competition to optimize it and provide even better recommendations.
.. to filter bubbles
Over the years, as the various algorithms got improved and optimized, they got subjectively worse for us, the users. Google is in arms-race with SEO folk, Facebook prefers to serve you content that will rile you up, Netflix' algorithm seems braindead and the less we talk about YouTube recommendations the better.
Why is this? Turns out that, at some point in their lifecycle, big companies had to choose between optimizing for the user experience and optimizing for revenue. The algorithms improve allright ... but using a different metric.
Google now hyper-optimizes for what it thinks you should see (filter bubble), Facebook serves you whatever will keep you on the site for longer (mind-numbing memes interspersed with viral outrages), and Netflix brings up and center its own content that it would like you to get hooked at (and not cancel the service), not the things you might actually want to see.
Curation for the benefit of the user, has turned to serving targeted content, for the benefit of the company.
Enshittification is an ugly word to describe an ugly thing. Basically, it is a strategy change in an online platform where it switches from user growth (where optimizing user experience is paramount) to revenue growth (where you need to squeeze maximum income from each user).
Enshittification, or platform decay, is not limited only to Internet media companies. But it is especially visible in online startups that grew big by giving away their product or undercharging for it, in order to grow as fast and big as they can.
At some point you got to earn money, and you have to earn as much money as possible, and since you have a mostly-captive audience (there is only one Google, Facebook, YouTube or Twitter), they won't leave if the user experience is marginally worse.
And so the UX frog gets slowly cooked. People today are hooked on Facebook scrolling, Twitter mob rages, memes everywhere and 10-second dopamine hits on TikTok or YouTube Shorts. It's the sugar thing all over again.
This can work if you're willing to limit your information access, don't suffer from the fear of missing out (FOMO) and have the mental strength to not succumb when you're tired, bored or just open up your favorite social media app on autopilot because it's on your mobile phone home screen.
But it's hard work: you're basically building and maintaining a Great Wall between yourself and most of the modern Internet.
Curation on our terms
Can we do it better? Is there a way to again outsource curation of content that is optimized for us, the users?
Curation is hard work, whether you want to build and maintain sophisticated algorithm or AI to do it, or if you have actual people doing the work. And it's not entirely obvious how that would work without degenerating into the filter bubbles and social media we have today – that's how some of those companies started, after all.
As a technologist I do believe a solution is within a realm of possiblity. As someone who's watched Internet grow from an academia and hobbyst garden into what it is today, I am skeptical we'll reach that solution (and if you really want to be scared about the prospects of it, go read The Master Switch).