Thursday, December 31, 2015

Is this the internet we want to save? Think again.



Over the last few weeks Facebook has been bombarding me with notifications that my friends support the Free Basics platform. Then started the circus about how bad this is for all of us, with most people showing their concern on various platforms, by sharing videos and articles mushrooming by the minute, all trashing the Free Basics platform.

In their opinion, internet is a democracy that shouldn’t be tampered with.

They say Facebook is acting as a gatekeeper, a dictator, building an internet that is a silo of the larger internet, furthering its business interests in the garb of doing social good for an unsuspecting audience. According to them, Facebook is nothing short of an evil imperial emperor.

I find most of their arguments very cute…they remind me of this line from the movie Seven Samurai:

“What's the use of worrying about your beard when your head's about to be taken?”

Forget the ‘about to be taken’ bit; in our case not many realize that the head is already gone while we are busy fighting over the beard.

Must be obvious by now - the beard is the ‘save the internet’ campaign, and the head is nothing but the internet itself.

To make sense of why I say that, we need to objectively look at where the internet of today stands. Once we do that, it will be clear as to why I make that ‘cute’ comment. You can reserve your outrage till you finish reading this post. Once you are done, I would love to hear what you think about the head and the beard too.

Let’s begin.

Five Elements


To make the story simple I will speak about 5 key elements that define the internet of today – conduits, search, marketplaces, social, and the dark web.

I will elaborate on each of them further. Once we are done with that, I will share my honest opinion on what I think about the Free Basics platform. If you are impatient, you might want to skip directly to the last part of this post, but like I said earlier, it is the head we need to focus on first, the beard can wait. Here we go:

Conduits

We check the internet more often from our smartphones than our computers. We are a mobile-first generation. In the world of smartphones only two names rule the roost:

First comes the iOS platform, built by Apple. Then comes the Android platform, built by Google.

Their respective app stores act as the conduits to the internet. Without the mobile apps that we download from there, our smartphones are worthless.



Apple and Google could also be called as ‘Gatekeepers’ since they act as the custodians of the mobile app ecosystem. They have immense control over which apps reside inside their worlds. They can, if they want to, kick out any app out of this eco-system.

In short, what we consume via our phones isn’t actually the free internet that we talk about. 
It is a parallel world managed by Apple and Google.

Those familiar with Apple’s review process can tell you how crazy it can get to get an app approved from them. Same with Google’s Android platform.

The success or failure of any app is totally dependent on how easily they adapt to the changing requirements of these platforms. Those who aren’t able to catch up automatically get left behind.

A major part of any app’s success depends on the benevolence of Apple and Google in featuring them prominently on the app store’s home page, by partnering, or by pre-installing them on the phones.

For more on this topic I urge you to read this insightful little post by Dave Pell – The Internet is Rigged: This isn’t the internet we signed up for.

I quote from his post…

“Back in the day, no one got a heads up on anything. No one got to develop for a platform the rest of us didn’t get to access until after it launched. No one had to be approved to get put on the web. No one had to convince anyone else to feature them in a store in order to matter.”

Do read the entire post. It will give you a clear picture about the parallel world I talk about.

Another thing about these app stores that fascinate me is the concept of Free and Paid apps. I wonder why the paid apps don’t make any noise about the free apps.

Why no debate there?

It is a foolish argument, right! Market conditions and the quality of the apps will determine which apps succeed and which don’t, irrespective of their pricing structure. That much faith we have in those systems and our judgment in what is good or bad for us.

In a similar fashion, we should also wonder why Facebook offering something for free should have us all twisted in knots.

Anyways, let’s move on to the next major conduit of the internet…search.  

Search

Google and Search are two terms that are inseparable, like Xerox and Photocopying. We can’t tell the difference between them. This is due to their ubiquity and absolute monopoly over these activities.

We aren’t scared of Google’s monopoly because in Google we trust, blindly.

Not just us the end users, but every website on this planet trusts Google to serve its best interests, to drive traffic to them…and Google does a great job of it.

Hmmm…

Let’s take a break and look at this wonderful ad from Google that moved people to tears sometime back.



If we move beyond the emotions of the ad, there is a lot happening in parallel. Let’s look at the features that Google showcases in the ad.

Beginning with the search box:

Google starts telling us what to look for based on what we start keying in. This is to make our lives easier, and lessen the burden on our brains…but this could also mean influencing a person’s behavior.

For instance, start typing Rahul Gandhi in the search box and it will prompt us to search for ‘Rahul Gandhi funny’. Start typing Sachin Tendulkar and it prompts us to look for ‘Sachin Tendulkar daughter’.

What if someone comes to the web for the first time, and starts searching for stuff – isn’t Google influencing that person’s mind? The same mind that Facebook is now going to influence through its siloed version of the web.

These are just two examples. There are 3.5 billion searches happening every day on Google, and Google is knowingly or unknowingly influencing people with their spoon feeding.

What else is Google Search doing in this ad?

Stealing Wikipedia and other sites content and passing it off as its own. In most cases we don’t even have to go to the source sites to view key information provided by them; it wasn’t the same earlier.

Maps, weather, flight info, Google pages for businesses…every damn thing is on the Google ecosystem.

The intent is clear, Google wants to be the beginning and the end of the internet. There is no better validation of that fact than the advertisement I shared.

Wasn’t Google Search supposed to lead people to other sites, and not eat their lunch?

Well, there is an anti-trust case against them in Europe for the same reason. Check this: Europe Challenges Google, Seeing Violationsof Its Antitrust Law 

When we don’t fear or question Google’s ways, why do we fear that Free Basics will influence and manipulate people?

Anyways, do you know who is eating Google’s lunch? The marketplaces.

Marketplaces

The biggest threat to Google isn’t Microsoft or Facebook as many imagine, but it is Amazon and sites of similar nature. This was articulated by none other than Eric Schmidt himself. Read: Google says Amazon biggest search engine rival.

Amazon, Flipkart, Snapdeal, etc. are all examples of marketplaces that sell stuff sourced from various vendors. They have been spending massive marketing bucks for a long time and are the go to destinations for people to search for products and services. There is a site available for every category, be it food, clothes, books or anything else under the sun; Google isn’t the primary choice for search here. These sites have turned into mini Googles themselves.



And in their bid to gain new customers / registered users, these sites are on an all-out discounting war, incurring massive losses. This has a direct impact on regular brick and mortar sellers; most of whom have to close shop now, unable to compete with the aggressive pricing models of these online marketplaces. 

I wonder why these discounts (sunken marketing costs) seem acceptable while Free Basics seems sinister. Puzzling it is.

Not to forget, these marketplaces are known to arm twist sellers too. Not sure if you remember, but Amazon arm twisted Hachette over the pricing of their books leading to months of acrimony. It was a well followed battle. Read: Amazon and publisher Hachette end dispute over online book sales.

This sets the template for what to expect from these marketplaces in the future.

Closer home, Chetan Bhagat launches his book exclusively on Flipkart, and not on Amazon. The reverse works with Amish Tripathi, who launches on Amazon and not on Flipkart.

Now what category does this manipulation fall under?

One might say it is a business decision, and not manipulation, fair enough.

But one has to wonder why Facebook is criticized for trying something similar – giving selective access to content based on deals they strike with partners.

The second important part of these marketplaces is the concept of the algorithm.

I will elaborate more on algorithms in the next section, the social networks. But to cut a long story short – in a crowded marketplace where there are multiple entities competing for our attention, there is an algorithm (machine based intelligence) that decides the right choice for us.

One needs to be BLESSED BY THE ALGORITHM to succeed in a crowded marketplace!

Any product’s online success today depends on this. The same also applies to search terms on Google, apps popularity on the app store, and off course the one most personal to us – the social networks.

Social

Whatever I have written so far might seem like I am siding with Facebook. But way back in 2012 I wrote a post calling Facebook the enemy of the internet.


That post went on to become a part of the global outrage over algorithms deciding what we see on Facebook. Richard Metzger of Dangerous Minds had to say this about that post:

A beautifully argued smoking gun. You REALLY need to read it if you’re interested in this space and in the future of free speech and the Internet itself.

That was the turning point when Facebook started transforming into a ruthless business focused website, coinciding with the launch of its IPO. I had never felt more cheated – it was an outright back stabbing by Facebook.

But

Much water has passed since then and the world has changed quite a bit. The odd thing is what seemed like an anomaly and sinistrous back then is now the norm. Every single website that matters is trying to do the same for its survival – depending on algorithms to provide relevant content to people.

The internet of today is heading towards an age of instant personalization - showing what the machine thinks would appeal to us. Google search results are being manipulated according to not just our browsing history but various other social parameters; product suggestions on marketplace websites are tailored according to who we are; news websites have been tinkering with the same formula, trying to show us what they think will grab our attention, leading to clicks and page-views.


What I see is very different from what you see on the same website!

Major corporations are spending big bucks to move into this new age of the internet, in effect generating a lot of new employment in the fields of big data analytics and digital marketing. Thanks to that I earn my bread and butter :)

It sounds a bit intimidating to imagine the possibilities that this kind of siloization of the internet would lead to. When the Apple Watch was announced I wrote a post called ‘The Evolution of the Matrix’ on how this new device could propel us into the next era of human tracking and personalization.

The consequences aren’t very scary right now, but who knows what the future has in store as we continue on this path. There’s no looking back for sure though.

Coming back to Social Networks.

Twitter has been trying to do a Facebook but hasn’t figured out a way to effectively do that. Instead, their algorithms at a very basic level have skewed what we perceive as a free and fair network that treats everyone equally.

Here is what has been happening for a long time on Twitter.

Question: How do people gain massive follower counts on Twitter?

Answer: Umm, based on how often you tweet, how popular or well-known you are, people start following you.

WRONG

Here is how it works.

There are thousands and thousands of people joining Twitter on a daily basis. What it does is give them a curated list, a buffet of people to follow en-mass based on the interests they choose – like politics, films, sports, news, comedy, etc.

And obviously, the ones who are a part of these curated lists are blessed, not just by Twitter’s algorithms but also with a massive follower count that just keeps growing without them having to do much.

So in the process, the folks at AIB who are the toast of the internet in India, and incidentally active crusaders of the ‘save the internet’ movement, find themselves as the knowing or unknowing recipients of Twitter’s benevolence.

Because, last I checked some months back, out of the 11 odd accounts featured under the ‘Comedy’ section on Twitter, 5 belonged to the AIB folks – helping them amass lakhs and lakhs of followers for free.


Twitter suggestions page. Screenshot from earlier this year

One needs the blessings of algorithms to make it really big on Twitter!

Same happens with a lot of other featured accounts too at various stages of the Twitter experience. Twitter is skewing the game for a few while the rest have to slog to gain followers the hard way. 

Don’t believe me?

How do you think SRK, Salman and Aamir have a difference of only a million odd followers on Twitter?

How do you think Barkha Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai have almost the same amount of followers, around the 3.2 million mark?

How do you think Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone have almost the same number of followers around the 12 million mark?

The similarity of those numbers could never be a possibility if it wasn’t for the auto pilot mode of Twitter providing a daily dose of followers to a few based on how they are slotted. This kind of partiality could have serious implications in influencing public perceptions about people and events. 

How’s that for equality?

Guess what, Twitter isn’t the only one doing this…YouTube is a major culprit too.

Subscriber counts and video views are dependent on YouTube’s algorithms; often favoring a few. How else would you explain an independent content producer like AIB getting lucky here once again with most of their videos getting featured on the YouTube home page, for days together? The others in the meanwhile, which includes major TV channels on YouTube, continue to scratch their heads in search of views. It is a game controlled by Google.



YouTube home page. Screenshot from earlier this year.

Not everyone or everything is treated equally on the internet; those days are long gone.

Anyways, nothing is permanent in this ever evolving story of algorithms. You never know when and who will fall into or out of favor with these networks.

That brings me to the last section, which is impervious to all the above, it is a world in itself…the dark web.   

Dark Web

This is the most amazing, potent, dangerous and exciting new development, or should I call it a variant of the internet - the dark underworld of WhatsApp and apps of similar nature.

I call it the dark underworld because it is unhinged from the constraints of the regular internet. 

WhatsApp is like an organism that seems to grow on its own, mutating and multiplying at a rapid pace. Connections get built instantly, content gets shared instantly – be it jokes, articles, images, videos. Often shared without attribution or context in relation to the original source. No responsibility, no sense of ownership, no accountability - no one knows who originally wrote that joke or shot that funny picture or video you just forwarded.

WhatsApp is like a bunch of robbers and drug peddlers running a parallel internet away from the prying eyes of the regular internet.

There is no way for anyone to take control of what goes on in WhatsApp in any way. It is like the ISIS of the internet in terms of its seemingly undercover activities.  

As an end user, WhatsApp is great to connect and share stuff. But from the standpoint of a content creator and someone who wants the internet to be saved – WhatsApp is the death knell of the internet the way we know it today. There are new rules of engagement being formed as we move forward.

Your mom is a part of it, your cousins are a part of it, your uncle is a part of it, your neighbors, school friends, colleagues, kids, milkman, dhobi, carpenter; everyone is on it.

They are all having a free run, and no one knows what’s going on there except in their own small groups…deal with it.

Bottom-line: The free internet isn’t as innocent as we all believe it to be. It is beyond redemption. It probably doesn’t even want to save itself. Free Basics seems like kids play in front of what’s been happening to the real internet. That’s where my head and beard comparison rests.

In Conclusion: Free Basics

When free email came in, no one opposed it by saying it is going to destroy postal services. When incoming calls on mobile phones were made free, we didn’t question why it was being done. When multiple other industries got affected by new innovations, we called it progress.

No one batted an eyelid when the 5 elements I mention above became a reality. I find it quite silly that we spend so much time fighting over something as basic as Free Basics.

Throughout history we have seen that when any company tries to twist the system to its advantage, competitors emerge to restore the balance. Coke has Pepsi, McDonald’s has Burger King, and Apple has Google, and so on…such is the nature of life and business.

If Facebook has Free Basics today, just wait till Google starts beaming their free internet from their balloons. Nothing is permanent in this ecosystem.

If not Google, then Microsoft, or Apple, Orange, Banana, Pumpkin or whatever…the balance is always restored.

And this balance or evolution cannot be forced upon by regulation. The market will automatically decide what it wants, just the way it does with the app stores now.

I am not sure if anyone has checked the specifications for websites to feature on Free Basics; it is so ridiculously basic that even my grand-mom would reject it in an instant. No video, no VOIP, no images larger than 200KB, no JavaScript – it robs the whole experience of being on the net. 

Free Basics is such a bare-bones experience that it will have to fight/struggle for survival in its current form. And knowing Facebook's DNA they would continuously innovate with this platform because they need to keep their users happy as well as their coffers full, with charity as the unintended by-product of this endeavor.

Facebook's Free Basics ad campaigns

It is foolhardy to underestimate the intelligence of the poor at whom Free Basics is targeted.

Why rob them the enjoyment or benefit of getting something for free. Let them decide for themselves if it works. They are smarter than you and me in many ways!

Cheers!!!
Kartik Dayanand Boddapati

If you have read this super long post till the end…awesome, thank you; I look forward to hearing your views too.