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Goodbye to the Wild Wild Web

It felt like a dam breaking, or the changing of a guard.

Within a 48-hour period this week, many of the world’s internet giants took steps that would have been unthinkable for them even months earlier. Reddit, which spent most of its life as a lawless free-for-all, banned thousands of forums for hate speech, including the largest pro-Trump forum on the internet. Twitch — an Amazon-owned video-gaming platform not known for its political courage — suspended President Trump’s official account for “hateful conduct,” while YouTube purged a handful of notorious racists and punished a popular creator with a history of problematic videos. Facebook, under pressure from a growing advertiser boycott, took down a network of violent anti-government insurrectionists who had set up shop on its platform.

Taken independently, these changes might have felt incremental and isolated — the kind of refereeing and line-drawing that happens every day on social media.

But arriving all at once, they felt like something much bigger: a sign that the Wild Wild Web — the tech industry’s decade-long experiment in unregulated growth and laissez-faire platform governance — is coming to an end. In its place, a new culture is taking shape that is more accountable, more self-aware and less willfully naïve than the one that came before it.

You can glimpse this shift in the words of technologists like Steve Huffman, the chief executive of Reddit. He said he had recently rejected one of the Wild Wild Web’s core values — the idea that private internet platforms exist to provide a forum for all ideas, no matter how toxic.

“When we started Reddit 15 years ago, we didn’t ban things,” Mr. Huffman told me in an interview this week. “And it was easy, as it is for many young people, to make statements like that because, one, I had more rigid political beliefs and, two, I lacked perspective and real-world experience.”

Now, Mr. Huffman says he understands that some speech — hate, harassment, bullying — prevents others from speaking, and that a no-limits platform culture often empowers those least committed to civil conversation. It’s a position that reflects a more mature understanding of the dynamics of online communities, and the many ways a powerful platform’s inaction can be weaponized.

ImageSteve Huffman, the chief executive of Reddit, which this week banned thousands of forums for hate speech, including the largest pro-Trump forum on the internet.
Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

I don’t mean to suggest that Reddit, or any other tech company, has fully matured, or fixed its problems overnight. (Some companies may be beyond reform, in fact.) But the world is changing, and the tech industry is being forced to change along with it. A tech monoculture that once celebrated its recklessness and irreverence — move fast and break things! — is being pushed aside by a younger and more politically conscious generation of tech workers who actually want their companies’ products to reflect their values. Lawmakers and activists have realized the tech industry’s influence, and they are finding points of leverage to force much-needed reforms. Users are savvier, too, and a generation of young people who grew up on the Wild Wild Web are demanding new rules and more attentive referees.

It’s hard to define the Wild Wild Web exactly, or say precisely when it began. I usually mark it as starting in September 2006, when Facebook opened its doors beyond college students and introduced a new feature called the News Feed — a home screen that showed users a personalized, dynamic list of their friends’ activities. That kind of feed — curated by an algorithm and designed for virality and addiction — coupled with Facebook’s increasingly unmanageable scale created the perfect environment for misbehavior, and became the template for nearly every successful internet company of the 2010s.

More recently, the hallmark of the Wild Wild Web became a kind of shoot-first, aim-later approach to corporate strategy. Terms like “permissionless innovation” and “blitzscaling” entered the tech lexicon, and companies used lofty mission statements to paper over their more craven aspirations for dominance and profit. When things went wrong — privacy scandals, legal missteps, the occasional genocide — an apology and a five-point plan to do better next time usually sufficed.

The Wild Wild Web hasn’t been all bad. Expanded access to information and convenience, the dismantling of problematic and exclusionary gatekeepers and a decade-plus of economic growth have all been all positive results. But every benefit has come with costs. The same tools that produced personalized recommendations, engagement-optimized feeds and the Internet of Things also produced political polarization, viral misinformation and pervasive surveillance. The internet giants’ unwillingness to make rules (and then, later, their inability to enforce them) empowered a generation of bigots and media manipulators who are now among our most influential public figures.

Just like the California gold rush, the Wild Wild Web started an enormous accumulation of personal and corporate power, transforming our social order overnight. Power shifted from the czars of government and the creaky moguls of the Fortune 500 to the engineers who built the machines and the executives who gave them their marching orders. These people were not prepared to run empires, and most of them deflected their newfound responsibility, or pretended to be less powerful than they were. Few were willing to question the 2010s Silicon Valley orthodoxy that connection was a de facto good, even as counter-evidence piled up.

There are still some stubborn holdouts. (Facebook, in particular, still appears attached to the narrative that social media simply reflects offline society, rather than driving it.) But among the public, there is no more mistaking Goliaths for Davids. The secret of the tech industry’s influence is out, and the critics who have been begging tech leaders to take more responsibility for their creations are finally being heard.

It’s hard to say what caused this change. Joan Donovan, a research director at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, wrote in Wired that the coronavirus pandemic had helped platform leaders locate their spines by raising the stakes of inaction.

“Not so long ago, before the pandemic hit, each platform would only tend to its specific user base, keeping up with a triple bottom line by balancing profits with social and environmental impact,” Ms. Donovan wrote. “Now, having witnessed the terrifying results of unchecked medical misinformation, the same companies understand the importance of ensuring access to timely, local, and relevant facts.”

Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

The nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, and the calls for racial justice they have inspired, also helped empower rank-and-file tech employees to demand more from their bosses. Two weeks ago, after I wrote that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were undermining the fight for racial justice, even as their leaders publicly proclaimed support for it, I got dozens of messages from tech employees who were frustrated with their own companies’ hypocrisy.

Other motivations may be more practical. Regulators and lawmakers, especially Democrats, are eager to cut Silicon Valley down to size, and some U.S. tech companies may be hedging their bets in case Mr. Trump loses his re-election bid in November.

The end of the Wild Wild Web may not be all positive, either. The next phase of the internet is likely to be more balkanized, as countries like China and India tighten their digital borders. Increased scrutiny of social media platforms in the United States may cause them to splinter along ideological lines, in ways that will increase polarization and civic unrest. There is no guarantee that the new rules will be fairly applied, or that the new algorithms won’t end up supporting some other form of antisocial behavior.

But there is no turning back. The people who build transformative technologies can no longer credibly claim that their creations are “just tools,” any more than Supreme Court justices can claim that their opinions are “just words.” Governments that once embraced innovation as an unalloyed good — like India, which this week banned TikTok and dozens of other Chinese-owned apps to protect its “sovereignty and integrity” — now recognize, correctly, that letting someone else build your apps is tantamount to letting them shape your society. Users, too, are ready to live in a more responsible internet. They understand that there are drawbacks to lawlessness, and that scale is no excuse for negligence.

To the people who loved the Wild Wild Web — and, for a time, I was one of them — the coming wave of change may feel like the bittersweet end of an era. There was something romantic and thrilling about the idea of a digital realm that carried none of the baggage of the physical world, that played by different rules and obeyed different authorities.

But the internet is no longer a world distinct and apart from the physical world. We all live online, and it’s long past time for the world on our screens to be managed as thoughtfully, and with as much accountability, as our roads and schools and hospitals. The Wild Wild Web may be over, but the real building has just begun.