The Gatekeepers’ Gatekeepers: The Internet’s Struggle for Power by Pete Dunlap
We are very excited to host guest writer, Pete Dunlap, on The Low Tech Trek. Pete is the Founder of Digital Detangler, an amazing company which “combines expertise in education and software to bring cutting-edge, actionable information to organizations.” Pete educates the public on the importance of digital wellness in the workplace. Below, he discusses how large tech companies have become gatekeepers to how we express ourselves online.
If you go down the dairy aisle of your grocery, you’ll likely see a cartoon cow or two, happily grazing on a large open field. You may even see other images of idealized farms, smiling farmers tilling soft soil under a bright sun. As Eisenhower once said, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.” The daily reality of farming in America is very different from the image cultivated by marketing companies whose business is selling us the most palatable image of food production possible.
In the same way, you probably believe some things about the internet that are not entirely accurate. For example, for years we’ve been told that the internet allows for free expression by anyone anywhere. It functions as a meritocracy where we’ve managed to kick out those pesky gatekeepers who were full enough of themselves to believe they could decide which ideas were worth spreading and which should be stopped in their tracks. As the mythology continues, the tech giants built tools that circumvented the old gatekeepers and freed us all to express ourselves and connect online in new, exciting ways. Typifying this perspective is Jeff Bezos: “Even well-meaning gatekeepers slow innovation … I see the elimination of gatekeepers everywhere.” In the inevitable future, thankfully, we’d be rid of gatekeepers entirely.
That sounds wonderful, and I genuinely wish it were the case. Unfortunately, evidence is piling up that suggests a handful of tech companies are now the most powerful gatekeepers that have existed. Allow me to explain. Between 2009 and 2014, Web 2.0 brought about a massive consolidation of internet traffic. In 2009, half of all internet traffic went to around 150 sites. By 2014, that number dipped below 30. When we log on, about half of us are on one of a mere 30 sites. The advantages for those 30 sites are massive. Growth for sites like Netflix were explosive as the world became obsessed with your product virtually overnight. And if you were a company that gets paid by advertisers—as of Q2 of 2018, 99% of Facebook’s revenue was from advertisers—tracking users’ activity across the web has become exponentially easier. If you can get a tracker—like a “Share on Facebook” button—on those handful of sites, or in Google Analytics’ case, create a tracker monopoly—75% of the top million sites have it installed—it becomes extremely simple and profitable to keep tabs on users.
With that amount of web traffic comes extraordinary power. Two-thirds of online shoppers are Amazon Prime members, which means if you sell something online and Amazon wants to sell a generic version next to your product or decides you are out of line, they don’t hesitate to bully you into playing by their rules. As Franklin Foer documents in World Without Mind, Amazon doesn’t hesitate to wield this power to crush smaller companies. As the place most of us start our web searches, Google can also significantly affect internet traffic by removing a particular site from its results. Facebook only shows users about 300 of a possible 1,500 items in their newsfeed, allowing them to decide what users do and don’t need to know about. For better or worse, the gatekeeper destroyers have become gatekeepers themselves. We may even be requiring them to gatekeep more intensely. The fallout from Facebook’s inability to cope with Fake News quickly and the Cambridge Analytica scandal have sent tech companies a powerful message that platforms as powerful as Facebook are expected to police the content on them.
I think the reason we are asking the tech giants to gatekeep is because on some level we recognize that there is a value to editorial control. Without a doubt, editors have abused those privileges in the past, but having no one determine the bounds of the public imagination, is arguably worse. If we want a thriving democracy, we need many diverse voices, but that doesn’t mean all voices get the same weight. If you are spreading falsehoods, there should be some check on the transmission of that information. Instead of holding innovation as the highest virtue, it’s time to evaluate gatekeeping based on how well it preserves our democracy.
I was born in North Carolina in 1985. I grew up at our suburban pool, Presbyterian church, public schools, and boy scout troop, where I eventually became an Eagle Scout. After high school, I hiked the length of the Appalachian trail from Maine to Georgia with my best friend. That experience blew apart any bubbles I’d been living in up to that point and prepared me well for an adventurous college experience. I studied physics and spent summers biking across the country, leading whitewater rafting trips in Colorado, and studying in summer schools in both North Carolina and Mexico. By the time I graduated in three years, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do, besides everything. After getting married at 24, I went back to school and studied education (MAED). That qualification opened doors to international opportunities. I spent three years teaching near London, in the US Virgin Islands, and Ecuador. We moved back to the States to start a family and I transitioned into a career as a software developer, a passion that had been weaving its way into my life as an educator. Starting a family took a year and a half and we didn’t get pregnant until after we did a family technology detox. I became fascinated by the way technology affects us and began reading the existing literature and found that while there was ample evidence of the ways in which technology was hindering human flourishing, there seemed to be no one with a better path forward. Having spent several years as an educator and software engineer, I had both the mindset and skill set to design such a path. But my wife was pregnant, so it didn’t seem prudent to take any professional risks. Tragically, our daughter died about 24 hours before her birth, a few days after her due date. It is hard to describe the pain and brokenness that continues to reverberate today. This defining tragedy changed my perspective about risk. I reached a point where I thought, “Nothing matters anymore.” Which sounds terrible and is. But hidden in that thought is a freedom I’d never known before. I could follow my dream, training people to restore a sense of balance to their digital lives through speaking, workshops and writing. Our own experiences with technology had created my wife’s and my greatest hope and greatest sorrow. In response, I started Digital Detangler and wrote my first book, a how-to guide for individuals and corporate teams hoping to regain control over their hectic lives.
Acar, Güneş, Brendan Van Alsenoy, Frank Piessens, Claudia Diaz, and Bart Preneel. “Facebook Tracking Through Social Plug-Ins,” June 24, 2015, 24.
“Facebook – Financials.” Accessed August 22, 2018. https://investor.fb.com/financials/default.aspx.
Foer, Franklin. World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.
Goel, Vindu. “Facebook Tinkers With Users’ Emotions in News Feed Experiment, Stirring Outcry.” The New York Times, December 20, 2017, sec. Technology. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/30/technology/facebook-tinkers-with-users-emotions-in-news-feed-experiment-stirring-outcry.html.
Naughton, John. “Couch Potatoes Have Killed the Internet Dream.” The Guardian, October 25, 2014, sec. Technology. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/oct/26/couch-potatoes-killed-internet-dream.
“Privacy Mythbusting #6: Security Equals Privacy. (Nope!).” DuckDuckGo Blog, July 25, 2017. https://spreadprivacy.com/security-is-not-privacy/.
“What Americans Told Us About Online Shopping Says A Lot About Amazon.” NPR.org. Accessed August 22, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/06/06/615137239/what-americans-told-us-about-online-shopping-says-a-lot-about-amazon.
 Foer, World Without Mind.
 Naughton, “Couch Potatoes Have Killed the Internet Dream.”
 “Facebook – Financials.”
 Acar et al., “Facebook Tracking Through Social Plug-Ins.”
 “Privacy Mythbusting #6.”
 “What Americans Told Us About Online Shopping Says A Lot About Amazon.”
 Foer, World Without Mind.
 Goel, “Facebook Tinkers With Users’ Emotions in News Feed Experiment, Stirring Outcry.”