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What decentralising the internet would really mean

Experts tell us how the online world could be changing forever

How long can Google and Instagram last? Social media users without many followers are no doubt wondering when the next big app will launch, maybe hoping they can leave Instagram and its shitty, non-chronological TL and annoying interface changes behind and be an early adopter somewhere else. Insta’ll fade into obscurity soon enough, like MySpace, Yahoo, AltaVista, the lot, so what’s the next big thing?

Given our current phase of digital obsession, you’d be forgiven for thinking self image is the only factor contributing to an adapting digital landscape, but it’s not. Changes in the way we are thinking about mental health, the progression of technology and the rewriting of a modern ethical code mean that users of key platforms are re-thinking how they consume and use the web. Could we be turning our backs on the likes of Google and Insta within our lifetimes? Could ethical search engines and apps be the next digital trend? And if so, what would decentralising the internet look like – so ridding ourselves of the giants like Google – and really mean for our day-to-day lives?

Strategist Charlie Bilello launched a Twitter poll late last year, asking his 88,000 followers which platform they’d rather live without: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix or Google. An overwhelming 77 percent insisted Google would be the hardest to cut – with only 2 percent choosing Facebook.

Google’s end may not be in sight quite yet, but Facebook’s – following a raft of cripping accusations about security breaches – might just be the triggering factor that starts a landslide of questioning about our online user habits.

Experts have also been talking about a trend for ‘authenticity’ as a disrupting factor. A response to the #nofilter brigade, there is the argument that an emergent crowd of internet users prefer to act like themselves online, rather than their best selves. Could this insistence on a lack of bullshit spell the end of the apps we currently rely on?

In the last year, the biggest hints yet are suggesting the web may be changing forever.

Facebook suffered its biggest ever one-day drop in market value in 2018, a response to the previously touched-upon Cambridge Analytica scandal, which had bigger ethical repercussions, including bolstering a general perception of a lack of trust in the web. Twitter also reported a 20 per cent surprise fall in active monthly users, a surprise to the platform.

A rise in the number of competitors to Google, such as ethical search engine Ecosia and privacy-first search engine DuckDuckGo also suggest an opposition is forming.

We’ve asked three internet experts for their hot takes on the truth about what would happen if we’re to experience a gradual shift towards decentralisation of the major power hubs. Here’s what they said.

IT WOULDN’T NECESSARILY MAKE IT MORE ETHICAL

“Decentralisation can be a Trojan horse,” explains Oxford University’s Vili Lehdonvirta. “There can still be a de-facto power center but one that’s even harder to call to account since formally it doesn’t exist. So decentralisation is not a panacea, but it’s worth thinking about ways of involving users more in the governance of platforms that have become infrastructural.”

IT WOULD MAKE THE INTERNET LESS CONVENIENT AT FIRST

“For the decentralised web to become a reality it will have to become more convenient to start with,” says famous futurist and keynote speaker Anne Lise Kjaer, of trend management firm Kjaer Global.

“Getting started on the decentralised web is not like downloading a new app. For it to go mainstream it would have to become more accessible and clearly demonstrate its purpose and value to ‘ordinary’ people.”

“Google, Amazon, Instagram and Facebook currently have the edge in terms of convenience and choice. People have so many things in their lives tied to these platforms – not just the social aspect but many services and apps are dependent on the tech-giants’ infrastructure. Humans are lazy creatures by nature and it is hard to think about migrating our entire online life to another platform. The incentives will need to be high. On the other hand, it is also the tech-giant’s monopolisation and censorship of e.g. entrepreneurs that could be the push for people to move to a decentralised web. After all it only takes one great idea to change things and entrepreneurs are among the first to move decentralised.”

“The constant push to monetize our social interactions are causing fatigue”

THERE’D BE INCREASED TRUST IN THE INTERNET

“Another incentive for ‘ordinary’ users will be greater trust that their data will not be misused,” comments Anne Lise. “Fake news, disinformation and stories of manipulation of voters in the US, Mexico and Brazil are doing nothing to make people more trusting, while the constant push to monetize our social interactions are causing fatigue.”

A DECENTRALISED WEB WOULD MEAN GREATER CHOICE AND ENTRENCHED RIGHTS

“Our intentional presentations of self in social media shape what we read, think, and view, and how the world perceives us,” explains James Hughes, Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

“We can intentionally choose some of that relationship, but to a large extent we are being shaped by corporate decisions beyond our control, whether we want to participate or not. Europe is ahead of the United States in establishing what the rights of citizens are over their data, and in pushing back on the monopolistic practices of the data giants.”

“We are being shaped by corporate decisions beyond our control, whether we want to participate or not”

PROPER REGULATION COULD MEAN DEMOCRATISING THE INTERNET

“Inevitably, capitalism will move more quickly than democracy,” says James Hughes. “The current media titans – Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – will be displaced by new technologies using artificial intelligence to monopolize our brains and maximize the extraction of profits.”

“Real protection in that future will probably require something beyond regulation and anti-trust, such as mandating democratic ownership and control of these monopolies, along the lines of public utilities.”

NEW PLATFORMS WOULD NEED TO BE LESS EXPLOITATIVE

“There is a push back happening,” warns Anne Lise. “People reject the sometimes cynical culture of social experiences that are expressly designed to encourage sharing.

“In addition, there are increasing concerns about how social media, gaming and video platforms as well as streaming services exploit human nature and cause toxic online environments and dependency. In fact, there is concern that the so-called digital divide will not be about equal access to devices and the internet, but about how this access is managed; to be healthy and productive rather than toxic and addictive.”

THE FUTURE INTERNET COULD BE A BIG WIN FOR PEOPLE PASSIONATE ABOUT DIGITAL RIGHTS

“New ideas will have to come from a deep sense of purpose and deliver on integrity, environmental and social credentials, then they will thrive,” enthuses Anne Lise.

“This balance becomes ever more evident as the younger generations take over. They have far greater incentive to push for social and environmental justice and they already influence most sectors. The younger generations are also more fickle and curious and have proved that they are happy to jump to new social media platforms, so perhaps for them a decentralised web is an easy choice.”