“How the Internet Is Changing, and How It’s Changing Us.”

From an Inside the Times feature by Kevin Roose headlined “A Deep Dive Into the Web’s Influence”:

For many of us, the world has been reduced to what we experience on screens. And the things on those screens are not neutral or inert. They’ve been put there on purpose and arranged, often by a combination of humans and sophisticated forms of artificial intelligence, to accomplish some goal. Maybe that goal is to make us click, buy or share. Maybe it’s to persuade us, or harden some part of our identity. Most of the time, what these machines want from us appears harmless. Once in a while, it actually is.

Marshall McLuhan, the 20th century media theorist, is often credited with saying, “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”

We know, by now, how we’ve shaped our tools. The origin stories of our internet mega-platforms have been told over and over again, in glossy business magazines and cable news specials. We know that Twitter ignited the Arab Spring, and that Facebook ads helped elect President Trump. We know that Google knows everything about us, and that Instagram’s effect on our culture has been immeasurable. . . .

 I’ve been obsessed with the internet since I was a preteen, and I’ve been fascinated as things I used to consider niche phenomena — things like ad microtargeting, meme culture and online conspiracy theories — have wormed their way into the center of the national discourse. In the past few years, internet culture has emerged not just as a nerdy subculture, but as mass culture itself. And our reliance on the internet as a primary source of information, entertainment and community seems to be changing the ways we talk, the things we enjoy and the sources we trust. . . .

These days, more of my thoughts arrive as trite, Twitter-size observations, and my more offbeat tastes have been transformed into smoother, more mainstream ones by the centripetal force of algorithmic recommendations. I’ve heard stories of people I know struggling with their own versions of machine drift — a friend whose political views were upended by a Facebook group, a friend who reoriented her life around chasing Instagram fame, an acquaintance who dropped into a dark corner of 4chan and never came back.

Last year, after the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand — a heinous mass murder committed by a white nationalist . . .calculated to produce maximum internet virality — my colleague Andy Mills and I decided to try to figure out where the internet was leading us, and what made its pull so powerful.

With the help of a small team of talented colleagues, we set out on a yearlong project to make a narrative audio series that would tell the stories of people who were shaping, and being shaped by, the internet.

You might have read versions of some of these stories in text form already. But by telling them in audio form, they’ve come alive in a new way. And although we didn’t plan to release the series during a national lockdown, it might turn out to be the right time to explore the contours of the internet — this place I’ve spent my entire adult life, this strange ecosystem we all now inhabit — and figure out how, and why, it’s changing who we are.

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