Geeks and Internet industry types like to say that Andy Burnham, our Minister for Culture, doesn’t get the Internet. They’re wrong. He gets the Internet all right. He just doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like its pretensions to autonomy and ungovernability and in particular he doesn’t like its inability to protect kids from stuff they shouldn’t be exposed to.
How should the net respond to Burnham’s increasingly pointed attacks? Should we gleefully point out how ‘clueless’ he is? Should we celebrate his irrelevance or the inevitability of his eventual enlightenment by the unstoppable, unarguable net?
No. We should listen to him and recognise that he speaks for millions of people – parents in particular – for whom the net is a frightening thing: a place where it’s difficult to control your exposure to content and experience. A place that contrasts badly, for instance, with the parts of the media where you can exert control (selecting a movie to watch from an age-rated list, for instance). We should acknowledge that these concerns are real and can be addressed.
And why not? Control of our experience of content is vital – you might almost call it a right. Can we reasonably promote increased access to the earth’s ultimate information resource when we can’t offer users any better than crude control over the experience? Should we really say “hey, here’s all of human knowledge, culture and experience. Some of it will freak you out but there’s nothing we can do about that. Get used to it.”
As a parent, I should be able to send my kids (ten, nine and five) onto the net in the reasonable expectation that they won’t be frightened or exploited or upset. It really is not enough to say that the only way to guarantee that is to sit at their shoulders as they go online, ready to jump in and curtail the experience if I think it’s going wrong (especially once they’re experiencing it from multiple connections at home, from an iPhone on the school bus or in the school’s ICT suite).
It’s possible to dismiss Burnham’s concerns as those of a nervous n00b or an instinctive authoritarian. We could just say “get over yourself: plunge in, you’ll love it! The good stuff always exceeds the bad and most of the time you’ll never see anything that upsets you” (which is roughly what I say to novices) but that’s not enough. It just fails to acknowledge the actual reality of a wide-open net governed not by historic scarcity but by rip-roaring plenty. The net’s structure: the structure we love and celebrate – distributed, flat, open and permissive – virtually guarantees that it will contain content that will upset many users.
The idea that we should just grin and bear it (or, for instance, require parents to ride shotgun at all times) is ridiculous. It’s especially ridiculous when you consider the sheer amount of time and energy we net professionals put into filtering and sorting and discriminating in our own net lives. We love the range and accessibility of the net but hate the unordered and unproductive soup of content that makes it hard to get things done and prioritise our lives. For a decade now, a significant proportion of start-up businesses have been in exactly this filtering business: providing tools to control the unmediated rush of content.
In fact many of us are excitedly contributing to a revision of the net’s early indiscriminate structure called the semantic web. We engage in (I’m going to give it a name) filter-seeking behaviour and we actively create filters every time we tag a blog post or a photo.
What we should do in response to Burnham’s reflex rejection of the net’s openness and permissiveness is get on and provide the filters people need. The net’s made of computers after all. If we can build filters as powerful and useful as the DNS, Facebook, Google, del.icio.us, Twitter or RSS feeds (they’re all filters of one kind of another) why can’t we shield kids from scary or upsetting content flexibly, adaptively and automatically? If we can constantly improve the relevance and usefulness of search results why can’t we filter out nastiness and offense for our kids in an intelligent way?
If we as an industry can’t hook together metadata, algorithms, user experience and human editorial effort to provide genuinely useful filters for use by parents, schools and even consenting adults, we won’t long be able to resist the arguments of Burnham and others for restrictions on the supply-side: the content itself. We need to recognise the legitimacy of human filter-seeking behaviour and acknowledge that the continued existence of the wide-open net depends in large part on our ability to filter its experience for vulnerable users.