I recently finished reading Eli Pariser‘s The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You. I highly, highly recommend this as essential reading. He provides some intense thinking in every chapter about the serious implications of where the internet is currently taking us. Brilliantly thought out and well written. (I should probably write a whole post about his book!)
While reading his book, one of my great worries about the internet, of the digital lifestyle in general, became clearer to me: it’s invisible, not just in a simple sense. We can’t see it nor can we see the back story bringing it to us. Invisible has some serious implications, the possibility for so much mischief on so many levels, at the very least, is more than just vast, it’s inevitable. This has huge and deep ramifications. In the political arena alone, democracy can only thrive, perhaps even exist, in public, transparent space. The internet is becoming less and less of a transparent place and more and more subject to hidden and extremely sophisticated manipulation.
Here’s a very simple example from the commercial space…
I was recently talking with two business men in Manhattan Beach. Yelp came up in the conversation. I was fairly astonished by what they were saying. I frequently use Yelp to find and gather information about local businesses I may be interested in patronizing. I still feel very new to the Los Angeles area. I just naïvely assumed that Yelp presented reviews in the order they were written, with the most current at the top. Apparently, not a chance.
Yelp appears to be a highly contrived marketing system. Vendors, especially popular ones, are contacted frequently by the company and can purchase “services” for some significant money. According to one of the businessmen in the conversation, this is landing them in some serious litigation.
Businesses can, for a hefty monthly fee, have their less desirable reviews appear at the end of the list, even made difficult to find. (I had actually unknowingly experienced that.) Vendors can pay to have their business appear at the top of the Yelp search lists, can pay to have their business listed as sort of a “see also:” when a person performs a search that yields one of their competitors. And these “services” apparently cost hundreds per month.
Saying that this is using social media to “stack the odds” and sort of “extort” money from the mom and pop bakery shop on the corner is a bit over-blown, or is it? I don’t know. You have to decide. But when I heard one of their stories, a story of how their competition has used Yelp and other social media tools to attempt to give one of their businesses a bad name, to put them out of business, and how Yelp offers “services” at a monthly rate, I realized Yelp was not the tool I had previously assumed it to be.
It’s the wild, wild west out on the digital frontier.