Facebook Directs Your Eyes

“What this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook…

…To sum up: there is a lot of research showing that Facebook makes people feel like shit. So maybe, one day, people will stop using it.”

—John Lanchester, “You are the product.” London Review of Books. August 17, 2017.

I’ve been off Facebook, and most social media, for over four years. I can’t imagine returning. In fact, lately, I’m leaning towards a more extreme position. The problems of the Internet are larger than social media and the feudal Internet, where Microsoft puts ads on every Windows machine and cloud infrastructure sits behind every website and stores local files in the cloud. But, instead, these are the more obvious symptoms of commercialized communications, embedded down to the level of the protocols that make it all possible, such as HTML. That’s why efforts like the Gemini Protocol, small Internet pubnixes, Tor, cryptocurrencies, and so forth are worth learning about because they have the potential to completely transform our ways of communicating online in ways that are both more meaningful and authentic.

The Small Internet

“The Small Internet, as I’ve seen people call it, is built on alternative protocols. Previously that meant a protocol called Gopher, which was popular in the 90s but ultimately lost the battle to HTTP. It has, however, maintained a small user-base of hackers and hobbyists who enjoy the technical simplicity and text-oriented nature of Gopher. Recently a new protocol called Gemini was collaboratively designed as a kind of middle ground between the simple Gopher and the more complex HTTP. It aims to better serve certain use-cases that Gopher cannot quite fulfill while still keeping things simple compared to the WWW. For example, Gemini mandates the use of TLS to encrypt traffic between a Gemini server and a client and supports MIME-types, so servers can better instruct clients to deal with different types of files. Generally speaking Gemini and Gopher seem to be co-existing peacefully and many Gopher clients have added support for Gemini as well. It’s also not unusual to link to Gopher content from Gemini sites.

The Small Internet is in some ways similar to the Big Internet we know. It consists of servers, from which people serve documents and files. People host their own journals on it (called “phlogs” on Gopher or “gemlogs/flight journals” on Gemini) similar to how people host blogs on the regular web. There are search engines and content aggregators. Some people even mirror web content on the Small Internet, you can for example read Reddit on an unofficial Gopher mirror.

Where the Small Internet differs is in presentation. Pages are mostly plain-text, you cannot serve scripts to your users and you cannot embed images into pages directly. This means that Small Internet pages tend to be relatively snappy and simple compared to their WWW counterparts. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are ugly, however. ASCII art is frequently used to spice up pages in lieu of style sheets and banner images.”

-samsai, “Introduction to Gemini and the Small Internet.” samsai.eu. May 17, 2020.