A few months ago when Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler wrote a much talked about essay — The Dark Forest Theory of the Internet — I couldn’t stop nodding my head in agreement. After all, his comments about Big Tech domination of the Internet, and its abuse of privacy and personal data in the name of advertising and free information, have been a hoarse throat inducing battle cry.
As the public Internet has become a loud, chaotic, nasty place — thanks to minimally viable algorithms whose sole purpose is growth at all costs — we have started to retreat to smaller, private places. Internet’s collective power was in sheer numbers, but thanks to our addiction to free shit, it became society’s Achilles’ heel.
“Dark forests like newsletters and podcasts are growing areas of activity. As are other dark forests, like Slack channels, private Instagrams, invite-only message boards, text groups, Snapchat, WeChat, and on and on. This is where Facebook is pivoting with Groups (and trying to redefine what the word “privacy” means in the process). These are all spaces where depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments. The cultures of those spaces have more in common with the physical world than the internet.”Yancey Strickler, Dark Forest Theory of The Internet.
But why was this happening? Just like other establishments, we have lost trust in technology platforms. Once you lose trust, you need to find comfort in places and with people that you can find it again. Big tech was trading the trust bestowed upon them by the “collective we” for maximum profits. “Do no evil” became “let’s not get caught doing evil.” The more I read Strickler’s piece, the more I wanted to ask him: Why was this outrage directed only at the big tech? How about looking in the mirror? Kickstarter, which started with such purity of mission, has become a network scale engine of disappointments.
Back in 2009, when Kickstarter was becoming interesting, I spent hours with Perry Chen, a co-founder and twice the chief executive of the company. His story of why he wanted to start Kickstarter was so moving and so inspiring that I wrote about the company multiple times. Chen was a speaker at one of my events. We had a long chat about the future. I look back at that interview, and not once did I ask the question how things could go wrong for the platform.
Kickstarter spoke the same language of collaborative consumption that tickled my pleasure zones of empathy. But again, it was the early days. Backing a project was a natural lean-in for me — and for many others. As time has gone by, so too has that blinding belief and unrelenting optimism.
Today, the very first reaction when I come across something on Kickstarter is that of skepticism. I often ask myself: Is this a scam? Will I get these products ever delivered? Where is my money going? In other words, Kickstarter started to feel like one big giant engine of disappointment.
I recently read this article about yet another lens maker who just cropped up on Kickstarter and now is shutting down. Just like the German lens maker Meyer Optik Gorlitz, which went down earlier after essentially selling crappy products. And on and on. In fact there are so many stories of projects with unfulfilled promises. Remember the phone of the future?
When I look back, Kickstarter was a wonderful idea that basically looked at the good in the hearts of people to create collaboratively. It worked so well for music, art, and film. However, it didn’t translate so much into physical products.
Research showed that there were cracks in the system, and yet nothing was done. Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania Professor Ethan Mollick, in a 2015 study, noted that nearly 9% of projects on Kickstarter fail to deliver as promised to their backers. That was a big red flag, yet to this day, people are still left to their own devices when it comes to backing and judging the efficacy of a project.
I suppose the founders and team members, in their utopian quest for a better way to creativity, thought they could do no wrong, nor could their platforms be misused by people with dubious intentions. This naïveté is why they did not have the right checks and balances in place, leading to the current lack of trust.
And Kickstarter is one of the good guys. If you look at all the big social platforms and new emergent giants, they all have suffered from their own nearsightedness with regard to how their systems could be manipulated by those with nefarious minds. Social platforms are a reflection of society — after all, they are about people — and though it would be wonderful, society has never managed to operate as one big Kumbaya moment. There are bad people. There are dirty deeds. And that is why you need to build checks and balances early — at the same time that you are building algorithms for hyper growth and are praying at the feet of network effects.
I was there at the proverbial birth of Twitter. All along, it has been held together by proverbial chewing gum and tape. There wasn’t much thought about how things could go wrong. Instead the focus was: Can we keep the machines running? Can we keep growing? Can we stay competitive with Facebook? Until some of us started questioning their data and their platform challenges, it didn’t seem to be a top priority. And now, they have to build the equivalent of a police force, because all sorts of nastiness is rampant on their platform. I wish them good luck — and they will certainly need it. But I am glad that Team Twitter is at least trying to do something, even if it is trying to plug the holes in the dam with its fingers.
It is hard to be as generous towards Facebook and YouTube, who have had faint regard for the challenges of their platform. Mark Zuckerberg has denied that the platform has problems or was being misused — or that they were allowing to be misused on multiple occasions. It is hard to trust a word that comes out of his mouth or from the propaganda office of Facebook.
YouTube, the company owned by Google (the self proclaimed data champions and major investors in the AI future), can’t tell the difference between a pacifist and a nut job. The sheer stupidity of their ad-matching algorithms and the poor quality of their recommendations can’t be accidental. As a result, it is hard to enjoy or experience YouTube without a degree of skepticism.
At the end of the summer of 2019, if there is one big takeaway, then it is that we have either lost trust or starting to lose trust in what once were many beloved technology companies and platforms. And that lack of trust is why we are retreating towards what Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler — accurately, though perhaps with an ironic lack of self-awareness — calls the dark forests of the Internet.