Last weekend, the New York Times business section had a profile of a technology figure that shows just how fundamentally the digital revolutionaries misconceived aspects of their inventions. The subject is Evan Williams, founder of Twitter and co-creator of Blogger (an invention that seems to come from the prehistorical era of the internet). The predominant note in the story isn’t success, though. It’s disappointment. Williams made piles of money from his ventures, but when he surveys of the media world in 2017, he feels regret.
“I think the Internet is broken,” he tells the reporter. He’s believed it for years, but recent events have made that sorry outcome ever more obvious to more and more people. Interviewer David Streitfeld himself observes that the Twitter domain Williams created “is a hive of trolling and abuse that it seems unable to stop.” Forty percent of adult users said in a recent Pew survey that they’ve been harassed online. Fake news stories are everywhere. And, of course, Twitter helped get Donald Trump elected, a result for which Williams apologizes.
It shouldn’t have turned out this way, Williams believes. “I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” he says early in the article. It’s a revealing admission that gets to one of the basic dogmas of the digital age in its early days. All we have to do is give everybody the chance to speak, to voice opinions and have their voices heard, and things will improve. We’ll have disagreements, yes, but people won’t suffer the oppression of not being heard. People may get angry, but not bitterly so because they’ll be able to vent their wrath away.
That was Williams’s expectation, and one has to marvel at the naïveté—or ignorance. This is Rousseau’s perfectibility of man without the consequences of the Terror and every other small and large catastrophe that utopian schemers have produced. This is one of the sharp lines dividing conservatives from progressives. Conservatives know the truth of Original Sin, progressives deny it. Williams’s faith goes even farther than that of customary progressives, who at least recognize the difficulty of social improvement. For the digital visionary, putting a publication mechanism in everyone’s hand would automatically bring amelioration about.
Williams looks around and sees broken machinery. In truth, the mobbing and lying and boasting and self-display that he laments should have been anticipated from the start. We need gatekeepers. We need institutions that safeguard standards and reason. We should encourage people to keep their opinions in check, not to blurt out their impressions without a filter. They should think and read and inquire before reacting. The internet grew out of speed and liberty, two factors that every wise man and ordinary parent have always realized don’t often mix with happy results. For Williams and other social media masters, sharing and tweeting and posting and texting were glorious surges of human experience, leaving nothing lost to time and isolation. They forgot the law of oversupply: The more opinions are out there in the world, the less each one matters, including the best ones.
But, we should add, Williams is no longer under these illusions. After telling the reporter of his sanguine hopes, he concludes, “I was wrong about that.”
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.