I invite you to examine the following scenario:
The advertising industry has finally colonized every corner of the cyberspace: “carefully personalized” contents are scattered throughout the world wide web in the hope that the activity of the aimless web-surfer will notice them. At the same time, Ad blockers have become the boundary walls for those who opted for the utopia of an ads-free version of their life. Media Agencies backfires. Clients are desperate.
The war between users and digital advertising made multitasking and discernment a practical necessity for a society living in the era of digitalism. As if our brain knew what is relevant to us and what is not, we automatically wipe out everything that is not significant enough to catch our attention. Nevertheless, web pages are slowly adopting the look of the infamous “Million Dollar Homepage”, disrupting our online experience. The once alluring aura of the ‘dream sellers’ faded under the commoditization of advertising. The moment we thought ubiquity was the key to win the attention of our customers, we failed.
While our thumbs are fully engaged in swerving through pop-ups, banners and widgets, the only thing our brain is now thinking about is “how can I get through this as fast as I can?”. The attempt to deliver the message failed.
Welcome to the post-internet society. Where post- serves as a shorthand to indicate that the internet has changed, as Alejandro Iñárritu points out: “15 years ago the internet was an escape from reality. Now reality is an escape from the internet.”
In such a scenario, banners, pop-ups, commercials, and any other form of advertisement are the ‘indiscreet guest’ whose shadow is an undeniable presence in our lives. They are simply there, part of the landscape.
Ahead of the digital revolution, advertisement happened in the streets, in the subway, on the radio, via magazines. As the cyberspace spread, becoming the new dimension of humans’ life, channels of communication became almost infinite, virtually enhancing the potential to communicate.
Never before has communication held such a media power, yet the power of visibility is at its lowest.
Think about the 5 seconds you wait until you can skip the commercial before a YouTube video. Chance are that you are perfectly aware of the feeling of moving the pointer on the “Skip Ad” button ready to click it as soon as the widget turns clickable, but you won’t remember any of the contents you have been exposed to in that time span.
Those 5 seconds are equally important both for Media Agencies and viewers: the former speculating on how they can get the most out of those seconds, the latter wondering how they can get rid of them. There is an unequivocal divergence of interests among we can’t avoid to ignore. Therefore, when people in Media Agencies sit down at the table to design the next campaign, they always deal with the same extremely myopic question: “how do I keep my viewer engaged in those 5 seconds?”, ignoring that, in truth, no one actually wants to be bothered before watching a Helicopter taking off from the top of a dog’s head.
The myth of people who have been turned into drone-like humans (users) whose activity mainly consist of ‘login-in’, ‘navigate’, ‘click’, and (hopefully) sit and watch 15 seconds of a random advert, only exist within the wall of the long-established agencies headquarters. We urgently need to move on from this. As the Digital Minister of Taiwan Audrey Tang suggested, we need a shift from the Internet of Things to the Internet of Beings.
A interesting example of how the assumptions behind the current way of communicating in the world wide web can be challenged comes from 2017. During UK’s general elections Yara Rodrigues Fowler and her roommate Charlotte Goodman got involved in the development of an AI computer program — a chatbot — designed to rise awareness about the UK’s election inside the flirty world of the well-known hookup app Tinder. The program would send messages through the profiles of those who agreed to support the cause, being trigger right after the target swiping “ ✅ ”.
Then, instead of the not-so-predictable booty call text, a script similar to when one is canvassing would come up: “Hi! Who are you going to vote for?😍🔥”.
Regardless their political view, what can we learn from Yara Rodrigues Fowler and Charlotte Goodman is the will to question what we can really do with the internet as an infrastructure. Instead of relying on an existing modus operandi, the two explored a new, unprecedented path, taking advantage of the hook-up platform that back then hadn’t been used for commercial purpose yet. With their action, they (re)imagined a way one could possibly use the platform to convey a message. Those on the other end of the screen were not left passive to the message: rather they were invited to “flirt” with it.
Rodrigues Fowler and Goodman hacked the cyberspace. They pushed its boundaries and subverted the rules in it.
The synthetic reality of the social network was turned into a shared reality: the one of UK’s general elections of 2017.
The user experience became a human experience, where the single was actively involved into a conversation.
And ultimately, instead of having an algorithm picking up users around the Internet, the message was delivered through a collaborative action. Real people who supported a common cause and shared their experiences: machine learning became collaborative learning.
All these principles, for sure, are not suitable in every situation, but offer us a great example of how the internet is capable of an infinite set of opportunities that goes beyond the common practices. By pushing the boundaries that ties us to the ideal users, we can have a ‘human-centric’ version of the internet. The internet of things then would become an internet of beings.
Algorithms are great tools, but reducing the whole online experience to an interaction with them is dangerous. As well as it is dangerous to consider hacking the cyberspace as a mere practice. When I use the word hacking, instead, I imagine it as a state of mind through which challenge the current assumptions behind the Internet as we know it today, in order to have a more mindful experience (and use) of it.
Update (23rd of April): American world-famous rapper and songwriter Travis Scott ‘hacked’ the online video game Fortnite for the launch of its new single in collaboration with Kid Cudi (you can watch it here). Over 12.3 million players took part. This event marked an important step towards the way we are re(inventing) the Internet in order to provide more impactful experiences.