Because it’s easy to become overwhelmed by tech minutia, particularly if you hail from the arts, I thought it might be useful to step back from the discussion of SEO in the previous post and consider the internet in broader context. If you’re not into technology most tech-speak probably sounds like gibberish, but you probably also have faith that it all makes sense to someone somewhere. If the internet is a mystery to you as an artist or author, you trust that the smart, wonderful, benevolent people who created the internet in order to help you reach both your intended audience and your creative potential really do understand what it’s all about.
The internet is an amazing creation, and has come to dominate our lives in an amazingly short amount of time. Backed by hundreds of billions of dollars in investment, infrastructure and advertising, the internet is clearly the place to be, at least according to the internet. Beyond making a lot of people rich, however, the internet as a method of communication has democratized conversations that were previously controlled by self-interested if not bigoted gatekeepers, meaning voices that were perpetually overlooked or muted can now be heard on issues of critical importance. In every way the internet imitates life, and at times even imitates art.
The problem with that feel-good appraisal is that it ignores another fundamental truth about the internet, which is that is completely insane. And in saying that I do not mean the internet is exasperating or wildly avante-garde, nor am I being hyperbolic or pejorative. Rather, I mean that as a cold, clinical appraisal. If you are an author or artist the maze of technologies driving the internet may make it hard to perceive the systemic dysfunction emanating from your screen (though the phrase virtual reality is itself a shrill clue), but you are in fact better positioned than most to understand it. All you need to do is recast your conception of the internet in familiar terms.
If you’re a writer, think of the internet as having been authored by Joseph Heller or Kurt Vonnegut. If you’re an artist, think of the internet as a work by Salvador Dali or René Magritte. Which is to say that the internet is not simply the sum of its technologies and techniques, but a construct, space, and experience informed and distorted by human perception and imagination.
The Internet As Network
Just as we don’t really think about where our tap water comes from or where our waste water goes, we don’t really think about how the internet functions. We sign up for services, we pay fees, we see blinking lights, we cling to our smartphones like babies clinging to pacifiers, but all of the data packets whizzing back and forth and the routers and server farms powering that digital blizzard are, for most of us, truly a mystery.
The more I’ve learned about the internet over the years the more I’m surprised it works at all. For example, the route a single email takes between my computer and its destination is truly circuitous, if not absurd. But it works, most of the time, so we don’t care how the job gets done, even as more than a hundred billion emails bounce willy-nilly around the planet each day.
And then there’s email’s evil twin, spam. If you have an email account you know about spam. If you’ve had the same account for a few years you may get as many spam messages as you do emails from people you know. What you may not know is that tens or hundreds or even thousands of spam messages addressed to you were intercepted before arrival — filtered out by spam-killing servers. (There is general agreement that spam is at least 50% of all internet email traffic, and that number is probably closer to 75%.)
If you have a blog you are also familiar with comment spam. Until recently Ditchwalk received 1,000 or more spam comments each day, and that was with Akismet installed. After changing ISP’s in March I increased the ruthlessness of Akistmet, whacking the assaults back to fifty or so spam comments every twenty-four hours, but that doesn’t mean the other 950 messages are no longer being sent. All it means is that Akismet is preventing them from reaching me. Still, each day, a thousand or more spam comments aimed at posts on this site whiz around the internet, only to be thwarted at the last minute.
Who’s sending all that spam? Not only do I have no idea, but the question itself has a dubious premise. Shortly after I increased the rate at which Akismet filtered out spam comments, a server in Dallas, Texas went berserk and hammered my site with 30,000 hits in a matter of hours. After I blocked that server another 120,000 hits were attempted over the next day or so, yielding a total of 158,557 pings. My new ISP confirmed that the flurry was not a DDoS attack (my site remained up the entire time), meaning that lonesome Lone Star computer just really wanted to connect with me for some reason.
A day later a server in Germany started doing the same thing, relenting only after I blocked 99,072 hits in twenty-four hours. One day after the German server gave up a server in Buffalo, New York hit my site 39,771 times — all blocked — before it too gave up. And then…nothing. Silence. Or rather, just the usual barrage of automated queries from all quarters, some of them domestic, many of them foreign, all going about the business of either keeping the internet up to date or probing for vulnerabilities to be exploited later. Despite all that apparently connected and targeted activity, however, it’s likely that no one was behind it, meaning no human being was actively involved.
Speaking of which, if you don’t know about web bots you should read up on them sometime. They’ve got self-driving cars beat by at least two decades. If you have a website you’ve probably noticed a massive difference between the traffic reported by AWStats (AWS) and that reported by Google Analytics (GA). The difference reflects the fact that AWS doesn’t filter out bot traffic, while GA at least tries to identify real human visitors. (About 50% of the visits to any web page are bots, and in many cases the percentage is much higher.)
I say GA tries to identify humans because lately my site reports are being corrupted by what is called referer spam. While GA does have a feature that allows me to filter out such hits, that feature routinely fails. GA also reports hits coming from one country or state when I know they’re coming from somewhere else, and sometimes excludes valid human hits that should be included. Meaning one big ugly truth about the internet is that I never really know who’s visiting my site, and that’s normal.
The Internet As Extortion Racket
You’ve probably heard about Yelp. It’s a site/service that provides — or, technically, hosts — crowd-sourced reviews of restaurants and other businesses, so you can tell who’s good and who’s not before spending your hard-earned dollars. One problem with Yelp, however, is that there’s no vetting of reviews, so anyone can trash any business for any reason, with little fear of personal or professional reprisal.
Speaking of which, did you know that one of the ways Yelp makes money is by helping businesses respond to things like unsubstantiated negative reviews? You know, the kind of negative reviews that routinely show up on Yelp? Yes, that’s right. Yelp creates a toxic market for public harassment, then offers to help you deal with that toxic market for a price. But it’s okay, because if you pay to advertise on Yelp they’ll do lots of savvy, positive, pro-business things for you, like not deleting your positive reviews.
Now, you might think such nefarious tactics would be illegal, but so far the courts have thrown out suits because there’s no applicable statute under which complainants can sue. So, if you’re inclined, this is a very good time to destroy other people’s reputations for profit. (If there’s a silver lining in all this, it’s that Yelp’s own reputation as a source of reliable information continues to degrade.)
Fortunately, for every Yelp there’s an AdBlock Plus — a company determined to help you, the individual user, fight the tide of vandalism, crime and corruption that courses through the internet’s electronic veins. For absolutely no money at all, AdBlock Plus will keep all those annoying, targeted ads — which are themselves the result of yet more internet abuse, including pervasive data rape — from polluting your online experience.
Speaking of which, did you know that AdBlock Plus accepts money from companies that don’t want to be blocked, so their ads will get through even if you don’t want to see them? That’s right. Adblock Plus is actually Adblock-Unless-You-Pay Plus. Unlike Yelp, AdBlock Plus cloaks its extortion in the guise of fighting for the little guy against big bad tech companies, except when those big bad tech companies are also investors. After being paid to circumvent their own product, Adblock Plus certifies paid-for ads as acceptable and adds them to a whitelist that allows those ads to be displayed. (Apparently ‘whitelist’ is now a synonym for ‘advertisers’, just as ‘sponsored content’ is a synonym for ‘ad’.)
Whether you’re shocked by the fact that some internet companies have premised their entire business strategy on reputation extortion, it’s fair to argue that such larceny merely reflects human nature. A certain percentage of the population is always a money-grubbing embarrassment when contrasted with the higher ideals of mankind, and that’s never going to change. Which is precisely why it’s so critical that the people charged with oversight of the internet are above such abuses.
Speaking of which, did you know that ICAAN, the quasi-non-governmental-non-profit which oversees internet names, approved the .sucks top-level domain? Great pranksters, those fair-minded people at ICAAN — unless of course you spend a lot of time and money building, managing and protecting your brand. Because if you are concerned about protecting your brand you will now need to register dozens or even hundreds of domain permutations that never existed before just to keep trolls from putting up sites like ICAAN.sucks — or infinitely worse. (I leave it to you, gentle reader, to amuse yourself with the scandalous possibilities.)
Fortunately, ICANN gave oversight of the .sucks domain to a benevolent company that has gone out of its way to give all those suddenly-vulnerable individuals and companies an early registration period so their names won’t be usurped by ne’er-do-wells who probably don’t have the money or inclination to register brand-jacking websites anyway. That’s right, merely by creating the .sucks domain, ICANN created a monopolistic extortion racket for a single business entity.
(Imagine your local municipality selling fill-in-the-blank signs that read ______ Sucks!, then allowing those signs to be posted anywhere, including in front of your house or business. Yes, the .sucks domain really is that bad, and sets an utterly untenable precedent for domain name extensions. Again, I leave it to you to amuse yourself with the horrifying possibilities.)
Even people who should know better get sucked in (no pun intended) by the easy, sleazy money that can be made through reputation extortion, putting up sites designed to compel vested interests to pony up or risk having their brands compromised. In fact, once you start seeing it for what it is, reputation extortion is everywhere, including when you use a search engine to find a doctor or lawyer. Instead of professional web sites you get page after page of faux reviews and faux directories, all designed to be a threat to the professionals they’re targeting. (Review sites for physicians are particularly ugly. Not only are reviews biased toward negative experiences because angry people are motivated to seek some measure of satisfaction, but even if a physician wanted to dispute a review they couldn’t because HIPPA guidelines prevent them from doing so.)
Still, there is an important lesson to be learned from all this, and it’s the rather heartwarming idea that reputation still matters. Which in turn suggests that when you take to the web yourself, either as a professional or an individual (or both), the one thought you should always have in your own mind is protecting your reputation — or, if you prefer (and I don’t), your brand. How do you do that if you don’t have deep pockets? Well, you get yourself a website — free or wholly owned — so no matter what anybody else does you can still conduct business and present yourself as you see fit. If you want to keep your interactions and exchanges strictly professional, that’s fine. If you want to be yourself, within reason, that’s fine too. You’ll never be able to stop others from trolling you or using you as fodder for their own ends, or even trying to destroy you in an orchestrated campaign from halfway around the world, but as long as you have your own platform you will be able to make your case. And if your reputation is good people will be inclined, at the very least, to give you a fair hearing.
The Internet As Social Media
The good news if you’re a sole-proprietor, to say nothing of a cash-poor creative type, is that reputation extortion and other outside threats are unlikely. Much more likely is that you will, of your own free will, cripple or destroy your reputation yourself. For all its appeal, social networking as a means of communication is the dorsal fin on a single-minded, bloodthirsty, social media shark. Social networking is what individuals and groups do, while social mediums are generally for-profit companies which host all that networking — often for free, but with the expectation that they will turn a profit by other means.
The big-name social media companies achieve profitability using a business strategy in which users not only provide the vast majority of the content, users also provide — often unknowingly, as a result of intentional deception — personal and even uniquely identifiable information that can be sold to advertisers. While you’re busy being a social media badass, merchandizing your wares and sending messages hither and yon, building your brand and extending your reach, you also creating content that draws others to that platform while simultaneously divulging information about yourself that can be monetized behind your back.
If you play games on your smartphone, tablet or desktop computer, over the past few years you may have noticed a tidal wave of what are called free-to-play games, which are usually anything but. What you may not have noticed is that social media sites are also free-to-play, and as often as not premised on the same disingenuous business practices. Facebook and Twitter (and even Yelp) may not seem like games, but those free-to-play companies rely on exploiting the work product and personal information of users, along with generating revenue from services or advertising. (It’s not a coincidence that the current free-to-play mobile explosion followed closely on the heels of the free-to-play gaming explosion on Facebook. If free-to-play as a business model was incubated anywhere, it was incubated on a social media site.)
If you’re clever and careful you can use free social media tools like Facebook and Twitter to make money, but you can never prevent social media companies from exploiting your presence on those sites. It’s their entire reason for being — and yet ultimately that’s not the main problem with social networking. The main problem is that what most people are doing on social networks is not what they think they’re doing. What they think they’re doing is networking, but what they’re really doing is broadcasting not just to the people they’re talking to directly, but to the world. That is in fact why celebrities and corporations love social media. It seems intimate and responsive, but that intimacy and responsiveness is a well-disguised lie.
For the most part you don’t actually network or communicate with your favorite musicians or brands, or most of the people you ‘follow’ on social networks. Instead, you receive messages in the same way that you receive information via email or snail mail, or radio (sound files) or TV (video clips). The most obvious example is Twitter, which has never been a closed system, and each year moves more and more toward an advertiser-supported broadcasting model. In fact, just recently Twitter and Google reached a deal whereby tweets will show up in generic search results. (That’s probably not something you would expect to happen with your emails, texts or phone calls.)
Although positioned as a social networking site, and armed with tools that allow back-and-forth conversation both in public and private, each Twitter account is actually a channel. Unlike Facebook you don’t even have to register in order to follow Twitter users, you can just go to the site and search for whatever you want, or use your favorite search engine. (And that was true before the new deal with Google.) Seriously, think of any word or subject at random, then add it to a site search: like this or this or this. It’s like spinning the dial on an old analog radio, pulling in channel after channel, some big, some small, but all broadcasting openly in cyberspace.
Unfortunately, that’s not how Twitter users tend to think of Twitter, which is why people not only say things they later regret, but why they are genuinely surprised when someone they’re not talking too — or millions of someones — takes offense. It’s also why people delete their Twitter accounts when they become the focus of internet indignation or ridicule. Although requiring registration, Facebook is not private unless you make it private, and even then you have to remain vigilant because Facebook itself is your greatest privacy adversary. (Like the free-to-play game that it is, Facebook only makes money if you provide content that can be shown to others or personal information that can be exploited — or preferably both.)
Feeling lonely and looking for love on a dating site? Well, the sham of internet privacy has now reduced people to including legal declarations in their dating profiles in an attempt to prevent outside users, and even dating sites themselves, from using that information for other purposes. Except there is no established right to privacy on a dating site. Like any other free-to-play social medium, dating sites rely on users to provide content (pictures, text) and personal information that can be scraped and sold to advertisers. Which is why dating sites have also been busted for faking profiles to attract new users, and for refusing to delete old profiles because of their value as both content and data.
Authors, Artists and the Internet
Whatever else you believe the internet to be — opportunity, liberty, democracy — it is also, inarguably, an autonomous technological clusterbleep, an engine for extortion and other crimes, and a cabal of social media exploitation. Too see it in any other way is not to be optimistic but deluded. Fortunately, more and more people are trading in their rose-colored internet VR headsets for a frank appraisal of the internet’s endemic privacy abuses, including particularly invasive online advertising.
There are of course many companies filling useful and ethical niches in the online marketplace, and as an author or artist you may end up doing business with one or more. If you’re lucky, they’ll provide a good or service for a fee. If you’re not lucky, they’ll co-opt your hard work for their own ends while also making it harder for you to protect your good name. While I don’t know a lot about the graphic arts business, I recently made a few purchases from this company and found the experience positive throughout. Fair prices, plenty of offerings, good quality, expedient service, and no follow-up email spam. What I liked most, however, was that the site did not include comments or reviews simply to gin up traffic on the backs of artists.
Speaking of which, and because I know a bit more about the companies that service writers, it might be useful to contrast such an artist-friendly (if not artist-first) site with the business practices of internet behemoth Amazon. For example, imagine you’ve toiled in authorial obscurity for years, even decades. You’ve produced a book that is a preposterous 700 pages in length, impossibly obscure, heavily researched and as academically dry as the Sahara, and yet, for reasons that no one can articulate it goes on to become a bestseller. All good news, right?
Well, not if you have Amazon in your corner, providing politically motivated trolls with a forum in which to trash your book at the point of sale. That’s right — Amazon’s customer reviews follow the Yelp model, giving site visitors the opportunity to say anything the want, on the record, for or against authors, without any shred of evidence that they have purchased, let alone read, the books they are panning or raving about.
To be fair, unscrupulous authors are often complicit in the practice, writing their own gaudy sock-puppet reviews or savaging other authors, or having friends and family write raves as a goad to sales. In fact, to get anything from Amazon’s dubious reviews you have to become something of a forensic review specialist, trained in the dark art of spotting fake reviews. It’s truly a wonder someone hasn’t started a fake-review business just to cash in. Oh, wait.
Yes, that’s right: Amazon’s customer reviews are just another free-to-play game that can be monetized in multiple ways. Miffed by the chicanery, Amazon recently announced it is fighting such cynical business practices by taking suppliers of fake reviews to court. Then again Amazon wouldn’t be in that situation if it didn’t host unverified reviews, and that undeniable fact raises an interesting question. Is Amazon suing companies that sell fake reviews because it hurts authors, or because Amazon doesn’t want others profiting from or undermining its own cynical business practices?
Fortunately Amazon is not the internet, nor is Facebook or Twitter nor Google or any other company. The internet is a space — a canvas, a blank page — on which you can render your own version of reality. Ideally, if you’re an artist or author, you’ll spend most of your time creating instead of drifting with or being pulled under by the online tides.
Whether you use social media to extend your reach or limit yourself to your own site, assume that everything you say is public and will haunt you until you die. (If you’re afflicted with a desire for celebrity, that goes double.) As a single guiding online principle, concentrate on your personal and professional credibility. If you want people to treat you like a professional, control your crazy and be a professional. If you can maintain your online reputation for, say, six months, you will have already separated yourself from 90% of the people on the web.
— Mark Barrett