Solving Problems The Internet Way

The Internet works differently than most other things we’re used to.  20th century humans are accustomed to hierarchy, control and scarcity.  The Internet, by contrast, is distributed open, and abundant.  That difference is fundamental — it not only empowers what’s possible on the Internet (which we increasingly understand), but it also informs how we need to go about solving the Internet’s problems (this is harder).

So, I’ve been thinking about this notion of “the Internet way” (hat tip to Holmes for putting this phrase in my head), in two separate but related contexts:

1) The Internet way of doing things — meaning networked, collaborative, direct and efficient. All of my favorite examples (AirBnB, Skillshare, Kickstarter, Wikipedia, etc.) exhibit these characteristics.  This is exciting and magical, and full of hope and opportunity.

2) The internet way of solving problems — and in particular, I mean solving problems that the Internet itself creates.  This is where things get tricky, and where we bump up against our natural tendencies to think in terms of hierarchy and control.  

Today, I’m going to focus on the latter, because it’s harder and arguably more interesting.

Solutions that are “net native” or that take “the internet way” tend to be non-intuitive.  Rather than exerting top-down control, they leverage bottom-up peer production and empower users to protect themselves and each other.  Rather than being closed and proprietary, they are open and transparent.

Albert Wenger writes consistently great stuff on this topic, so I’ll just use some of his examples to get a bit more concrete:

Problem: Sex ads and human trafficking

Newspapers and websites run classified ads that are blatantly used for sex services.  This fuels the human trafficking trade.

Old way:Remove adult services ads from newspapers and websites like Craigslist

The problem with this type of approach to Internet issues is that itdoesn’t fix them.  Top-down control almost always results in a never ending game of “whack-a-mole”, which drives undesired activity deeper underground into less regulated (by other usersa nd well as by authorities) territories.  Shut down craigslist ads, the ads to go foreign sites, etc.  Prostitution and human trafficking are still going strong.

Internet way: (quoting from Albert):

"To attack the problem of pimps forcing women into prostitution we need to come up with the most effective ways for the women themselves to be able to reach authorities and for third parties to be able to detect suspicious activity. One idea for the former is providing anonymous access to help via text messages and widely publicizing this ….

The obvious idea for the latter is to work with sites like Backpage and not against them.  For instance, it is quite possible that a much better screening system can be created that identifies ads that may involve trafficking based on how the text is written and how the ads are posted.  We won’t know that until we try it out (and big data has gotten very good at picking up even very subtle patterns).”

Problem: Copyright infringement (aka piracy)

The Internet reduces the cost of distributing audio and video files to practically zero.

Old way:  Lock all content down with DRM. Make sharing copyrighted works a felony; prosecute individuals who share file and websites who make it possible.  Apply surveillance technology throughout the network to inspect and block packets transmitting unauthorized works. 

The problem with this approach is the same: it doesn’t work.  And furthermore, it’s massively expensive and deeply restricts personal freedoms.

Internet way: simplify the buying process.  With increased network access, there is more demand for content than ever.  Make it easy a) for individuals to pay for things and b) for innovators to build products and services on top that grow the audience and the industry.  Rather than lock content down w/ DRM, open it up and create an open standard for rights management.  

Problem: Mobile app security

A number of mobile apps have been getting into trouble recently, taking liberties with their users data.  

Old way: Use regulation or the app store review process make sure that bad apps don’t get through to consumers.

Internet way: (quoting from Albert again):

"It would be a shame if this resulted in more centralized control over apps and longer review processes.  What we need instead is some kind of peer produced approach to app security.  What I have in mind is something along the lines of what Chris Dixon did with SiteAdvisor for web sites. Some people will (voluntarily?) run software on their mobile handsets that monitors app activity, including which servers these apps communicate with.  The results from these “monitors” are aggregated to provide security rankings for applications.

As we continue to explore the new, connected world, I think it will be useful to keep coming back to this framing — are the solutions we’re proposing equivalent to fighting a tidal wave (unnatural, ineffective)?  Or are they native to the environment, taking advantage of our new strengths and capabilities?”

Or, as Andy put it: remind ourselves that the Internet is not the problem.  The Internet is the solution.

What are other examples of solving problems the Internet Way?  It’s our job as the Internet community to help identify them, promote them and explain them.  I’ll be keeping track of what I find here.

Solving Problems the Internet Way