Mark Zuckerberg appeared presidential earlier this year when he gave a speech at an annual Facebook event. He said traveling around the world has worried him: “I am starting to see people and nations turning inward — against this idea of a connected world and a global community.”
He showed dismay for “fearful voices calling for building walls and distancing people they label as ‘others.’” Then, like a powerful world leader, he called on everyone: “Instead of building walls, we can help people build bridges. And instead of dividing people, we can help bring people together.”
That is all quite ironic to me, and I’ll tell you why. In 2014, I was pardoned and released from a prison in Tehran where I spent six years over my web activism. Before I was imprisoned in 2008, all the hype and rage on the internet was found on blogs.
Blogs were the best thing that had ever happened on the internet. They democratized writing and publishing — at least in many parts of the world. They gave a voice to many silenced groups and minorities. They connected friends, families, communities, and nations around the world. They encouraged discussions and debates.
All that was made possible because of a brilliant and powerful, but simple and modest innovation: hyperlinks. Those underlined, blue bits of text that made your cursor look like a hand with an outstretched pointed finger, and took you to outside sources and material on the web. The very fact that in 2016, one needs to explain to a new generation what hyperlinks (or simply links) were is already sad enough. But acknowledging that links are now practically dead is heartbreaking to anyone who remembers those times.
The World Wide Web was founded on the links, and without links, there won’t be a web. Without links the experience of being on the internet will become one of a centralized, linear, passive, inward-looking and homogeneous kind. This is happening already, and despite Zuckerberg’s sermon, it is largely Facebook and Instagram who are to be blame for the demise of links, and thereby the death of the open web and all its potentials for a more peaceful world.
Zuckerberg killed links (and the web) because he has created a space that is more like the future of television rather than the internet. Unlike what he preaches, Facebook has divided us into small personal bubbles of comfort. We don’t need to do anything, but to swipe with our thumbs (soon even that wouldn’t be necessary with eyeball detection systems).
All the videos, images, and articles we see in our newsfeeds are picked for us based on our habits, based on our previous likes and reshares, which have taught Facebook about our preferences. Naturally, most of us only like what or who we agree with, and Facebook therefore rarely upsets, challenges, or surprises us.
While Zuckerberg laments at walls and admires bridges, the fact is that his Facebook algorithms have created billions of these comfort bubbles that are even more isolating than walls. Also, he has destroyed the most powerful bridges that perhaps ever existed in the human history, the hyperlinks.
Facebook’s desire to keep users inside of it all the time is why it can generate so much advertising money. But that means it provides less and less reasons for anyone to leave its environment, in order to read an article or watch a video.
Not only does Facebook prioritize native content in its newsfeeds, but it is introducing ideas such as Instant Articles or Live to bring all the content scattered around on distant corners of the web onto its own platform. Zuckerberg’s vision is not to connect people in distant islands, but to bring everyone onto a big island so nobody would ever need to use a bridge to go anywhere else.
What Zuckerberg is doing, especially in the developing world, is to make people think that Facebook means the internet — and he has been quite successful. More than half of Indians and Brazilians now equate the internet with Facebook.
For me, as someone who spent six years in prison at a time when being online was a serious and intellectual activity, it is heart-breaking to see how Facebook has changed the internet into little more than a portal for entertainment.
Zuckerberg killed the open web and all the bridges it had created in order to make money. But when he, with an innocent face, starts warning the world about walls, divisions and intolerance, it feels like a dark Orwellian nightmare. The open web could have been a remedy at a time when closed borders rule. But Mark Zuckerberg destroyed it.
Hossein Derakhshan (@h0d3r) is an Iranian-Canadian author, freelance journalist and media analyst. He is the author of “The Web We Have to Save (Matter).”