[Suomenkielinen versio]

Thoughts on the 10000th of September

Today, the 16th day of January 2021, is the ten-thousandth day of September 1993.

There has not been much talk about Eternal September in the late years, so let us start with history.

In the beginning of the 1990s, the Internet had not yet been commercialized, and most of its users were academic. On-line discussion was disciplined and civilized (at least compared to the later standards) – except in Septembers. Every September, academic institutions got new students who took some time to adopt the new technology and the related rules of behavior.

In 1993, however, it started to be easier to access the Internet from outside the academic world. In the United States, America Online granted its user the access to the Usenet newsgroups in September 1993, and this was also the year when teenager-accessible service providers like Sci.fi and Freenet Finland were established in my country. Non-academic on-line behavior became an everyday phenomenon; September 1993 never ended.

For me, Eternal September has always symbolized Internet-based stupidity – especially of the kinds enabled and amplified by the various functional mechanisms on the Internet, but also stupidity related to the tensions between the technical elite and the masses.

In 1993, everyone could look stupid on the Internet if they hadn't learned the technological basics, no matter how wise they actually were. A prime example from Finland was Pekka Elo (1949-2013), a high educational official who would surely have followed a civilized on-line conduct if he had managed to learn to properly use the Freenet text editor. Instead, his username "peelo" became a slur referring to incompetent Internet users – especially to the school children brought to Finnish IRC channels in thousands by Freenet.

Nowadays, the basic use of Internet technology is easy, but many on-line services have functional mechanisms that deliberitely keep people stupid and even nourish their stupidity. This happens in entertainment-based social media such as Facebook and Twitter, that encourage the user to value things with quick gut reactions: Like or not? Would you like to write a short burst of rage? Patient, wise and reflective use is still possible but requires more self-discipline than it used to.

Of course, the mentally lazy scrolling of friends' news and cat memes is not worse than the traditional couch-potato type watching of television, but what if a medium like this becomes the primary way of doing national politics? Facebook and Twitter were too short-sighted to realize the possibility beforehand, and too egoistic and stupid to react to it soon enough. The emergency brake is pulled only to avoid huge legal cases – otherwise the social media giants pretend to be neutral actors. Despite the fact that the mechanisms that maximize stupidity and bubble-formation are far from neutral.

When I started to use the Internet in the aforementioned 1993, the connection fee was per-minute, making the connections special – especially to a poor-family kid having to avoid growing the phone bills. When the modem connection was on, I was often in a particularly focused state of mind – after all, I was connected to a magical global cyberspace without a chance of staying for very long. I had been using landline bulletin board systems before, but they didn't have the same feeling of grandiosity: the local BBSes formed a cozy small village, but the Internet was a huge international metropolis.

Later on, the magic went away. After three years, I was studying in a university providing unlimited Internet access. After another three years, I had a fixed Internet connection in my student dorm. By this time, the psychology of Internet use had completely reversed for me. The always-on IRC screen gave me the same homely sense of security as the TV gives to some, and sometimes I even scheduled my outdoor time to coincide with the quieter IRC times.

IRC was not originally designed to be addictive, but it revealed its addictivity once the time constraints were removed. Scarcity of on-line time makes the user more focused, enabling them to function in a calm and determined way even in the middle of distractions. In a more relaxed state of mind, however, one is more likely to surrender to the game mechanics.

The addictivity of today's social media services may have originally been accidental as well, but the feature has been deliberately amplified since. The users need to be lured, as effectively as possible, to a dumb state of mind in order to make them spend as much time as possible. This has been successful – the normality of constant Internet access has also normalized Internet addiction. I have struggled with Internet addiction a lot in my life, so watching this development has been quite depressing.

But this is not the only possible state of affairs. The methods of user interface psychology, currently used for turning people into stupid and unattentive livestock for marketing use, could very well be used for opposite goals: to encourage wise and focused Internet use even when there is plenty of available online time. To select wisely instead of merely following the gut reaction.

Social media mechanisms could, for example, ask the users choose the best material from the last week or month – something particularly invigorating, interesting, important, transformative or otherwise worth attention. The algorithms could give good scores to the kind of content that speaks to many kinds of people across bubble borders. There could also be non-hurried discussion forums that would make the new messages visible only once per day, for instance. This would be a kind of environment maybe even worthy for politics.

The entertainment-oriented social media has been in a huge crisis lately because of the destruction caused by the political and belief-based moronity emerged from their meme engines. This crisis has given me a little bit of hope that it would start a serious reanalysis and redesign of social media mechanisms. Even the "alternative services" of today mostly just follow the model of the market leaders, making them just as bad for non-entertainment use.

Let us hope that we will get rid of the stupidity generators before the collapse of the civilization. Then, we could finally declare Eternal September to be over.