One of the main building blocks of the commercial Internet are platforms; online places where two or more groups with matching demands and needs can connect to exchange goods, services or information. Among the most well-known and widely used platforms are social networks like Facebook (where multiple parties with a variety of needs and demands are involved), Uber (where people who need to get from a A to B connect with people who are willing to drive them from A to B), Airbnb (where people with housing space connect with people who need an accommodation), Wikipedia (where people with time and knowledge provide information for people who are in need of knowledge) or classifieds sites and e-commerce market places such as Craigslist and eBay. While platforms can take on different looks and shapes, a major characteristic is that the operators of platforms try to let demand and supply find itself as freely as possible. Especially when it comes to legal proceedings, the companies behind those platforms regularly claim that they only provide the technical infrastructure and operational framework, but that the users of that platform are the ones responsible for their actions. Platforms have evolved as one of the superior forms of how interactions and transactions happen on the Internet, and they will for sure keep growing and expanding.
Looking at the idea and mechanism of platforms from a more abstract point of view, here is a thought, or rather an analogy: The Internet itself can be considered one large platform. A platform whose users utilize it for the purpose of globally offering and “consuming” ideologies, cultural ideas and thought concepts. This is something completely new to humanity, groundbreaking but also not easy to digest.
There are currently 3,2 billion people who use this platform. Almost half of all humans on this planet. 25 years ago, none of these people had access to the Internet. Back then, everything adults learned about the world, about cultures, ideologies and thought concepts, was what they picked up from national mass media, from books or in direct or telephone conversations with family members, friends or colleagues. With a few exceptions, everything they heard about movements, new kind of political/social ideas or schools of thoughts, was wrapped into layers of the domestic culture and norms, due to the character of the channels through which information was distributed.
With the Internet as the world’s first ever global platform for the exchange, offering and consumption of ideas and ideologies, the previous limitations are gone. Language barriers and national censorship aside, every individual with an Internet connection can participate on that global marketplace, no matter where he or she lives. This platform has something for everyone: Religions and spiritual theories, political, ecological, humanist or economical schools of thoughts, conspiracy theories, cultural or subcultural movements from every corner of this planet are available online, and at the sole transaction cost of an individual’s time. Unlike before the rise of this powerful platform, today national borders do hardly matter for the exchange of ideas anymore, and access to “pure”, authentic ideologies without the domestic cultural wrapper is possible for most people (again, language barriers and censorship as the two main obstacles). If you are interested in American politics, you can simply dive into the American political bubble instead of having to rely on the inevitably heavily biased information your country’s mass media is providing you with.
The Internet as the first ever worldwide platform for ideas and ideologies works similar to any other of the major platforms that are operated by companies or organizations that run on top of the Internet infrastructure: Some users just browse without specific intentions. Other users are looking for specific things (like arguments for or against a certain ideology/idea/school of thought). Others are trying to “sell” their ideas – either those that they have developed themselves, or those of others who they find worthwhile. To some extend, the basically limitless offerings available compete with each other for the people’s time and attention – even though some might be complementary. Local laws and barely effective government regulation aside, the marketplace regulates itself. There is no one who fully bans certain ideas or ideologies from this platform. In fact, it is not even technically possible. Here we have one of the big differences of the Internet as global idea platform compared to Uber, Airbnb or other commercial models: They have the technical means to delete listings. But there is no way to completely delete ideas from the Internet, which is built based on the principle of de-centrality. As long as a certain idea exists in the mind of people, it will also somewhere exist on the Internet. That’s why it is so hard to remove the propaganda of Daesh (IS) from the web. Daesh, by the way, was only able to that quickly built a reputation and gain a worldwide following of its lunatic ideology because of the existence of the Internet as global market place for ideas and ideologies.
In his book Sapiens (which I briefly reviewed a few days go), Yuval Harari writes that we nowadays, for the first time, have a truly global humanity. I fully agree with that. Even though many people still first and foremost consider themselves citizen of a certain country and members of that specific culture, as users of the Internet, they increasingly are exposed to gobal ideologies and ideas which live and evolve in the minds of people in many places on this planet. Ironically, in some cases these ideas might even promote the opposite of a global world, such as nationalist and xenophobic movements. Yet, even the ideas behind such movements are being offered, promoted and consumed in the digital sphere with a globalized flavor. If they end up in the same online discussion, a U.S.-based supporter of Donald Trump would easily press like below the hateful comment against refugees posted by a sympathizer of the UKIP or Front National.
The analogy of the Internet as platform for the global exchange of ideologies and ideas, similar to the principle of centralized, large-scale platforms run by firms or institutions, certainly has its flaws. But it might help to understand the strangeness of events and debates that characterize the news nowadays. The public debate and the political response are increasingly impacted by the transactions happening on the Internet-enabled global market place of ideas and ideologies. These transactions are unpredictable, hard to control, and work too fast and unfathomable for mass media. The result is the type of odd chaos that has become a trademark of the year 2015.