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Making A Better Internet

My relationship with the Internet oscillates between waves of euphoria and waves of angst. Some things make me extraordinarily happy: like a client who loves usability testing so much when they first experience it that they can’t sleep for days; or connecting with someone whose writing I’ve admired for many years.

But other things make me want to close my computer forever and go live on a farm somewhere: like people who take entire articles and present them as their own work, with tiny source links at the bottom of the page; or endless arguments and name-calling that ignore even the most basic human dignity.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

We are capable of such great things, yet we somehow can’t resist the temptation to tear others apart. There is, perhaps, no better depiction of the current state of the Internet than xkcd’s “Duty Calls4”:

Duty Calls5
Duty Calls by Randall Munroe6.

In this essay, I’ll weave together a story about the current state of Internet discourse. At the end, I’ll tell you how I think we can make it better. And then, we’ll most likely all go back to what we were doing and forget about it. Despite the probable futility of this exercise, I’ll carry it out anyway, because I love the Web and I really don’t want us to destroy it.

Act 1: The Lap Dancer Link

Paul Ford’s “The Web Is a Customer Service Medium7” is one of the most important essays of our time. Towards the end, he explains how, in April 2010, the Daily Mail “reported8” that “computer tycoon Sir Clive Sinclair, 69, has secretly married his lap dancer fiancee Angie Bowness, who is 36 years his junior.” The appropriate response to this type of story is an overwhelming “Who cares?”, but that’s obviously not what happened. A lot of blogs wrote about it, and the comment sections are sights to behold. Below one of the accounts9, a commenter posted the following image in response:


It’s at this point that we need to pick up Paul’s essay11 for his response:

Consider what that cartoon means in that context: It implies that the commenter feels — with some irony and self-awareness, I’m sure — that his opinion, in some way, is relevant to the question of whether Clive Sinclair should marry a particular woman. This is, for many obvious reasons, completely insane. And yet there was an image already sketched and available to that commenter so that he could express this exact sentiment of choosing not to be outraged at a situation he read about on the Internet.

Paul has a phrase for this, a phrase that has shaped my view of the Internet ever since I first read it. He calls this phenomenon “Why Wasn’t I Consulted?” or WWIC. It’s the fuel that powers the Internet — the insatiable desire to be heard, to make your opinion known, to be understood. It’s the new scribbling “[X] was here” on tree trunks. We read, we share, we “curate,” we post pithy statements and ask people to “Like if you agree!!1!” Lest we spend a day not being noticed.

Act 2: The Bottom Half Link

On 6 August 2012, South African news website IOL posted an article titled “How ANCYL Plans to Shut Down Cape12.” Things got a little out of hand, as they usually do on news websites, until the editors deleted all comments and posted the following notice: “IOL has closed comments on this story due to the high volume of racist and/or derogatory comments.” A friend noted that they should probably just hardcode that sentence into the footer.

A search for the origin of the well-known phrase “Never read the bottom half of the Internet” led me to Sophie Heawood13, who told me14 that she first used it in an article for The Independent a couple of years ago. The first online reference we could find is in her article “Save Dappy From the Venom of the Anonymous15”:

What surprises me the most about the bottom half of the internet, that place where all the angry comments go, is that so many of the people writing them turn out not to be rabid murderers but ordinary mild people who casually fire off drive-by verbal shootings in their lunch breaks.

A friend of Sophie’s and fellow journalist for The Independent, Grace Dent16, told me17 that she often quotes the phrase as follows: “Never read the bottom half of the Internet; it’s where the sediment lies.”

If you’ve spent any time reading comments on YouTube, you’ll most likely agree with this — in theory. Unfortunately, our need to be consulted about everything is a perfect match for our morbid fascination with what others are doing with their need to be consulted. It’s a viscous, self-feeding downward cycle. I often wish that we could adopt this rule from Thomas More’s Utopia18:

There’s a rule in the Council that no resolution can be debated on the day that it’s first proposed. Otherwise someone’s liable to say the first thing that comes into his head, and then start thinking up arguments to justify what he has said, instead of trying to decide what’s best for the community.

Instead, many of us turn off comments on our own websites instead. It’s not a great solution, but it’s better than losing sleep because of personal attacks and a general sense of meanness towards something you’ve spent a lot of time creating.

Act 3: Turtles, Turtles, Everywhere Link

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

This story, as related by Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time19, is well known and has entered popular Internet culture in many different ways, from Dr. Seuss20, to Stephen King’s Dark Tower21, and even as an achievement in World of Warcraft22. But it’s Frank Chimero who brought this story to the design world in his essay for The Manual23 titled “The Space Between You and Me”:


Frank goes on to explain the irony of social media. Social networking websites were created to connect us to each other, and yet they reduce us to a two-dimensional avatar, a short bio and a list of books and movies we like. We’re so quick to throw around the word “empathy” as being essential to the work we do, and yet we know frighteningly little not just about the people who use our products, but even about the people who we think we have close relationships with online.

Based on its almost 10 million page views, I’m pretty sure everyone has seen this photograph of a man giving his shoes to a homeless girl in Rio de Janeiro, from BuzzFeed’s “21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity25”:


That’s empathy — a quite literal interpretation of Atticus’s reminder in To Kill a Mockingbird27 that we need to walk in someone else’s shoes before we judge them. It’s people all the way down, and social media websites are making us forget this by abstracting a person’s “brand” from who they really are.

So, How Do We Make A Better Internet? Link

In a fit of uncharacteristic optimism, I’d like to propose three ways in which we could make a better Internet. I need to do this before the feeling passes, so let’s get to it.


I know it sounds strange, but not saying something every once in a while is OK. In what some are calling the best social media policy ever written, Benjamin Franklin once said:

Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.

It’s tough, but it can be done. The other day, as I stopped at a red traffic light, one of South Africa’s characteristically dangerous taxi drivers came up from behind and swerved around me so that they could run the red light. I was infuriated, but at that point I’d already started thinking about this essay, so I decided not to tweet about it. And then I instantly wanted someone to give me a high five for my remarkable show of restraint. How insane is that? Sometimes, it’s WWIC all the way down as well.

We must resist the temptation to feel entitled to be consulted on everything that happens around us.


A few weeks ago, the Mars Rover made a perfect landing, and at least for a few minutes, the Internet rejoiced with tweets like these:

We quickly went back to complaining about other people’s jokes and reactions to the event. But wow! — for a while there, I saw how awesome, encouraging and funny we can be when we pull together to amplify the good things around us.

We don’t have to link to hate speech and angry rants. The best way to stop that behavior is to send traffic elsewhere. We also don’t have to go trolling every time we need a little excitement in our lives. Instead, make and share good things. Be nice. If someone does something good, help them spread the word about it.


I’m pretty sure everyone’s read Jack Cheng’s “The Slow Web” by now, in which he sums up the problem with the environment that we’ve created:

What is the Fast Web? It’s the out of control web. The oh my god there’s so much stuff and I can’t possibly keep up web. It’s the spend two dozen times a day checking web. The in one end out the other web. The web designed to appeal to the basest of our intellectual palettes, the salt, sugar and fat of online content web. […] The Fast Web is a cruel wonderland of shiny shiny things.

Contrast that with what Patrick Rhone says in his essay “Twalden35”:

The things I want to know are “happening” — like good news about a friend’s success, or bad news about their relationship, or even just the fact they are eating a sandwich and the conversation around such — I wish to have at length and without distraction. Such conversations remain best when done directly, and there are plenty of existing and better communication methods for that.

Having conversations “at length and without distraction” — what a novel concept.

But let’s bring this full circle, all the way back to Paul Ford. In the closing keynote at the 2012 MFA Interaction Design Festival36, he said the following:

If we are going to ask people, in the form of our products, in the form of the things we make, to spend their heartbeats on us, on our ideas, how can we be sure, far more sure than we are now, that they spend those heartbeats wisely?

I’m not saying we should shun the Fast Web and all make Instapaper clones. The Fast Web has its place. I’m also not saying we should quit Twitter. But I do, with all my heart, believe that we — designers and developers — are the ones who are responsible for making a better Internet. And that means we are responsible for how other people spend their time.

We can either take it easy and play to WWIC and bottom-half-of-the-Internet culture, or we can do it the hard way and think carefully about the meaning of the things we make and share. We can choose to ignore our darker tendencies and instead take responsibility for our users and how we ask them to spend their heartbeats. We can shift the flow of traffic away from the bottom half, all the way to the top.


Footnotes Link

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Rian is passionate about designing and building software that people love to use. After spending several years working in Silicon Valley and Cape Town, he is currently Product Manager at Postmark, working from Portland, OR. He also blogs and tweets regularly about user experience and product management.

  1. 1

    Nicolas Quintero

    September 14, 2012 8:42 am

    This is an enlightening article, I could relate a 100% with your taxi driver incident. At times, I feel like going home and updating my status about how someone cut me off or how everyone else is so terrible at doing this or that. Most times I calm down and avoid sharing this information some other times I’m not so good at it.

    I will definitely try to keep this in mind when sharing things online or leaving comments, at least try to leave positive and constructive feedback.

    Anyways, thanks for the article, shared on social media,

  2. 2

    This article is an example of why I love Smashing Magazine and their approach to publishing such a wide variety of articles. Thanks for reminding us that making “a better internet” is about a lot more than the latest in CSS tricks or responsive design – it’s about how we act on the Internet, hold ourselves to a high standard, and hope to influence those around us to do the same. Bravo.

  3. 3

    Thank you for this article!
    It really made me think about the web and how I see it.

  4. 4

    Ironically, I’m posting on the bottom half of the internet. :)

    Great message. I have been guilty of contributing to the bottom half of the internet from time to time, as have many of us, I’m sure.

    Thanks for the time to write it… it needs to be said.

  5. 5

    The problem with researching human behaviour is usually that it is followed by essay upon article upon opinion about how humans should behave less human, because it somehow supposedly makes us “better” or “more human”.
    At the end of the day our behaviour if just that, our behaviour. The only thing we can and should do is see it for what it is and be aware of it. No need to change it pro-actively. Behaviour often changes passively for the better. The way the world is shaped today was not planned out in one big session. It is the result of small steps taken over generations, often made by people being unaware of those steps they took and the result it would have.
    Yes, people (speaking in general terms) are inherently self-centred, and like scribbling their name on trees, tables, walls and internet-posts. So what if it is useless and non-sensible. Life as a whole is. As long as it does not hurt others and as long as we are aware that what we do is self-satisfying we should be ok with it.
    I do not think we need to change the internet, we need to teach people (from a young age) that freedom of speech is not a means to get what you want from others but a construct to prevent others from getting what they want from you. Being social is not about morals or ethics, it is about awareness both offline and online.

    • 6

      “As long as it does not hurt others…” the behaviors illustrated in the article do hurt others, and worse, hurt ourselves when we engage in them.

      “As long as we are aware that what we do is self-satisfying…” Self-satisfaction (for example, as seen at the bottom half of the internet) often means ripping away well-being from other selves (and, incidentally, ignoring that it is hurting others)… also, using it as a justification for what is satisfying “right now” seems to be creating a population of human beings who are far below their potential and locked in behaviors that will keep them there; and keep them shallow. The laissez-faire approach to never calling out what is bad, selfish, wrong and destructive has spread all over our culture and is hurting every person in it.

      “Being social is not about morals or ethics…” This is true, but our morals and ethics shape our social behavior. Right now our social behavior is an ugly condemnation of the ethics and narcissism hidden underneath.

      I share Rian’s strong desire for the world to be a better place. The generalizations here may never leave us, but they block improvement in individuals and in our world as a whole.

      • 7

        I think you slightly misunderstood my reaction on the details, but no matter. in the end I also desire for a better world. I simply disagree with the proposed methodology because of 2 main points: First it hinges on the hidden assumption that human behaviour is wrong while I would argue that human behaviour is simply human so can never be wrong but it is how we are taught how to channel it. And secondly that once learned, a trait can never be unlearned en-mass. We can only try to correct it in the next generation.
        And we can only correct it when we understand it and see it for what it is, transcending culture, morals, ethics, religion and what not. For as long as we put our biased, non-scientific opinions and ideas in the mix, we will continue to just stumble along no matter how good our intentions.

    • 8

      Agreed. Since a comment section leaves little room for an in-depth analysis and discussion I can only respond superficially, but good and bad are behavioral (social) aspects of a species and therefor non-absolute and depend heavily on more “esoteric” things like religion, culture and upbringing. Also, some recent studies indicate that our personal preference for certain ethics are genetic. So if we want to change the world, no matter how small, we first must agree universally on what is “good” (and good luck with that). There is a thin line between being free to do whatever you want en being told what is good for you. As a species we need to find and define that line and accept that for some things we are simply incapable of making decisions on our own, because, as Evert states, we are inherently “bad” not because we are bad but because we define our natural behavior as undesirable. Which is -to me- the essence of humanity; being able to accept we want to be something else than what we are because we need each other. Which makes us both to be pitied and be commended.
      So to conclude in reply to this post, what is proposed here is simply another attempt to do good by using the same method that created the problem, which will simply never work. You cannot force people to be good, you can only teach them to want to be good, which should be enough; anything more and you are asking the impossible which only leads to (more) problems.

    • 9

      That is exactly what I was going to write! (But I think you wrote it better than I would have). This discussion is similar to trying to work out which political system works best. The fact is, they would probably all work well if they weren’t run by a bunch of humans. We humans are flawed, and the a large proportion of the population behaves in a way that generally annoys/disturbs/outrages the other. The internet will “mature’ at the same rate as the online population.

  6. 10

    This article is one that made me think and react much more than many others that are more immediately useful. I feel a lot less alone in my regret and alarm for the behaviors that are illustrated and are perpetuating in what could be so much a far more positive direction. Thank you very much for a different kind of article, and for such a well-written one that was at once passionate, well-supported, well thought-out and just.

  7. 11

    This is the most sensible and meaningful article I have read in a long time. Thank you for writing it.

  8. 12

    I stopped at the bottom of the article, and couldn’t decide if I should scroll down to the comments. You now know what I decided….

  9. 13

    Thanks for this. You are not alone.

    I’d like to add two other “good behaviours” to your recommended list:

    1. If you are annoyed by a brand, resist the urge to name them when complaining on social media (a @mitchjoel idea).
    2. Proactively share positive news. Do it daily, and say why you are doing this.

    I work in marketing communications and there’s a discussion in circles I watch about the great opportunity the ” clean sheet” of online media offers marketers and brands. Our fear is that like email 5-8 years ago, the greedy guys will mess it up by spam and dodgy practices. Our naieve hope is that by Playing fair and playing nicely marketers won’t get another bad reputation for poor online behaviours.

    • 14

      That last paragraph summarises the battle lines for the whole marketing! My complementary hope is that Authenticity will turn out to be the most successful evolutionary adaptation – I.e. ultimately more efficient and not just more admirable.

  10. 15

    Great article, I’ve been thinking about the same thing for a while now. Trolls are always going to exist as long as the internet exists, but one thing we can do as a group is not reward such behavior. I’ve recently noticed that some people who used to get away with trying to be “funny” by having explicit and non-constructive opinions on the web got slabbed on the wrist by their peers and that to me is a comforting sight.

  11. 16

    Excellent article. You’ve eloquently put into words something that I’ve been feeling in the back of my mind for a while now. Sometimes I feel that there is so much more to the Internet, more than has currently been realised, which we’ll only get to see if we start to take this sort of approach. Again, great article. Definitely resonated with me! :)

  12. 17

    I am always amazed by the comments on any news article on People just blame others for everything. If there is a story about a kitten being rescued from a tree, somehow the comments turn to blaming muslims or Obama for all the world’s problems. Trolls hiding behind anonymity and free hate speech is the by-product of democracy.

  13. 18

    I’m not going to describe really good my feeling about this subject, because of my bad English. But I can say that I don’t read often long articles on the web, maybe because of the bad “fast web”, but I’m happy to find subjects and descriptions like that. That’s smart and full of well thinking. I also asked me about how we use the web and it’s fine to find this kind of well written articles.
    Keep with these personal values!

  14. 19

    Sebastian Hoogenberk

    September 16, 2012 10:19 am

    Here’s my two cents (or WWIC) on this issue:

    I am also constantly astonished and (was) annoyed by the tone of comments, especially on YouTube. Fascinating how the same 2-3 arguments appear on pretty much every YouTube video. And it often ends in references to Nazis.

    But especially what Sophie Haewood wrote (about how nice in real life those people probably are that write angry comments) made me think (I actually thought about this a while ago): Could it be that especially people who work in offices, who are very composed and mild-mannered, who never show any anger, who actually *suppress* their anger most of the time, maybe tend to write foul comments on YouTube to blow off steam?

    I believe that you could be angry even if you don’t know it. And then it shows up in a YouTube comment, and you might be ashamed by it afterwards – but you are a human being. Maybe that’s why this is such a phenomenon.

    Anyway, I personally don’t really like openly angry, temperamental or even violent people. But if foul internet comments is how people today blow off their steam, I much prefer that over street violence. I simply ignore the foul comments and they don’t affect me really.

  15. 20

    Thanks for the article. Definitely, a great one.
    I love when people meditate about the futility of the social media experience and the actual ‘state of things’ in the web ecosystem.
    It looks like everybody has the right to express their opinion, and they has that right for sure, and everybody is in the pursuit of the 15 minutes of fame ( Andy Warhol ).
    Nowadays is far more easier than ever to publish anything, thanks to blog software tools. Much harder is to write something really interesting. And if it reduces the text needed be noticed to just 140 characters, the possibility of writing silly things is really huge.
    And here, in the bottom half, I just wanted to leave my two cents, not get noticed.
    Internet is becoming a big garbage bin. Don’t let this happen!!!

  16. 21

    2500 years ago there was a guy who said this:

    1. Life means suffering
    2. The origin of suffering is attachment
    3. The cessation of suffering is attainable
    4. The path to the cessation of suffering


    1. Right view
    2. Right intention
    3. Right speech
    4. Right action
    5. Right livelihood
    6. Right effort
    7. Right mindfulness
    8. Right concentration

    Wonder if this bottom half is read, let alone understood.

  17. 22

    Great article,
    refreshing and true.

  18. 23

    Marvoulous article breaking my daily routine (I know, no-one cares!) yet i still decided to reply here to say thanks (positivity!) without reading anyone elses view on it (because only mine matters :p . All kidding aside though, it is what it is and I hope many more people will understand… I suggest all of us (and “them”) to think before they react and if it is just a reaction to someone elses filthiness, it most probably isn’t even worth the effort… Trolls thrive on feedback! Take away their food and they will starve an internet death ;) )

  19. 24

    “I often wish that we could adopt this rule from Thomas More’s Utopia:”

    Interesting concept. Here’s a WordPress function that opens comments to a blog post one day after it has been posted:

    function utopian_comments($posts) {
    if(is_single() && time()-strtotime($posts[0]->post_date_gmt)<86400) { comment_status = 'closed'; }
    return $posts;
    add_filter('the_posts', 'utopian_comments');

    • 25

      That’s a fantastic idea! I would suggest that you turn that into a simple plugin and therefore improve the Internet ;)

      • 26

        If you simply copied and pasted that code into utopianComments.php and uploaded to the wp-content/plugins folder it would be a wordpress plugin. and you would be complying fully with your literary based restrictions… I think / hope the article was being less literal than giving exactly one day before commenting…

  20. 27

    Rian van der Merwe

    September 17, 2012 11:21 pm

    Thanks for all the comments, everyone! Glad you enjoyed the article.

  21. 28

    Nice words, drop the hate!

  22. 29

    I’ve been striving for more positive engagement but since it is an election year my resolve has been mightily challenged. Still, I remain intent on bringing courteous discourse to the forefront of discussions rather than the more inflammatory, and accusatorial manner in which I sometimes find my message going. Because I am human, and self-aware, I have that kind of control over myself. You can’t change others but you can change you. If that didn’t influence others we’d never see progress.
    Thank you for the thoughtful article Rian.

  23. 30

    Bump! I’m late to the party, but I don’t think the internet got your memo in the past two years :). This is a well thought out critique of the internet (or our tendencies to use the internet for negativity) and needs to be widely read.


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