Year-end roundups are generally for reminding people of what they already know, not for delivering scoops. But sometimes a scoop consists of telling people what they know, in a way that helps them suddenly understand that they know it.
So Max Read of New York magazine delivered a conceptual scoop over the Christmas break, writing up the conclusion that all the year’s tech-industry news had added up to: The commercial internet—which is the internet as everyone experiences it now—is completely fake. It is fake in both its visible content and its metacontent, the measurements of traffic and audience and attention that determine what it is a person sees online.
Read (one of my ex-bosses at Gawker) has been haunted, as many people were haunted, by the passage the New York Times published in August describing how YouTube engineers were afraid of what they called “the Inversion”—the theoretical moment when, as artificial bot traffic threatened to exceed genuine human viewership, the bot majority would, as the Times put it, “cause the fraud detection system to flip, classifying fake traffic as real and vice versa.”
I will remember 2018 as the year the internet passed the Inversion, not in some strict numerical sense, since bots already outnumber humans online more years than not, but in the perceptual sense. The internet has always played host in its dark corners to schools of catfish and embassies of Nigerian princes, but that darkness now pervades its every aspect: Everything that once seemed definitively and unquestionably real now seems slightly fake; everything that once seemed slightly fake now has the power and presence of the real.
It was true and clarifying and grim. People on Twitter quoted and screenshotted the story, jumping up to tell their own stories of the fraudulence in their own corners of the industry. Aram Zucker-Scharff, the advertising engineering director for the Washington Post, strung together dozens of links to previous coverage traffic-and-advertising fraud. He wrote:
The numbers are all fking fake, the metrics are bullshit, the agencies responsible for enforcing good practices are knowing bullshiters enforcing and profiting off all the fake numbers and none of the models make sense at scale of actual human users.
Ellen Pao, the former Reddit CEO, added her thoughts to Zucker-Scharff’s:
It’s all true: Everything is fake. Also mobile user counts are fake. No one has figured out how to count logged-out mobile users, as I learned at reddit. Every time someone switches cell towers, it looks like another user and inflates company user metrics
What is anyone supposed to do with this knowledge? “What’s gone from the internet, after all, isn’t ‘truth,’ but trust: the sense that the people and things we encounter are what they represent themselves to be,” Read wrote. Alongside the informed reaction to Read’s jeremiad, and even more upsetting, there was the spectacle of the rest of the online world carrying on its everyday uninformed non-reaction. There was some story going around about how the White House, in publicizing President Trump’s first-ever visit to a combat zone, had somehow or other outed the presence of a SEAL team in Iraq. But the story was on Newsweek, which is currently, as Read wrote, a “zombie search-engine-optimized spam farm,” and it was impossible to parse what it might have really meant.
And meanwhile the Beto people, or entities representing themselves as Beto people, were fighting with the Bernie people, or entities representing themselves as Bernie people, over some palimpsest of grievances built up over more than a decade’s worth of presidential elections. Everyone has been told by now that the intra–Democratic Party conflict was pumped up by misinformation campaigns, which took real disputes and escalated them to an artificial level of hostility. Yet so far, the only visible lesson from that seems to be that the left faction believes the establishment faction unfairly blames it for the behavior of its troll impersonators, and the establishment faction believes the left faction unfairly blames it for the behavior of its own troll impersonators. And but of course this apparent retrenchment might itself be fake, and people still might be made angry about it.