I admit it: I spent a lot of time in 2020 doomscrolling. Since you’re reading this piece, my guess is you did too. Doomscrolling––spending long periods of time reading negative news headlines––is a new dimension of our already complex emotional relationship with the internet. The internet has become so useful and so desirable that many now argue that it is addictive. It’s understandable to jump to a conclusion that the internet is fundamentally at war with our happiness. But before any such “hot takes”––to use another emotion-fueled internet-ism––overly influence public policy and internet governance at the structural level, it’s helpful to dig in a bit deeper.

For years, academic researchers have shown various correlations between the internet and unhappiness. A decade ago, we learned that––at least in some circumstances––people can be meaner online. As social media rose to the top of an infamous mountain of perceived internet unhappiness, research showed a correlation between deactivating Facebook (specifically, for four weeks prior to the 2018 midterm elections) and increased subjective well-being. That particular reference is listed in the “Ledger of Harms” published by the Center for Humane Technology (CHT), which offers many more examples and dimensions of plausible concern.

One core critique, central to the CHT’s narrative among other organizations who engage on these issues, is the assertion that modern technology is intentionally designed for addiction and divisiveness. Every story is better with a villain, and here it’s the user growth and engagement teams at internet companies. User engagement and growth are key metrics for most internet services, and are baked into their business models. Advertising-based services, in contrast to fixed purchase or subscription, generate more revenue with more usage. Thus, market incentives reward services that users choose to engage with more.

The question is whether, and if so at what point, the natural and positive drive for user engagement and growth represents an unhealthy incentive for product design. According to Sean Parker, Facebook’s founding president, early Facebook design consciously built product features that generated dopamine hits to reward engagement and build addictive reactions. The very same “Dopamine Labs” startup mentioned in that article was later bought by Thrive Global, an organization that in part builds digital tools to harness the same science to improve lives, founded by Arianna Huffington whose own career was certainly much improved by the internet.

Shifting from the neurological dimensions to the sociological, the internet can make us unhappy for the same reason the internet is a vector for falsehood: It connects people to each other, and people make other people unhappy. Social media in particular has some fairly demonstrable patterns. For example, women on Twitter are routinely propositioned and demeaned in equal measure, a dynamic that readily occurs offline but can be amplified significantly through the power of connectivity at scale.

And at the same time, because the internet connects people, it can also make us happy. The pandemic has helped us see the happiness gains of the internet clearly. Through the internet we stay in closer contact with family than what we can achieve with just the audio connection of traditional phone service. We celebrate our holidays over Zoom, and we’ve given new meaning to the concept of “online dating,” among other pre-pandemic activities. Plus, the internet is an incredible tool for online organizing, education and activism––it’s hard to imagine countering the harms we see online without the “good side” of the internet. Not to mention, of course, the internet is an incredible engine for economic activity, a good in and of itself, although many are at the same time concerned by inequities of those gains.

So is the internet, to paraphrase Homer Simpson, both the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems? Let me offer a different metaphor: The internet is the salt of our modern earth. It makes things better, and we need it; it is fundamental to our economy and to our society. At the same time, it’s reasonable to say that too much can be harmful. And tolerance varies within different people; some people need to be very mindful of their salt intake, just as some must be very mindful of their internet use.

Is it acceptable to design internet services to give users what they want, to the point where it is unhealthy? Or should we use the levers of public policy to dictate what users should have, even if it’s not what they want? Today we have a fairly open market for product design. And we are witnessing a rise of voluntary guides to help empower users to make smart choices, like health check-ins on our mobile phones letting us know the hours and hours we spend on them. We also have a fairly free market for unhealthy food options, filled with added sugar and salt, even knowing that excessive consumption can be harmful; we balance that with nutritional guides and ample educational resources. In both cases, we have the balance we do because the American legal, political and cultural baseline is choice, not paternalism.

Without question, some sources of harm and unhappiness online merit regulatory intervention. For example, we’ve seen a rise in data protection and privacy law worldwide as governments and the general public come to a shared conclusion that clearer and stronger rules are worth the costs they incur. Today, whether fair or unfair, governments around the world are trying to hold the internet accountable for ever more and more of our collective unhappiness. As a result, new laws and regulations appear virtually certain. But as we discuss and develop each proposal, it’s important to evaluate each issue on the merits, and remember that a war is not the right way to reach good policy outcomes.

INTRODUCTION – The Great War for the future of internet governance has begun.

PART 1 – The Great War, Part 1: The Internet vs Democracy

PART 2 – The Great War: The Internet vs the Free Market

PART 3 – The Great War: The Internet vs Journalism

PART 4 – The Great War: The Internet vs Truth

PART 5 – The Great War, Part 5: The Internet vs Happiness

PART 6 – The Great War, Part 6: The Internet vs Itself

Image credit: GaudiLab