The core rule of capitalism is to continually look for new ways to gain capital. Profit comes before ethics, even before the future of humanity and the existence of life on the planet. Some recent-born corporations vowed not to do evil. Some still think they do not do evil. A while ago, twenty-first century tech-giants came out of nowhere — or rather, out of garages or college basements. In most cases, they began as passionate, bright, juvenile, and non-toxic minds, whose work and passion changed the planet for good. Some of them made remarkable achievements.
Back in 1995, when most of the early adopters in developed countries started to use the WWW on a daily basis, not even the brightest mind could imagine that this communication channel could surpass radio or TV. The internet changed our lives forever. Whether it was for the better isn’t entirely certain, but it is clear that it skyrocketed humanity’s tech development and communications.
The landscape of capital holders changed significantly over the last two decades. Young and bright minds morphed into billionaires, and with time they learned how to “cope” with their new wealth. They continued to gain wealth and power. Lust for power became an obsession that radically changed their views and positions in and about society. Everyone caught in this capitalist trap probably became unable to resist the greed for power and superiority, but after some time, I get a feeling that this way of life becomes shabby and monotone.
The power high wears off, and actual beautiful minds exit the eternal train of capitalist drive to look for new adventures. Their masterpiece, meanwhile, becomes an unstoppable capitalistic beast driven by the assistants of other profit-hungry masters, eating everything they find in their path. I think something similar happened to Google, which currently holds 92.5% of the web search market share worldwide and has more than 3.5 billion searches a day.
How everything began
Let’s get back to 1996, when AltaVista, HotBot, Lycos, InfoSeek and Ask Jeeves struggled to become opponents to the mighty Yahoo! Directory. While Microsoft was preoccupied with other projects, and the web wasn’t quite at the top of their priority list, they started with MSN Search which was on a quest to integrate with Internet Explorer. However, out of nowhere, some cool guys started to index the entire web and their search engine spit out marvelous results in the blink of an eye. Their first project, BackRub, became Google a few years later. Their results were just perfect in comparison to any other search engine. It was a revelation. A true masterpiece. They got back up by some startup investment ventures which gave them tail wind. They went from “just another search project” to the ultimate search engine for all WWW users quite quickly. Just in 5 years, Google superseded all other search engines, despite the fact that Yahoo — with the purchase of Inktomi and Altavista — was an equal market competitor at that time. Nevertheless, Google, simple, minimalist-looking, easy to use, and fast as hell, started to gain popularity.
It also attracted more and more black-hat enthusiasts, who were able to bring your site to the top of the SERPs for respectable amounts. A new industry arose, the SEO industry. But Google consolidated its power after introducing a simple ad platform made for every single website owner — Google AdSense. Easy to integrate, and easy to earn money. Simple, yet powerful was the formula. Made sense. Worked like a charm. Like a virus, the news spread across the internet. Webmasters finally had the ability to become profitable.
The online advertising industry started and continued to bloom. Google grew up into a giant. Nothing could stop them. All other tech giants came too late. Google took most of the market, and held onto it. However, garage kids couldn’t lead and manage that fast-growing monster anymore. They decided to hire Eric Schmidt as a CEO. He showed them how to fight on a brutal capital market. In 2004 they hired Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs to arrange IPO. After that they collected more capital and started with acquisitions, taking everything and everyone. From YouTube to DoubleClick. More capital came in. More investors came in. Google became a corporation.
At the beginning, they tried to look like they really cared. Remember the don’t be evil clause? They tried to please webmasters and advertisers, to penalize wrongdoers and spammers, and to make the game more difficult for black-hat SEOs. After a while, the pressure from shareholders and the market made them care less and less, until they stopped caring altogether.
They realized they are the ultimate rulers, and ultimate rulers do not need to care. Unfortunately, it is the truth. Last year, they even removed the “Do not be evil” clause from their Code of Conduct.
Now, they control everything. Controlling your phone and your computer means knowing what you buy, what you eat, knowing you even better than you know yourself. They even serve you ads related to the behavior they made you engage in. Now, they seem to be achieving their ultimate goal. Well, they serve you things you do not even want, but they know they are good for you. They control the largest portion of your “display screen environment”, the largest portion of your time looking at funny videos, recipes, traveling around, searching for interesting things, buying things online. Did you know that at this particular moment only three corporations, once teamed together, could make you change your life in the way they want? This is not sci-fi but reality, and you cannot get away from them, except by discontinuing living a modern way of life.
Well, some aspects are not just theories. Some of these have unbeatable evidence. I will interrupt this philosophical viewpoint and switch to a more technical environment.
Since May 2018, Google rolled out a web search-algo update that affected web content creators who produced medically-related content. It targeted mainly web communities with a majority of user generated content, AKA forums. They never took any stand for this nor published a plausible explanation. After a shift of PR and management stuff from 2015 onward, switching Matt Cutts from main Google Search PR guy to USDS, they distanced themselves from webmasters more and more.
Although they built a coherent symbiosis with webmasters in the past, the shareholders didn’t seem to be satisfied. After AdSense, they never came up with anything that could significantly affect their profit numbers. Their long-term strategy with secretly collected user information from ads, maps, analytics, android, gmail, translator and other tools/services, put them on an indisputable throne. Even recognized and convicted by the EU for several offences and/or violation of user privacy rights, they just paid the penalty, changed their structures visually, but continued with their malpractice. Actually, users WANT to give them all the info they do (except medical data), in order to use their services and apps for free! Users do not care about privacy, they want free stuff. They have always wanted free stuff.
Well, if you think “Who cares about me and my private data? I’m not a big fish? Why should they spy on me?” — they actually do not “spy”. You allow them to do so, give them permission. When was the last time you read any of those 10k word long End User Agreements you always agree with upon a subscription or the installation of a new app? By clicking “OK”, you agree that they track the hell out of you whether you read them or not.
Dozens of hidden processes on your phone transfer a lot of “device info” which is used to “provide you with better services”. Yes, indeed, some of them are used to provide a better user experience, but most of them are used for actual user profiling.
Now, imagine this set of data multiplied to billions of users. Try to visualize the real-time map of all of us. They led us actually to be what we have become right now? Well, it is hard to imagine, and as of yet unproven, but it is doable.
I’m also not that concerned about my own privacy. I’ve learned how to manage it, what to allow and what not, but even for hardcore privacy fans it is getting harder and more time-consuming to avoid misuse of your data. You are not forced to accept all these rules. There are alternatives out there; every single day less and less, but they’re still there. The fact is that these products do not offer the level of conformity tech giants’ products offer, so we choose things that are less “stressful”’, apps that think for us, that decide for us, that drive for us, which is the pure substance of the current Artificial Intelligence (AI) buzz.
However, this is not the point of this post either. The point is actual user experience. Some of these tech giants are trying to kill semi-controlled user experience sharing. To make it simpler, and easier to understand. They do not profit much from it. User generated content is, like the name says, content generated by users.
There are still a lot of good examples out there, like Facebook groups, Quora, StackOverflow, but only controlled and highly moderated UGC sites.
All others were shoved out of the spotlight. Meaning, not showing in the search results as frequently as they should. Even Wikipedia and Yahoo Answers suffered from a significant decrease in Google traffic, which is more related to another story. Anyways, you can still find some cool discussions, but you need to get into a deep search. All long-tail search phrases actually bring up the sites which are the masters of the root phrase/keyword. Some forums are actually just archived chat rooms, with very low content quality. Either outdated or even highly unrelated to the actual discussion title. Yes, this is true. However, there were some discussion boards which got buried on Google search results just because they are UGC, though they still contain highly precious information in the form of personal user experiences.
Medical forums were hit hardest. Why? There are a couple of plausible reasons… They could spread misinformation, which some of them really do in some cases. They are noneffective for advertisers to collect targeted buyers. Well, for some niches, this is probably true.
But why would someone else decide on my behalf that I should not read the experiences of other people related to my personal health issue?
With this, they vanished millions of user experiences in terms of health related issues, side effects of drugs and embarrassing questions people won’t feel comfortable discussing with their close family members and friends, nor with physicians. They closed the door for self-education, learning from others’ negative experiences, learning to cope, learning to deal with things. Personal user experience never can be ignored, including in medicine.
Most knowledgeable physicians are those with a lot of experience. Why? Because they heard so many personal stories and experiences, so they are good at knowing how to act in particular situations. Although patients never tell the whole story to the physician, nor do physicians have enough time to hear all these stories. They are also part of the capitalist machine, their time is precious, and they also look for new capital, remember?
For some, new capital is new knowledge, but most of them are profit-making machines.
Now, this window to others’ experiences has been closed. Of course, not all the windows. You still have highly-moderated discussions and personal experience sharing sites that allow you to freely browse that information. Although they have to opt-in with the master rules, so they obey the master, or got kicked out of the system. They are aware that they even punished some helpful content resources, but this kind of collateral obviously doesn’t affect their new capital.
The numbers are saying they did it right. Shareholders are happy. Advertisers are also very happy to serve their super-product ads in a controlled environment. Imagine you sell particular pills and your ad shows up in a discussion where users share stories about unbearable side effects from the same pill?! Unacceptable, isn’t it? From the other side, the traditional US conservatism in regard to sexual health is another unprecedented story in the online ad industry. Automatic demonetization of thousands of pages related to sexual and reproductive health is also a move done after the pressure from big advertisers. Educational content or exchange of user experience about vaginal issues, penile dysfunction or masturbation is highly unmonetized, and I never saw any mainstream media outlet covering this paradox.
Personally, I cannot remember the last time I read any health-related personal experience on the web after a Google search, except probably on Reddit or some chimney corner forums I still follow. I’m probably old-fashioned, because people use Facebook groups or some other highly moderated platforms to share that kind of information now. I, personally, could never feel comfortable talking about particular personal health issues without being sure I’ll stay anonymous. Would you?