The Web at 30: How algorithms define what we experience and how we do business online

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The early days of the Web relied on manually curated directories to organize the Web, though this task is now performed by algorithms, for better or worse.

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This month, the World Wide Web turns 30—sort of.

The Web runs on TCP/IP, which was adopted in January 1983, though it was March 1989 when Tim Berners-Lee proposed the “Mesh” system, which extended the concept of hypertext links to cover any form of multimedia. Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau published a second proposal in November 1990 describing described the “WorldWideWeb” of hypertext documents viewed in browser and the client-server model for distribution. Berners-Lee published the first web site a month later.

Thirty years later, the Web has become inextricably ingrained in everyday life, a fact which is simultaneously platitudinal and meta, considering that this article is written for a Web publication. There is no facet of life unaffected by the Web—entertainment, shopping, dating, career management, travel, keeping in touch with friends and family—all of this incorporates the Web somehow.

SEE: Policy pack: Guidelines for remote workers (Tech Pro Research)

The Web also transformed how business is conducted, enabling a golden age of telecommuting, easing work-life balance for employees and increasing productivity, providing more value for employers. The process of generating sales leads and closing deals has been completely reinvented, with businesses (and political campaigns) relying on big data to create and guide interactions to influence purchase or voting decisions. Targeted advertising tracks your movements throughout the Web, enabling companies to “know what you want before you want it.”

There’s a low-key magic involved in making all of this work, to the extent that it does work—the Web, put simply, is a well-organized disaster. Over time, it has transitioned from conscious editorial direction of directories and manually curated portals to algorithms designed to deliver content nominally based on the interests and history of the viewer, content popular with others, and whatever the owner of the platform wants viewers to see.

Today’s algorithm-powered web is a terrifying and beautiful mess

Everything you see on Facebook, Twitter, Google, and practically anywhere else is the result of algorithms designed to keep users engaged. Though it is a common practice, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is essentially a dark art of manipulating these algorithms. These algorithms shape the national conversation, occasionally launching random people into the national spotlight—like the Lincoln Memorial confrontation between a high school student and a Native American man in January 2019, which “may have taken off with the help of fraud,” according to The Washington Post, reporting on Twitter suspending the account that first shared it on that platform for potentially being not genuine.

Though it is easier for controversial content to reach the level of a viral video, the effect can also be seen in pop culture. “Plastic Love,” a 1984 song by Japanese Pop idol Mariya Takeuchi gained a second life on YouTube in 2018 after the website’s algorithm began recommending it internationally, for people who did not search for or listen to other Japanese music. The phenomenon led to the song being declared “the best pop song in the world” by Vice’s Ryan Bassil. Peculiarities and consequences of YouTube’s algorithm are difficult to overstate, with thousands of careers being launched by the platform, and international attention to content not necessarily intended for anything other than domestic consumption.

For the workforce, algorithms also dictate how employers make hiring decisions, and what jobs are visible to jobseekers. Keyword matching submitted resumes to job descriptions has been common practice for some time. In February, LinkedIn announced “Intelligent Hiring Experience,” which tracks qualifications recruiters look for in specific roles, and suggests candidates, with suggestions improving “over time as LinkedIn learns what candidates you choose to interact with.”

The early days of the web were strange, too

The understanding of—and relationship with—the Web among the general public in the 1990s was filled with strained understandings of what the internet is. A behind-the-scenes clip of Today Show anchors Bryant Gumbel, Katie Couric, and Elizabeth Vargas in 1994 asking their producer “What is internet, anyway?,” is a display of at least a dozen misconceptions about the Web.

For all of the strange phenomena that occur on the web today on a daily basis, one of the stranger (if often overlooked) incidents was the Toy War, an incident in which defunct toys retailer eToys attempted to sue European art collective etoy. Though eToys initially won a motion for an injunction, etoy retaliated with a denial-of-service attack. The dispute ran through late 1999 to early 2000, though eToys never recovered from the incident, and went bankrupt in 2001.

For more on The Web at 30, check out The World Wide Web at 30 feels a lot like the early days and Tim Berners-Lee still believes the web can be fixed, even today at CNET.

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