I never met my first love. She was called Miranda Morse, from Spokane, Seattle. It was the start time of the internet and we met in Discworld. This fantasy world of Terry Pratchett came to life with texts, chat and assignments as a Multi User Dungeon (MUD). As the barbarian Slaine, I defeated thieves, I discovered treasures, and I took pleasure in starting a bar fight in The Mended Drum. That was the virtual chat room with the necessary digital characters that you could easily entice into a scuffle with a text command. There I met Malika Ombri, the barbarin. We liked each other and also made contact outside of Discworld. Mainly e-mail, a few expensive telephone calls and the mail. I always have the bracelet she made for me as a tangible reminder of this online start time.
It was the time of an open world. You found similar people online who also felt that first adventure. My first Geocities homepage is still there online as internet history, with my very first writings in English. In the past you were allowed to use the internet and print for free in the library. And suddenly you could type anything you could imagine in a search bar, Altavista, and then you would get answers from all over the world. For me it was really magical, just like Discworld.
In my career I had a natural interest in everything internet. And because I was 'at home there', it became more and more my job. Now I even call myself a digital native: anywhere with an internet connection I can earn a living. Exactly as the American 'get-quick-rich-on-the-internet schemes' always told me.
What few people had in mind is the immense growth in data. Exponential and then more. And where that would ultimately result. The first step was logical. In this pioneering time, the idea was to keep everything free and we succeeded. Just name a random subject and you can really learn everything about it online. How to bone meat. Make a robot. Accountancy. Computer programming. I could place some links here, but you know how to find it yourself. And your internet connection has relatively never become more expensive. The price? Advertisement. Altavista was purchased by Yahoo and instead of a neat search bar, you got a circus portal. So I started with Google, which also had ads on since 2000. My first homepage received unsolicited banners. As an internet user you soon learned to slalom through it. Then came the red shoes that followed you. You looked at shoes somewhere, saw that they were not in your size and clicked away. But thanks to 'smart' remarketing, they continued to follow you. It turned out that you left a trail of information with every click. Cookies. Then we got a weapon ourselves: adblockers. Without an adblocker I can no longer see YouTube.
In the meantime, Hyves came in 2004. And Facebook got a foothold with us in 2010. I did not only travel digitally, but also physically and met all kinds of nice people who used Facebook. For me, that was the decisive reason for Facebook. Internet opens your world, so you want that part too. And Hyves was, just for Dutch people. Since Like I loose my mind. In 2016, Love, Haha, Wow, Sad and Angry were added. With a simple click you could add your emotion. Wow + Love! Advertisers were provided with all kinds of tools to create even better advertisements.
Since the beginning, social media has had one magic word: relevance. There is so much content to watch that we don't have time for that. We spend less and less time on friends, family and hobbies - just look at any day in a living room, park or train, but there is a limit. Welcome to the attention economy. Vroegâh Facebook showed everything about your friends in the timeline. Now Facebook makes a choice: will you like this? Like it? React? So that you stay on Facebook as long as possible. So you don't get to see Dirk's stupid donut that nobody likes. Advertisers who understand this and also ensure that interaction pay less for their advertisements. Everyone happy: we get relevance, the advertiser gets interaction and trade, and Facebook the money. In terms of advertising revenue, they are now on Google's 41%.
But yeah. Whoever has followed the newspapers, sorry, the news sites knows that we are now in a different phase. It is now the time of fake news. And net neutrality - the idea that internet access should not differ per service or use is under commercial fire. It was abolished in the US last year. People are in favor of net neutrality because it helps prevent monopolies: for example, KPN cannot suddenly decide to make WhatsApp more expensive because they lack the income from text messaging. They tried, by the way, in 2011. They didn't succeed, and now they're too late.
The game has changed and if you did not realize this on time, it will be very difficult to switch on. Everything is now about data. Each service, free or paid, collects information about your behavior, history and interests. With that you create profiles on which you can let go of scenarios: offer here, extra offer there, story sister, message like that. That's why Facebook is so bad in the news: the free service "This is Your Digital Life" was used by Cambridge Analytica to bring in a pile of data. Unsolicited. And then use for political purposes. Hi President Trump and goodbye Brexit. Now we like to see ourselves as independent beings who make choices based on their own insights, but the practice is really different. Which new series will you watch? Netflix tells you. Which new song do you listen to? Spotify introduces it to you. News. Work. Love. Living. The more our lives become digital, the more efficient it becomes. But also the more influenceable it becomes. When everything goes digital, you need relevance to filter. Who filters the filterers?
When they came up with advertisements, I had no objection because I like free content. When they decided which content I saw and did not see in my timeline, I had no objection because I like relevance. When they came up with the unconscious influence of my behavior, I had no objection because that was how I was unconsciously influenced.
I have now been without Facebook for a month. Sometimes I start it unknowingly and then I have to click away quickly. Allen Carr (known for quitting smoking?) Can write a book about it for me. My facebookless month was not because of privacy, but because of addiction. I typically check Facebook about ten times a day, quickly for half an hour. I know that from the Rescue Time app, which measures it neatly for you on your laptop and mobile. And now I fully consider moving away from Facebook.
That month without Facebook I spent more time than ever on Twitter, LinkedIn, Messenger and Nu.nl. Just to be sure, I took Instagram into my withdrawal month, otherwise it would be in that list. Internet addiction is a many-headed monster. I started this column with my first love, digitally. Now my relationship with the internet feels unhealthy. I spend more time online than ever before and don't necessarily get happier from that endless scrolling. The question I ask myself is: can I ever live without the internet? Or can it ever go back to normal, without smart services that use my data against me?