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Today’s post is by Michael Yates, Account Coordinator and Renaissance thinker.

The last time I wrote, I opened with the line, “First there was print, then there was Google.” That post dealt mostly with how Google plans to deliver its voice to people in the coming decades. Before reflecting upon consumption as the end point of data, I think it is important to understand that the printing press was the process applied to the mechanism of data dissemination. Each pull of the level was an addition to a singular voice that was soon spread across a table circumscribed by the distance a horse may travel. The end point of data wasn’t the physical hand-off of the printed page but the slow, churning spread of discovery and understanding that followed.

Back in the present day, the Internet offers a world where discussion has no limits, ideas are challenged instantly, and a single outlier voice has little share of the total discussion. This is reason for both celebration and caution.

Take YouTube. The video platform’s content ratings have been in effect for a couple of years now and by all measures, offer viewers a way to know what they’re about to see. We are all already exposed to ratings systems for the vast majority of content we consume through explicit lyric warnings, the ubiquitous Parental Guidance film rating, and their television equivalent. The implementation of YouTube’s own rating system was seamless not on a technical level but on user acceptance. The ratings color-scale shows how we’ve broken down artistic endeavors with scales in Language, Nudity, Sexual Situations, Violence, and Drug Use, respectively.

content ratings youtube

This system was not requested by our traditional entity, the FCC, but volunteered by YouTube itself. It depends on Partners to make content distinctions and rewards them with revenue-sharing eligibility based on advertiser targeting. The user experience is mildly impacted, if at all, because we are exposed to rating systems such as these enough to where we expect to see them regardless of the amount of regulations imposing them.

Without much of a fuss, we’ve taken the aggregate decision we’ve made, through the act of consuming media, of relying upon the federal agencies for content arbitration and placed that role upon an entity was wasn’t elected or appointed. In simpler terms, by consuming content through a system we are familiar with, we’ve gladly allowed YouTube, Partners, et al. to become content arbiters by voting with our attention instead of our ballot. This system, with Partner-volunteered data and community self-policing, is wildly democratic in process and arguably the ideal of the Internet from inception:  an unregulated, community-driven discussion between humanity and itself.

Spreading single pressings on paper was a painfully slow process that allowed the power of localized thought influence to fall into the hands of the person operating the press. Expanded, influence is wrought through local and state laws. The instance that comes to mind here is the Texas State Board of Education’s editing process for textbooks. Ideas are committed to paper, modified, stricken from the record, and introduced. Through industrial techniques, these physical copies of ideas are spread throughout schools and absorbed and discussed through what we consider to be the modern expression of “organic information spread.”

To reference back, the horse-carried newsletter had an organic spread of weeks to months for a single easily replicated thought. With the speed of content arbitration now available to us through the knowledge repositories within Google and Wikipedia, it feels as though the discussion never stops. We do not depend on authors to continue with their voice, tagging along with their every missive, nor do we depend on yearly editions of textbooks to alter last year’s agreed-upon truth.

This speed, while positive on the front cover, also accelerates what we consider outlier voices to be marginalized. A small squeak of “dinosaurs and humans lived together” is soon drowned out within a wave of contrary evidence sources endlessly and agreed upon by the educated constituents who came to the table that day you clicked. The issues that can arise from this insta-consensus property quickly mirror our initial concerns with building a political system domestically. If we voted purely democratically, as current content arbitration is performed on YouTube, those who disagree or feel differently are quickly snuffed by the overwhelming majority.

We have an electoral college and a Congress to help us cope with the problems of proportionality of agreement, but no system exists on our grand digital knowledge base, still in its infancy. This isn’t to suggest that the Internet needs a representative democracy to function fairly – a land without limits or borders has room for all – but it is interesting to see collectives and forums develop much in the way the city-states of old developed in times where pure democracy was practiced.

The observation of how we as people structure our systems on the macro scale, through history and futurism, should also act as a caution that the consensus to which all the Internet data directs us may not be the most correct.

– Michael Yates, Account Coordinator