A personal ethics of clicking

by Charlie Huenemann

ClickNow that every click we make is watched, archived, and meta-data-fied, it is time to start thinking seriously about a personal ethics of internet consumption. This goes beyond mere paranoia and worry over what others might think of what you're taking interest in. Each click is in fact a tiny vote, proclaiming to content providers that you support this sort of thing, and hope to see more of it in the future. And – as always! – we should vote responsibly.

It's too bad, really. Gone are the days where, with the adjustment of a couple of browser settings (“Privacy – on!”), no one could ever know that we were clicking away at all sorts of embarrassments, from naked people to celebrity gossip to stuff that might accurately be labeled as very nasty. It was a seemingly harmless way to let that little id go crazy and graze its fill. Content providers happily supplied the forbidden fruits and we gobbled them up.

Now the jig is up. Privacy settings are as effective as the dark vs. light lever on a toaster. But more significant than any embarrassment we may feel is the fact that our clicking is factored into incredibly effective algorithms which help to steer more of the same our way. And as more of us click on crap, more and more similar crap is generated for consumption, and the internet gradually expands into wall-to-wall crap.

Immanuel Kant's perspective on ethics might suggest to us a Categorical Internet Imperative: Click only on those links that you can at the same time will all your fellow citizens to click on. I don't know about you, but many times I feel that if everybody were just clicking on what I'm clicking on, our culture would be racing toward – well, to pretty much where we are these days, I guess: a few reliable sources of insight and information doing their best to compete with freak shows, bear-baitings, and adorable kittens attacking paper bags.

Not to say we have to be Prussian prudes, of course. Insight and information can come from surprising places, and we surely need clowns to tip us off balance and question ourselves. And there's nothing wrong with just plain old fun (as if anyone needs to be told that). But once we begin seeing our clicks as tiny votes, we begin to think about what sort of sustenance we are channeling into our own minds, and what sort of diet we are recommending to our neighbors. Let us dream a little: if all the clickers out there aimed more consistently toward “good stuff”, content providers would be competing to produce more and more of that stuff. Gradually, one hopes, we would witness the ebbing of the crap, and the waxing of a gloriously informed and inspired culture.

(Okay, that's crazy talk. But even a small shift in that direction would be to the good.)

It might be asked what I mean by “good stuff”. BBC? NYT? IAI? Well, 3QD for sure. But for the most part I am happy to dodge this question. If we were to employ the Categorical Internet Imperative in our romps through the Web, we should be content with whatever patterns emerge – just as John Stuart Mill was ready to endorse whatever entertainments people who are reflective happen to take pleasure in. He thought the people who had some experience with both would prefer huffingtonpost.com to icanhas.cheezburger.com (or their 19th-century equivalents). But if it turned out that, after experience and careful reflection, more of us wanted “cheezburger”, then at least we could say that this was a reflection of our sincere sensibilities, and not merely the result of pandering to our own lowest common denominator. In that case, we would be getting precisely what we think we should have ordered. We would confidently proclaim to the world, “Yes! We can has cheezburger!” and be proud. But let us hope we are more than this.

The lesson applies as well to what we share on Facebook. There seems to be no shortage of memes that make some social or political issue ridiculously simple; and by sharing it, we feel like we've just smartly dished up a smack on the nose to anyone who disagrees with us. But just before we do the smacking, we might ask ourselves: is this really doing anything more than trivialize our civic discourse? Might there be something else more “shareworthy” that in fact moves a debate forward in an interesting way? We might ask ourselves: why am I sharing this? Is it because I think my target will suddenly have a change of heart (“Wow! Never looked at it that way!”) – or am I just finding a clever way of affirming some tribal identity? And how is that working out for us?

I know the objections. They are of the same type that rush forward anytime we talk about Kant's ethics – it's unrealistic, not everyone will do it, my own action is by itself inconsequential, who's to say what my fellow citizens should want, etc. But steer around those well-placed objections, and ask yourself whether a simple check on your clicking behavior might not lead yourself to a more wholesome mental economy. Ask yourself if you are as conscientious with your media consumption as you are with your eating habits. Ask yourself whether we really are as powerless as it sometimes may seem when it comes to the cataract of nonsense gushing through cyberspace.