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I don’t understand how the internet works

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Photo by Markus Spiske on

I don’t understand how the internet works. I mean, I know the basics, having more or less grown up with it, and I often provide technical support for my parents, although it seems with each update, I can help less and less. I know still less about how the ones and zeros actually combine with electricity to turn into, well, anything else. But most people don’t really know that. If you told me that, in reality, computer programmers are really magicians willing pictures out of the binary, I’d probably admit that I suspected as much all along.

But that doesn’t really matter because, similarly to how I don’t really need to know the ins and outs of a spark plug to drive my car, I don’t really need to read binary to use the internet. The trouble I’ve found is a little more frustrating than that.

Like many people my age, I have ongoing conversations with a few of my friends where the most information that is exchanged is nothing more than a back and forth of “This list was really funny,” and a link to said list. This garners a response of “LMAO” and another joke or list of jokes in kind.

Unfortunately, one of the most reliable places to find these lists of jokes (very few of which really meet the necessary criteria to be “memes” per se, but are often called such anyway) is on the dreaded Facebook, linked from other sites that compile and host them. I Can Has Cheezburger was the boss of funnies when I was in high school and for some of college. Cracked, too, often had similar content. Buzzfeed later dominated the internet with lists featuring screencaps witty tumblr discourse, memes, and sensational of tweets. But more and more, the lists I see are hosted by Ranker, whose schtick is that viewers can vote on the list items to reorder how funny they are.

This causes some problems, though, because when you share a list with your friend, without spoiling the jokes, sometimes you simply say, “Number 7 had me snort laughing in the staff bathroom.” But if the list has been entirely resorted by the time your friend reads it, number 7 might be a total dud, and then your friend thinks that maybe you snort-laughing in the bathroom was more of a cry for help (maybe it was anyway).

Worse still, a few weeks ago I read a great list, shared it with a friend, and then opened it again later that evening to show to Kalen. When Kalen and I read through it, not only were all the jokes out of order (which didn’t really matter, as none of them were related), but there were several that had not been on the list at all when I read it the first time, and as the list was confined to 25 funny things, that meant that some of the ones I had found so amusing were gone.

My friend and I, having noticed how buggy lists from Ranker can be, especially when viewed as a link through the Facebook mobile app, have started sharing such lists with a caveat, “This was funny, but it’s a ranker list, so it might just not work, sorry.” I know some of that is just the Facebook app itself being crap. Other more reputable websites don’t like to load in Facebook’s browser, and others load halfway, and then crash, never to be found again as Facebook works to always show you new content and never ever let you see the same thing more than once unless it’s an obnoxious ad for something you definitely are never going to buy, in which case you get to see the ad in between every other individual item on your feed. It’s gotten to the point where I automatically click the “view in browser” button to try and add a little more stability by transferring everything into Safari.

Last time I did this though, a whole new virtual hellscape revealed itself. The title of the list was the same. The “author” (who really had just compiled the list of memes) was the same. The picture accompanying the headline was the same. But the text between the funny pictures and the funny pictures themselves were all different. They weren’t just out of order, there was no crossover. Somewhere between the browser-like view within Facebook and the actual “view in browser” that was supposed to open the same address in Safari, the entire content of the list changed.

It’s just memes. It doesn’t really matter how we can share jokes or not right? But if this so easily happens, so readily and with no one noticing (because, surely, someone would be saying something if they noticed right?), how often is it happening with more important information? Even when we actually take the time and make the effort to diligently check our sources online, how will we ever combat misinformation when the same page can yield such wildly different results? How will we ever know we’re saying what we’re meaning to say when we share anything? The entire internet is that much closer to becoming one big horrifying reiteration of Monty Python’s Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook (which is hilarious to watch but would be a nightmare to actually experience).

It’s no wonder our nation is tearing itself apart with conspiracy theories and flat-out lies. I feel like I’m pretty good at avoiding scams and shady websites, but if even stupid lists of memes have me stumped, of course worse things are happening to people who are less suspicious. As a rule, I try not to click on links from anything that Facebook says is just “suggested for you,” even when I can tell it’s just going to click through to a Buzzfeed list. (If something really looks so promising, I’ll just go to the known host site and search for it.)

When I was in high school, one of my favorite classes was an AP Psychology class. Because it was an AP course, the students were all pretty focused and applied to the topic, and we had spent most of the semester picking things apart, including a ridiculous exercise where we deemed Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham wildly inappropriate by applying Freudian psychoanalysis to all the words and images. We took personality tests and discussed different aspects of human psyche with a fine toothed comb and learned to label all the various parts of the brain. One afternoon, our teacher passed out coloring pages, and we all began to panic, unable to remember the original colors in Scooby Doo and wondering what it would say about us if we colored The Mystery Machine pink and purple instead of blue and green. After a few minutes where everyone had ceased coloring to argue about what color every member of Scooby’s gang was supposed to be wearing, our teacher stood on his desk (he was a short and very animated man, and standing on his desk was a pretty regular occurrence) and asked what was wrong. We explained that we were all worried we were going to color the picture wrong and it would mean that we had horrifyingly embarrassing complexes that we didn’t want to be revealed to the class. The teacher’s face fell open in shock and he explained that he just wanted us to see how different activities could help reduce stress, activities like coloring. There was no meaning to deduce, just take a minute from our busy advanced placement schedules and color.

That’s how I feel when Facebook suggests pages for me: like it’s offering me things to then make judgments to rearrange the algorithm, inferring and extrapolating wildly just based on what catches my eye enough to earn a click. We were definitely a little paranoid in the psychology class, but I don’t think my suspicions of the algorithm are unwarranted. And maybe I don’t totally understand how the internet works, but at least my paranoia helps reduce the attempted attacks on my personal information. There can be some really good stuff on the internet, but there’s some really bad stuff (and bad people behind it) too. Be careful out there. And if you’re trying to share funnies with your friends, stick to the good old fashioned screen shot.

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