Kosslyn was onto something—something whose implications extend well beyond the threats he discussed. Despite the Christchurch video, YouTube (reports The Economist) is not about to rethink the premise that “people around the world should have the right to upload and view content instantly.” But YouTube should rethink that premise, and so should the rest of us. Instanticity, if you will, is turning out to be a bug of online life and internet architecture, not a feature.
For a long time, through the internet’s first and second generations, people naturally assumed that faster must be better; slowness was a vestige of a bygone age, a technological hurdle to be overcome. What they missed is that human institutions and intermediaries often impose slowness on purpose. Slowness is a social technology in its own right, one that protects humans from themselves.
Take, for example, old-media publications such as The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. The digital operations of all three are speedy. But almost nothing goes online without first being vetted by at least one pair of editorial eyeballs. That costs money and slows down the content flow, of course, and for a time, many old-media types wondered whether our cumbersome, expensive bureaucracies were on their way to being obsolete. After all, social media promised to unleash millions of on-scene, real-time reporters, while allowing readers to curate their own news feeds and allowing experts to weigh in without being filtered by journalists. Who needed professional editors?
But old media’s premises turned out to be anything but obsolete. As a group, consumers are terrible editors. Many are poorly informed, inaccurate, biased, manipulable, sloppy, impulsive, or self-serving. And even though some are not, the bad can quickly drive away the good. I am not suggesting that social media should be edited in the style of a newspaper circa 1983. Even if old-style editing of, say, Facebook’s more than 1 billion daily posts were feasible, it would not be desirable; that degree of friction would defeat social media’s self-expressive purpose.
Still, the lessons of old media remain relevant. Social-media companies do, after all, practice a certain kind of editing. They have rules that promote some types of content and prohibit other types, and they maintain systems to delete or demote violations. Facebook deploys both artificial intelligence and thousands of human beings to identify and remove 18 types of content, such as material that glorifies violence or celebrates suffering. So editing is happening. It’s just happening after publication, instead of before, partly because instanticity allows no time for prior vetting—even by the user herself.
Read: Old-media values in new-media venues
Imagine a simple change. A user creates a post or video on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or wherever. She presses the button to post it. And then … she waits. Only after an interval does her post go live. The interval might be 10 minutes, or it might be an hour, or it might be user-selected.