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From the Hyperlink to the Stream: Hossein Derakshan’s Critique of the Internet in the Age of Social Media

December 20th, 2018 · 18 comments

The Six Year Transformation

A friend recently pointed me toward an essay published on Medium in 2015. It’s written by Hossein Derakshan, a Canadian-Iranian blogger who helped instigate the Persian-language blogging revolution during the first decade of the 21st century, and whose online truth-telling eventually lead to his imprisonment in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison from 2008 to 2014.

In his essay, Derakshan explores the radical shift in internet culture that occurred between when he entered prison in 2008 and his release six years later. As Derakshan explains, in 2008, the source of the internet’s potency was the hyperlink:

“The hyperlink was my currency six years ago…[it] provided a diversity and decentralisation that the real world lacked. The hyperlink represented the open, interconnected spirit of the world wide web…a way to abandon centralization — all the links, lines and hierarchies — and replace them with something more distributed, a system of nodes and networks.”

If the hyperlink was “currency,” as Derakshan elaborates, then blogs were the market in which this currency was exchanged. You might start a web browsing session at a site you knew well, but a few dozen clicks later might find yourself at a novel corner of the blogosphere, digesting insights from a bright mind you would have never otherwise known existed.

When Derakshan emerged from prison in 2014, however, the internet had changed. Social media had dethroned the blog, and in doing so, replaced the hyperlink’s central position within online culture with something altogether new, “The Stream.”

As he details:

“The Stream now dominates the way people receive information on the web. Fewer users are directly checking dedicated webpages, instead getting fed by a never-ending flow of information that’s picked for them by complex — and secretive — algorithms.

The Stream means you don’t need to open so many websites any more. You don’t need numerous tabs. You don’t even need a web browser. You open Twitter or Facebook on your smartphone and dive deep in. The mountain has come to you. Algorithms have picked everything for you.”

What we lost in this shift from the hyperlink to The Stream was the ability to encounter diverse ideas, radical insight, and transformative new perspectives. What we got instead was more of what we already know, delivered like a pre-masticated paste, easy to digest and sure to please:

“[N]ot only do the algorithms behind the Stream equate newness and popularity with importance, they also tend to show us more of what we’ve already liked. These services carefully scan our behaviour and delicately tailor our news feeds with posts, pictures and videos that they think we would most likely want to see.”

Derakshan’s analysis provides a sharp take on some of the issues I’ve been discussing in recent posts. This shift from the wild and exciting decentralized web of the 1990s and 2000’s, to the creepy, Huxley-esque walled gardens of today’s social media monopolies has many different consequences, from privacy, to distraction, to manipulation.

But as Derakshan emphasizes, perhaps one of the biggest impacts of this transformation is that it’s denuding the internet of many of the attributes that made it so disruptive and exciting in the first place.

18 thoughts on “From the Hyperlink to the Stream: Hossein Derakshan’s Critique of the Internet in the Age of Social Media

  1. I remember reading the Medium article you talk abut here; it’s a great read! Thought provoking. It’s worth reading again. I’m reminded again of how much I like the blogosphere during a week with much bad press on Facebook. One of my tech heros, Walt Mossberg, is quitting Facebook platforms. I go back and forth. For Facebook to finally fade away, I think a paradigm shift must occur away from social media (but I like Twitter…). Thanks for posting; keep it up!

  2. The attention economy has lowered the average attention span of people and thus prevent them from reading long article or books because they require focus…

  3. Armin says:

    Additionally I think something else subtly influenced linking: SEO. More and more bloggers wanted inbound links to increase their score, but were reluctant to have outbound links for fear of losing Google juice. Similarly Trackbacks.

    I think the Indieweb movement is trying to revive some of it, sadly uptake so far is mainly by geeks.

  4. George says:

    Reminiscent of the idea, promulgated eternally in classes on nonfiction writing, that we should “slant” our content for the medium, with the result that, as P.G. Wodehouse observed, everything begins to sound the same. Too bad, really. I notice in my Facebook stream, which I visit perhaps for three minutes in an average month, a certain rigid intolerance of the surprising in favor of the nice.

  5. Holly says:

    “Pre-masticated paste,” wow, that’s really hitting it on the nose. I suspect that paste might be part of why I was genuinely gobsmacked when I saw the results of the 2016 election. “The Stream” had given me the distinct impression that the then would-be Republican candidate had so few supporters that he couldn’t possibly triumph. That election was a turning point for me in that it demonstrated so clearly the absurdity of thinking that my social media feeds are representative of anything but the cleverness of the algorithm.

  6. Deepti says:

    Yes, this is exactly my concern: “The Stream now dominates the way people receive information on the web. Fewer users are directly checking dedicated webpages.”
    I can and do choose to climb out of the Stream and read via hyperlinks. But do I drop my content into the Stream, or stubbornly write only on my blog? How do I reach people in the Stream? (They are the majority, it appears.)

  7. John Graham says:

    I don’t see RSS mentioned much these days – why not?

  8. David Fonseca says:

    I receive your blog posts not from my e-mail, but from my RSS feed (Feedly). I don’t need to keep track dozens of blogs by myself, I just put all there and wait for the new posts, and if the post is interesting, I open. So, this personal feed that I carefully selected for myself, I think is wonderful. But I know, you’re talking about the Stream by social medias that hijacked ours attention with uselessness information.

  9. Today I discovered micro.blog and was also reminded of IndieWeb. I am looking into these more. Micro.blog is intriguing! The ideas behind it are basically like the early blogosphere. I am interested in your take on it. I admit, though, that despite being somewhat of a geek, some indieweb stuff still seems a bit complex. Like, I used to get domains from Hover, but for convenience I now let WordPress provide my domain for my blog. Would it be easy to move my domain to Hover? I don’t know.

  10. Amazing facts have been Discussed in the Blog which have Come under growth in Past years and Centuries. Nowadays this is the change which is actually seen.

  11. H says:

    Can you give me a link to Hussein’s original article? I couldn’t find it on Medium.

  12. I also need.. give me a link to Hussein’s original article? I too couldn’t find it on Medium.
    I find it my self but didn’t find original one… So please give me the link…

  13. Earthcommentator says:

    Science and technology is a double-edged sword. Today more and more people are aware of the threat the development of science and technology will pose to the development of human society. The anthropologist Hu Jiaqi gives the unique opinion on the development of science and technology. Welcome to join us and discuss it.
    http://www.wicz.com/story/39703277/famous-anthropologist-hu-jiaqi-responded-to-the-issue-of-gene-edited-babies

  14. WritingCheap says:

    I also read this article on Medium.kom, it is really worth the attention, it is written by an intelligent person and I am sure that I will remain in my memory for a long time. In conclusion, I can say that whatever happens, happens for the best. The world will constantly change, whether we like it or not, you need to accept everything as it is and try to make the world better.

  15. i have been implementing these steps in my new website https://killerstatus.com/ and they worked for me.. Today I discovered micro.blog and was also reminded of IndieWeb. I am looking into these more. Micro.blog is intriguing! The ideas behind it are basically like the early blogosphere. I am interested in your take on it.

  16. The blog post is great. The article says that from the hyperlink to the stream: Hossein Derakshan’s analysis of the internet in the age of social media. It reveals that Derakshan looks at the drastic shift in internet culture that took place between when he entered prison in 2008 and his release six years later.

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