The 1% Has Bought Its Own Internet - What's Next, Richipedia?
In one of the best moments of the genius webcomic Achewood, occasional protagonist Ray – a Scottish Fold cat who is also a wealthy playboy – goes on eBay while high and impulsively types, in the search bar, WHAT’S THE BEST THING YOU GOT? The screen blinks, then lights up with the message “Welcome to eBay Platinum Reserve.”
“Congratulations. By thinking like the world’s greatest, you have unlocked a wealth of incredible opportunities,” the message continues. These are, to be specific, purchasing opportunities. Purchasing opportunities that, as it turns out, include the actual Airwolf helicopter ($20bn) and Keith Moon’s head in a jar ($4.7bn, “eyes may close in transit – there is no technology to guard against this”). It’s an entire hidden eBay, accessible only by password – and the password is the grasping entitlement of the rich.
Proponents of net neutrality worry about this happening for real. Or at least they worry about a future in which a small handful of monopoly-happy telecoms are able to throttle access to any website that doesn’t make them money or provide lower-paying customers with slowed and restricted service. Net neutrality boosters want government regulation to dictate that all sites and customers get the same treatment, rather than splitting the web into “slow lanes” and “fast lanes” along financial lines. Internet pinkos don’t want rich people to have better internet.
Well, it’s too late. Rich people already have better internet. Mercifully, cable modems are fairly common these days – remember when the best you could afford was DSL? – so for now, the rich don’t necessarily getfaster internet. But they do get Internet Platinum Reserve.
The rich have better dating sites, like The League, an invite-only dating app for “successful” people that’s basically snobby Tinder. The rich have better Facebook; the new social network Netropolitan costs $6,000 to sign up plus $3,000 a year, and is specifically geared towards “people with more money than time”. (Or, I might add, sense.) According to Scientific American, the rich get luxury ads and credit and loan offers that the rest of us never see. To be fair, though, I couldn’t read the second page of that article because it would have cost me $6; increasingly, the rich have more access to better news and writing as publications go subscription-based. There’s even a tech startup, lauded this month by Silicon Valley, that will let you rent a butler. That’s right: rich people have Ask Jeeves with ACTUAL JEEVES.
Netropolitan, which was just announced this week, seems like a particularly egregious example. It’s not even clear what, functionally, this new social network has over Facebook, other than allowing members to converse about “everything from fine wines to classic cars to vacation destination recommendations” (all illegal on regular Facebook, of course). The site has moderators, but stipulates that they are not concierges: “Our Member Service Associates will not book you a charter jet, or find you tickets to a sold-out Broadway show. They exist solely to help members technically navigate and find their way around the social club.” So the primary perk of Netropolitan appears to be that it has people who can help you figure out how to use Netropolitan.
But it also offers a significant intangible benefit: the guarantee that you’ll never accidentally encounter a poor. Netropolitan’s founder, the astoundingly dirty-named composer James Touchi-Peters (no shame in that, James!), cites his motivation as wanting “an environment where you could talk about the finer things in life without backlash.” Who wants to hear “#FirstWorldProblems” every time you complain about spilling fine wine on the upholstery of your classic car on the way to a vacation destination, am I right? The rich are willing to pay a lot just to know they have a separate internet from you. And the internet is willing to afford them every luxury.
What’s next: Richipedia? Reddit for rich people, with karma replaced by gold bullion? Words with Rich People? Maybe there’s business to be done in lolcat dressage or custom-painted animated GIFs. Or 4chan could offer the option to pay a huge lump sum and get a cruel hoax invented just for you.
If Internet Platinum Reserve is surprising, that’s only because we’ve been trying to fool ourselves that the web is a populist haven. For going on a generation now, we have insisted upon a place where accidents of birth and fortune are smoothed out. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a pedigreed dog. Maybe it’s not a completely equal-opportunity utopia, since there are still potentially costly barriers to entry (computer, ISP), but it is at least supposed to be free of the most restrictive forms of elitism. You don’t need connections or an Ivy League degree to set up a blog and, maybe, get heard. If you only want to comment on a website, you barely even need to be literate.
But that’s just a lie we tell ourselves out here on the poor people’s web. Over in Netropolitan, they’re hoisting glasses of Chateau Margaux (I Googled “very expensive wine,” but rich people Google probably would have given me a more accurate answer) and snickering at our naivete. The truth is, money gets you better everything, and always has. Better education, better internet, better Keith Moon’s head in a jar. Even if it isn’t that much better, at least it’s separate, and strictly reserved for you.
This is why we need net neutrality: because the net is not and never has been neutral. Income inequality is baked into it, the same way it’s baked into everything else; there’s nothing special about this series of tubes that makes it immune to capitalism. Profit is, in fact, its guiding spirit. Maintaining net neutrality is like maintaining the public school system; it’s a tiny, feeble kick against the elitism that shapes our lives. It means that, even if you’ll never get access to the secret rooms of the wealthy, you’ll get something. Corporations won’t be able to hold information hostage until you pay. Like public schools, a neutral internet acknowledges that information is the best currency some of us are going to get.
But it won’t buy you that Airwolf chopper. For that, you’re on your own.