The S Files: Pollution Threatens Internet Ecology
A worldwide consortium of scientists warned yesterday that pollution levels now pose a real threat to digital ecology, endangering millions of users.
“Social media habitats are particularly at risk,” said Andres Montevideo, head of Digital Ecology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Research, Zurich. “The disruption of the delicate balance of snark, obliviousness, gratuitous nudity and food photos is found few other places. If nothing changes, we’re on track to lose 60 user species by 2025. Online biodiversity will be decimated.”
A tipping point came three days ago, Montevideo said, when Instagram user @BedheadGypsy spilled barrels of hashtags in a post (reproduced safely below) celebrating her husband’s birthday.
“It is the worst eco-digital disaster in the history of the Internet,” said @QuantumLitres, a first responder with WWWF, a nonprofit dedicated to online biodiversity conservation. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
By the time of publication, the spill had not been plugged; many of @BedheadGypsy’s 1.3 million followers continue to repost, polluting the Internet at an additional rate of roughly 1,813.9 hashtags each day.
But the real danger lies in the spill’s byproducts, Montevideo said, that is, the hashtags followers are adding to their repost of @BedheadGypsy’s original.
“#goals, #inspired and #fangirling are all dangerous byproducts that threaten digital life, possibly more than the spill itself,” he said, “and their levels will only continue to increase until the spill is plugged.”
Instagram has announced it is cooperating with a multilateral emergency effort to stop the spill and has pledged 1.7 billion dollars toward clean-up efforts.
“We at Instagram are saddened by the recent disaster, and are committed to hashtagging in a safe manner that does not interfere with the normal functioning of digital life,” said Kevin Systrom, Instagram CEO, in a statement. “We have measures in place to prevent a crisis like this; it is regrettable that human error is always a risk factor in any endeavour.”
Already, damage has been done. First responders say they are dealing with readers who feel nauseated after accidentally ingesting the hashtags; many have hyperventilated after becoming so entangled they examined their own lives. Still others have gone into shock, their ability to withstand the online climate compromised. All report feeling uncomfortably coated in … something.
If there’s any silver lining in the crisis, it’s that world leaders are holding an emergency summit next week in Geneva, spearheaded by the United States, to discuss online biodiversity conservation and cooperative prevention of future spills. US President Donald J. Trump called for the summit after visiting an area adjacent to the spill to reassure users there: