And the truth (or at least, an attempt at redressing the balance)

The internet: the world’s first true meritocracy

Sometimes it makes me sad that I’ll never be the King of England. It’s not that I harbour secret desires to dress in ermine, or really feel like my morning routine needs a butler awaiting me with a pre-foamed toothbrush. It’s more simple: the fact that I, a common-born man of no high standing, can never occupy the highest position in British society on the strengths of my wit and intellect alone.

A desire for power this ain’t: I can barely manage a departmental Twitter account, let alone a commonwealth. I’m just concerned that I’ll never live in a truly meritocratic society. Even if we did away with the royal family and the (publicly elected) position of Prime Minister became the highest in the land, it still wouldn’t be so: gone are the days where high-ranking politicians are plucked from working class obscurity, and in some parts of the world, a run on the presidency is figured at almost a billion dollars. With my background and education I’m unlikely to be elected to a seat on the local council, let alone government.

Like so many things, though, the internet steps in to disrupt everything, perhaps even for the better. I’d like to suggest that the internet is the world’s first true meritocracy. Why? Because it strips away the distractions, the disadvantages and the dollars and levels everything – for everyone.

Geeks are pretty smart when it comes to solving problems. Take the issue of user commenting. Slashdot pioneered the use of techniques for moderating user submissions to promote good content and punish repeat offenders, gradually lowering their voice in the discussion until their comments were invisible by default to other users. They even invented “meta-moderation” where moderators got to moderate other moderators’ decisions. Comments could be scored with both a number and a descriptor (“Funny”, “Insightful”, “Interesting” etc) and users could browse at the threshold they preferred. It was really clever stuff.

This forced users to think carefully about their comments and made it almost pointless for known trolls to post their flamebait as their comments immediately vanished from threads. Suddenly it was possible to gain an elevated authority within the Slashdot user community, purely on the strength of your contributions and their quality. All this, regardless of the user’s race, class, sexual orientation, physical condition and more.

Or look at newer sites like reddit. Their “social news” concept sees users upvote and downvote submitted links to present a community-curated view of the day’s interesting stuff. Sometimes it’s pictures of cats, sometimes it’s the news that Osama bin Laden has just been killed. The point is that suddenly, each user has a say in the day’s agenda. Unlike traditional media where privileged editors and producers get to decide that day’s broadcast to the world, reddit lets individuals add their knowledge and opinions to the mix and generates the resulting soup of content. The playing field is levelled: now you can broadcast to the world and have as much say-so as the next man — or even more, if the quality of your content is highly regarded by your peers.

There is, of course, an exception. Gender is still a problematic concept online. Women are still dogged by infantile critics and teenage trolls whose “mock” griefing often plagues prominent female writers across the web. Female gamers in particular are hounded by their male counterparts and some often go to great lengths to hide their gender to avoid the sniping and piss-taking. We can’t perhaps describe the internet as a “true” meritocracy until this issue is resolved. While it’s perhaps an advantage to be able to shed identities at the door when they represent a barrier in “real” life, having to mask a fundamental part of one’s character shouldn’t ever be a requirement to gain respect.

I’m fairly sure I’ll never become Prime Minister, even if we do abolish the Queen and I somehow stumble upon a decent fake Eton graduation certificate. I could become an internet icon, though (still equally unlikely, but  theoretically possible!). Some of the people I look up to most online aren’t rich and famous (or weren’t born that way), aren’t particularly physically remarkable, and are self-taught, hardworking individuals. The internet has an inimitable way of recognising this kind of character and bringing it to the fore: think of every message board you’ve posted on with one wise old owl who periodically swoops down with well-timed thoughts and ideas. Think of that popular Twitter user with thousands of followers who is just a normal person like your mum or your sister. Think about that self-produced album by that bloke you saw in the pub the other week who’s bagged a record deal off simply promoting his music on the internet rather than, say, shagging someone from One Direction.

It’s not perfect (what is?) but the internet is slowly levelling society. From the music and film industries to the publishing world, the arts and journalism. If you’re talented and work hard to improve your craft, your chances are hugely higher for success. That’s why I love it.