Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Doing the Internet Wrong
Nobody actually envisioned the internet. Not really. Nobody sat down and dreamed up what has become a vast network of connected servers, home computers, business computers, the rogues' gallery of problematic handhelds from "smart" phones to global positioning system units, and an infestation of computer-equipped and networked devices that should never have been placed on the open internet. This is not to say that some ways that it has developed don't correspond to what people could imagine, far from it. The sense that in time the widely distributed radios, televisions, and even telephones could somehow be connected together into one vast system was out there before computers were widely available. Indeed, so was the obsessive and sinister obsession with total surveillance achieved by manipulating a combination of ubiquitous technology, human sociability, and yes, the way patriarchal cultures encourage tattle-taling by their authoritarian nature. Visions of some sort of electric gadget allowing easy access to collections of data including the owner's annotations can be traced to at least Vannevar Bush. But none of these things are actually the internet, as I am sure the more technically and literally minded readers out there are more than aware of. Nevertheless, these are certainly the sorts of objects, practices, and images that are widely associated with "the internet." My own long experience online has led me to conclude that whatever "the internet" means these days, it is none of these things, and no one envisioned it.
The literal path to get to this conclusion is a convoluted one, but the key highlights are clear and conveniently render most of the convolutions irrelevant. In the end, a specific, firm groove kept tripping me up, one that has a particular set of sounds associated with it, all playing to the tune of "you're doing the internet wrong" or "if you think X, you shouldn't be on the internet." Having literally heard and otherwise read these sorts of messages so often, including from people who generally had seemed rather friendly in the generic sense of waiting at the bus stop and not annoying anyone friendly, things finally reached the point that I began to wonder if they were right. On one hand, I never did subscribe to either the utopian or the dystopian view of "the internet" as project or as social construction. It can neither magically solve the problems we deal with in firmspace nor avoid the manifestations of those problems in cyberspace. Not everyone is going to be nice or constructive, and sometimes that will be on purpose regularly and other times it will be one off behaviour due to a bad day or whatever. Some clever people will put their cleverness to nasty use in the form of cracking and firing off poisoned macros and such things. With these facts in mind, this curious pair of tunes about the internet seemed all the stranger as I tried to make sense of why people kept playing them to me, including people who had learned enough about me to have clear evidence that I was neither a dystopian or utopian, nor was I naïve.
Of course, originally nobody knew quite what to do "on the internet" so there was no consensus that a person's actions could be compared to apart from the obvious ones that came from firmspace. This led to a fun, sometimes quite eye watering proliferation of early hand-coded websites, a very few of which are still out there, loading as fast and legibly as in their heyday despite all the changes in web browsers and standards. File Transfer Protocol and Gopher servers facilitated exchanges of software and files, bulletin boards were all the rage for awhile. Gradually a consensus began to build that the key things people did on the internet included building and uploading things to it, and spreading word about the cool bits contributed or found, creating important word of mouth connections. Well, figuratively speaking. This is back in the day of simple shared text files of good links, promising server names, and the like. Contributions didn't have to be code or the first sound and video media files either. Some of the most important activities people undertook were their contributions to conversations on listserves, including helping manage growing communities of people who did not know each other personally, developing "cultures" and levels of trust that helped curb the activities of trolls and prevented the space from being polluted past bearing. This was hard work spread among many hands, and so at first not many people resented it, and it was easy to get started, so much so lurking was somewhat unusual.
Once there were enough participants though, that was when things began to get trickier, and as the advertisers and early online sales began growing, suddenly a new idea began proliferating, courtesy of a whole range of marketing teams. After all, in their view, "the internet" was nothing less than the wild wild west, a new frontier for making lots of money fast. This dragged in a whole new series of expectations with it. Expectations that there were no rules, or even that rules were merely for the foolish to follow while the tougher and stronger internet users took advantage of them. Suddenly a new problem appeared on the horizon: if money was to be made, getting online and getting to the expensive goodies had to get easier, at least for the people who had money to spend. Later, as the drive to track people online in hopes of finding the perfect advertising formula and force them to take it and therefore buy, buy, buy, "easier" developed a new definition. All a person needed to join this or that "free" service was their real name and address – which they officially promised to give in exchange for free email, newsletters, some level of minor "personalization," ability to post to certain fora. After all, if the drive is to maximize how many people see particular advertisements, what is wanted is eyeball quantity, not quality of interaction. This helped drive an explosion of trolling and general assholery and the attempted counterweight of moderation. Throughout this whole process it got trickier to find and contribute to the good stuff, and tougher to wade through what was at best less helpful. Still, that is hardly new, welcome to the real world, right?
The first time I got an unambiguous "you're doing the internet wrong" message, it came via a person who felt that it was all about providing good advice. They duly informed me that I should not be posting any of my creative work to any website, including my own. In their view, this destroyed any possible value of any work I might post for publishers who might consider republishing it under their aegis. At the time, that person did not refer to those publishers as "republishing" anything of course. In that person's view, only businesses did any publishing, and furthermore only people who were paid for their creative work by such businesses were actual "writers," "painters," or whichever genre of artist. By that logic, the only correct thing to post to a website is a strictly generic template filled in with a barebones resume and contact information for the art or other practice at hand. The website should be an advertisement, and everything else should be abandoned if nobody would pay to publish it for the website owner. I admit to being quite astonished to learn that it was possible to view the web part of the internet at least as little more than a glorified version of the old time telephone books with cheap yellow tinted paper and various sizes of at most three colour advertisements. This is a tragically limited assessment of the web's potential, as indeed was Tim Berners-Lee's first sketch of it as mostly a way to share scientific research.
The second time I was duly informed of my apparently ongoing ability to "do the internet wrong" was in the context of the email list, now almost driven out of existence by the spam blight that is now mostly managed but still persistent. By that time, participants had learned to lurk for awhile to learn the more specific ins and outs of the community they were striving to join, including the unwritten rules, of which there are always more than established members realize. Unfortunately, "lurking" had and still has primarily negative connotations of "not contributing," "remaining hidden in order to ambush the unwary," or "latent but representing a threat." It's a shame that taking time out to learn the ropes has remained conflated with "lurking" in the negative sense, and a telltale sign that I will come back to. In any case, I ran into some difficulty in my efforts to join the conversation having seen the list rules in action and observed the more obvious undocumented dynamics and expectations. To wit, my contributions were apparently completely ignored, barring an occasional reply if I asked a question. Usually the reply was, "why don't you google it?" followed by silence. This is not the general reason to raise a question in a mailing list, not least because the question was often "ungoogle-able" on various bases or "already googled." In time efforts to get around the "apparently ignored" post phenomenon led to the development of post-voting, and its accompanying logic of helping people break into established conversational hubs by building credibility.
After a bit more experimenting and posting, like most people I found a couple of interesting lists and also began taking part in more online projects. Then as now there was plenty of experimental stuff going on, from round robin storytelling to creating virtual television seasons and porting MUDs and developing MOOCs. It was in the course of one such group project that I ran into yet another version of "You're doing the internet wrong," but the earliest version of "if you think X, you shouldn't be on the internet" in my own experience. Go figure, this one came up in the context of language and representation. I was called upon to provide expert information on the use of specific common terms imposed upon Indigenous women in a script. Information provided, including appropriate alternatives, I didn't think much more about it until of course, the head of the development team wrote me back. They were sure that certain words really were acceptable, because supposedly this community used the term and it was all over other widely praised examples of the genre. I firmly rebutted these claims. The response to my rebuttal was much more aggressive, and made clear that they were determined to use the terms because after all, what did I know anyway. If I couldn't play along with the way things really worked online, I could find another project to work on. There had been a real phase shift, and now formerly more experimental venues were demanding conformity. They were looking to professionalize, and that reduced their willingness to challenge the status quo in even the mildest way.
To be quite clear, the professionalization angle of the projects I am considering here was not explicitly documented anywhere. References to seeking to approach or match professional standards came a bit later.
Meanwhile, the next maladaptation to the internet had arisen in the form of so-called "social media." I do agree by the way, that "social media" could have taken a very different and far more positive development path. That is not however, what happened. When I opted not to join any of the new entities in this area, the volume of "you're doing the internet wrong" and "if you think X, you shouldn't be on the internet" was nearly deafening. I wasn't joining up, therefore doing the internet wrong. I thought something was rather sinister about "social media" and wanted to see how things would develop before jumping in. The level of peer pressure and insistence that "social media" was the future of the internet and anyone not on it would be left behind and miss everything important made me even less inclined to join. The war on rss feeds had not gotten as far along as it has today, so even the personalized newsfeed aspects didn't impress me much. By then my relationship with google had already been spoiled, first by the too good to be true "free space" to store email and photos online, then by the growing revelation of its surveillance practices to feed its advertising engine. After clawing my way out of the swamp of spam and otherwise poisoned email intended to sell me things or compromise my computer into a spambot, the last thing I wanted was to encourage a renewed proliferation of advertisement blight. By then I was fortunate enough to be able to subscribe to an internet service provider that included sensible email service and to purchase offline media to back up my own files. Besides that, I had managed to squeeze enough budget space for a very modest webhosting plan to up my internet contributions game. For many people, I understood that these new services were the first opportunity they had to do some of the things that those had been online a bit longer could do by other means they found less attractive for a whole range of reasons. I also learned that the once customary informal subset of people who helped newcomers had apparently evaporated. Without them to help people find the tools they needed and help them get started, of course new people with little or no experience of computers were not going to see interesting new things to learn and appealing people to get to know.
In all the struggle to make the internet safe for advertising and general profiteering, the energy devoted to maintaining basic civility and learnability so that people could contribute, not merely passively consume online fell to zero. Few people identified the loss of the people with a knack for teaching newcomers to participate and contribute creatively to virtual communities as a problem. It seems that after the development of post-voting systems, the need to help bridge people from their quiet learning phase to constructive participation was deemed fully met. Nobody thought too much about the problem of lurkers in the fully negative sense. That this was a mistake became all too clear when the social media platforms boomed, and it became all too clear that human moderators were overwhelmed and "artificial intelligence" and "machine learning" far from solving the problem are exacerbating it. Over the past five to ten years, we have all found out that adtech corporations are willing and able to "tune" their computer programs and instructions to human moderators in an effort to create "media environments to order." And now we are all being told that the way to "do the internet right" is to conform to whatever those corporations have agreed to signal boost, including thinking in certain ways and not others. It's all about harnessing the peer pressure phenomenon, let alone the vast organized criminal enterprise that is online pornography.
My latest encounter with being told off for not thinking properly on the internet, and therefore that I shouldn't be on it, finally came with enough context for me to stop short and think about these messages more carefully. In this case, I was engaged in trying to head off uncivil responses to a comment rather than leave it to develop into a bit of a pile on. The responses made me realize that a great many people even on that particular board are of the view that the internet is an abusive place, we should expect it to be abusive, and if we don't care to receive abuse then we shouldn't be there. I have read quite reasonable takedowns of this attitude when it is presented in other contexts where the behaviour at issue is far more severe and of longstanding, such as stalking, doxing, and the like. Similarly reasonable takedowns of any demand for perfect civility are out there too. But it seems to me that not expecting perfection is a far cry from accepting toxicity, and at this point the consensus online does seem to be that we should accept a poisoned virtual environment as a requirement to have it at all. After all, the antidote to the poison is apparently conformity in action and thought, and the attendant self-censorship that must inevitably entail.
Nobody envisioned the internet as it has been developed. No one envisioned it as a means to hijack human dopamine systems from multiple directions, let alone as a vast conformity enforcement machine. This is not to say that nobody ever suspected or identified these as potential ways that the internet could go. The clumsy attempts at online playpens created by the likes of AOL suggest an inchoate sense of this developmental line. Not so long ago, cable television companies were mocked for trying to duplicate their business model on the internet, but the truth is that is precisely the model that the same players are trying to develop online: advertisers and other propagandists who want to keep people in conformist bounds, convinced that they have only the most minimal forms of agency. It helps their purposes along when the internet that they don't control is a poisoned environment, because then they can claim their carefully moderated and curated offerings are superior and necessary, and that furthermore they can only make those offerings happen by enforcing conformity. Act counter to their model of the internet, regardless of whether that action is in fact a form of criminality or at minimum trolling that should indeed be curbed, and you too can be duly informed that you are doing the internet wrong and wrongthinking so that you shouldn't be on the internet.
I don't write all this to declare the internet lost or that the earlier days of the internet were superior simply because they were earlier. The adtech companies and less than sensible governments that hope to cosy up to them for a range of reasons don't have the complete control they like to pretend they do. There are many, many possibilities open yet. Some things were better on the earlier internet by dumb luck, many by reason of scaling effects not overwhelming ways of handling bad online behaviour yet. Machines will not spontaneously manifest to fix the challenges the internet presents, no matter how many foolish saviour narratives various corporate and government players may try to sell us. More machines can't fix what are in fact social problems. Lucky for those of us both online and off, we have the key qualification to put the internet back in its place and improve it as a combination of constructive virtual spaces and tools. We're embodied human beings with imaginations.
- All of these definitions are paraphrased from the Oxford English Dictionary.
- Sorry, there's no escape.