This is the first in a series on the past, present, and future of the Internet
I am a member of the forgotten gap-generation between Gen-X and the Millennials (Jillian York wrote eloquently on this almost a decade ago ). I didn’t grow up “on” the Internet as a digital native – I grew up alongside it.
My on-ramp started with dial-up access to local BBSes and eventually to the actual Internet at the time (USENET, Gopher, MUDs, and other now-mostly-dead systems), mostly accessed through a green-screen terminal via manually-typed in AT commands with a 2400 baud modem (or the 9600 baud one if you were first!). HTML itself, the base of the modern web, was just barely a project at the time, and the “World Wide Web” simply didn’t exist. Being able to navigate via text screens the entire content of the local university’s library (instead of getting a ride there and rummaging through a card catalog) was a game changer.
For the era, I had undeniably privileged access to the Internet – which is to say that access to the Internet was itself inherently a privilege. This is a critical data point that gets lost in most rose-colored reflections of the Internet. That said, there was a strange undercurrent of makers, hackers, and this incredibly subversive belief in equality, collaboration, and sharing. With a huge caveat around its lack of diversity, the Internet did provide for a brief shining moment a safe space for people - awkward nerdy teenagers like me - who didn’t really fit in but could find their way online. It was a ramshackle and weird community of MUDs and newsgroups and IRC chat channels and home-cooked bulletin boards. The Internet I knew was built and staffed by people who had previously run 3-line dial-up BBS systems and avid, if lost, volunteers who’d found a home and a family.
The modern Internet may seem like it still provides this, but instead of encouraging unity and positive support, it seems to excel instead at division and hate. What has happened, and how can we change course?
Diversity is the solution, not the problem.
There’s a dangerously easy response and ease to blame the increased diversity of the Internet, but it also rings false. You can look at earlier “disruptions” of the norms of the Internet, all the way back to 1993’s “Eternal September.” September here references in its name the annual influx of first-time Internews users coming from universities every September. Eternal meant the event where AOL connected its dial-up services to the global Internet for the first time and unleashing its users, with dramatically different expectations of how to interact online, into a seasoned community which had deep rules of “netiquette.” The older “netizens” of the Internet in the mid-90s complained endlessly about these newbies making a mess of things on the Internet, so it’s important to remember that even “Eternal September” was still talking about a relatively still privileged, homogeneous group of college students and families able to pay for AOL at the time. This is not to say that diversity is not complicated, but that’s it not to blame.
How things were – and could be again
My experiences finding multiple welcoming communities on this early Internet remain at the core of my belief that there is good in humanity, and that communication across borders and divorced from as many of the limitations or prejudices we may find in the real world is a key to empathy and solidarity. This in turn drives me to work towards rebuilding our modern Internet to resurface this community feeling - but with radical, actual inclusion - has deep value.
I want to just share one among many, many similar stories of my many bizarre stories from this proto-Internet era. I used to play on a MUD (look it up, kids) that was a text-based game loosely based on … ok, so the Highlander movies … but with … random sci-fi and fantasy elements thrown in by anyone who’d played long enough to get the power to build parts of the world themselves? I know. This sounds absolutely chaotic, and it was all of that and more. Like, someone built an extensive Star Wars part of the world off in one corner, where you had bards and barbarians trying to take down Jabba the Hutt. It’s like fortnite, kinda, but if the global game allowed its own players to build core maps, change the rules, and it was all free?
But that’s not even the story. One busy night on the MUD – with lots of game chatter alongside people hacking away at text-based monsters, one of the players was in a really tough spot in their real life (they presented online as female, but who knew? There were no “real name” requirements). They started mentioning suicide. You have never seen more people, who were absolute strangers in real life, stumble over themselves to support this person, find out who was in the same town as they were, keep checking, and scheduling hand-offs through the night until they backed down from this path and were seeking help.
It’s important to note that it wasn’t all peer support groups and harmless pranks.
Even in the early days, true “griefers” - trolls intentionally looking to cause harm - did exist. Julian Dibble’s seminal essay (from 1993) on one such case is an important piece of Internet history we would be wise to keep in mind. It encompasses a gender-fluid anarchist online community confronting a “virtual” rapist in their midst, and struggling to respond. It is absolutely worth a read, and any summary I could make would be an injustice to the richness of the essay. Even in this piece, the amazing sense of community resonates throughout. There is no call to authority, as the community is its own authority in a way that struggles to exist or scale outside of (increasingly historic) online interactions. The community rallied and responded to this attack, and rebuilt itself with tools and governance to prevent it from happening again.
Undermining Community Responsibility
By centralizing so much of the online discourse, while simultaneously undermining community ownership and management of public online spaces, we have seen the snowballing effect of under-moderated spaces for discourse falling prey to targeted attacks - not only intentional dis/mal -information style, but also simply trolling and hate groups able to weaponize platforms.
Cesspools of hateful groups can exist online, and will be challenging to ever eradicate without also undermining important freedom of speech protections, but these cesspools combined with monopolized “public” spaces online provide a toxic ecosystem forcing those who are being victimized into a small number of platforms where they are easily targeted with few tools or policies/processes to defend themselves short of silencing their own voices by leaving the privatized public square.
The public square cannot remain a privatized space online. We must reign in what Zuboff so eloquently frames as “surveillance capitalism”, and the dangerous business model dynamics it produces. But in parallel, disinformation campaigns must also be unmasked, racists and fascists “de-platformed.” All of this is to say that being allowed on these centralized social platforms holds outsized power, and either the platforms must be held to account to tend to their walled gardens, or we need new community-centered systems.