A story about the origin of the internet that you know is bad

A story about the origin of the internet that you know is bad

But we have been telling the same story about the ARPANET and the web for 25 years, and we are no longer satisfied. It doesn’t help us understand the social internet we have now: it doesn’t explain the origins of commercial social media, it can’t solve platforming problems, and it doesn’t help us imagine what comes next.

Today’s social media ecosystem functions more like the modern world of the late 1980s and early 1990s than the open social web of the early 21st century. It is an archipelago of proprietary platforms, imperfectly interconnected at their borders. Any existing gateways can change immediately. Worse, users have few options, platforms avoid responsibility, and states are reluctant to intervene.

Before the widespread adoption of Internet e-mail, people complained about the need to print business cards with half a dozen different addresses: the unpredictable sequences of letters, numbers, and symbols that represent them on CompuServe, GEnie, AOL, Delphi, MCI Mail, and so on. . We are in the same situation today. From nail salons to cereal boxes, the visual environment is littered with logos of incompatible social networking brands. Facebook, Google, Twitter and Instagram are new walled gardens, going back to the late eighties.

In last years, it has become commonplace to blame social networks for all our problems. There are good reasons for this. After decades of techno-optimism, the settlement has come. But I am concerned about how often people – not platforms – are the subject of this criticism. We have been told that social media makes us stupid, stupid, intolerant and depressed, that we should be ashamed of the pleasure of social media, that we are “firmly” set to act against our own best interests. Our basic desire for union is pathologized, as if we were to blame for our own submission. I tell the scumbags.

People are not a problem. Platforms are a problem. When we look at the history of the modern world, we can begin to remove society’s technologies from what we have come to call “social media.” Many of the problems we associate with social media are a lack of creativity and care. Ironically, in an industry that boasts innovation, platform providers have failed to develop business models and operating structures that could maintain healthy human communities.

Silicon Valley did not invent “social media.” Everyday people have made the internet social. Over and over again, users have adapted network computers for communication between people. In the 1970s, the ARPANET allowed remote access to expensive computers, but users created an e-mail with its killer application. In the 1980s, The Source and CompuServe offered a lot of news and financial data, but users spent all their time chatting on forums and in chat rooms. And in the 1990s, the site was designed for publishing documents, but users created guest conversation books and bulletin boards. The desire for interconnection is essential. We should not apologize for being online together.

Commercial social media platforms are of a more recent origin. Major services like Facebook originated around 2005, more than a quarter of a century after the first bulletin boards were online. Their business was the closure of the social network, the extraction of personal data and the promise of personalized advertising. Through clever interface design and strategic use of venture capital, platform providers have succeeded in expanding access to the online world. Today, more people can connect to the Internet and find each other than ever in the days of AOL or FidoNet.


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