What I Want From the Internet
Connection and intimacy are still possible on the internet today.
I’m sitting in a small room in an old house in Durham, North Carolina, USA. When I look out the window, I can see the edges of homes nearby, peeking out through the even older trees between us. I’m far enough away that if I shouted to my nearest neighbor, they probably wouldn’t hear. But the small rooms where we work are close enough to stretch a wire between them, attach a can to both ends, and whisper secrets across the span.
Isn’t that what we want from the internet?
The first time I accessed the internet, I had a few minutes between pressing one button and the next to think about what was happening. The screech of the modem, signaling the connection being made, always felt like a red herring. Why so shrill? Is that what technology must sound like? Even then, I considered something else could better represent what it felt like to wait to connect. Something truer to the joy of anticipation, rather than the violent invasion of signal. Eno, not Dreamcrusher.
And, as a child of the 1980s, I thought of cans. I can clearly remember waiting for a reply in a chat room and considering the time it would take for one word to reach my end of the wire. I wondered how far away the other can was. Every word back and forth took time, and you could feel the motion of those words. It helped that computers back then literally vibrated with almost every process. You felt the workings beneath the screen. And I remembered that sound over a wire is nothing more than vibration.
I thought, how magical the internet is. Cans that are always connected. Cans that save my messages to play back when my neighbor comes home. More than one can, and more than one can at a time. Cans that show pictures like snaking periscopes across unknown distance. It felt like a lot, in a good way.
It didn’t take long, though, to feel like a lot in a bad way. The cans got bigger, louder, and full of voices I didn’t want to hear. The cans started making money. I never imagined how bad the cans could get.
Facebook is like a can within the can that pipes in all the cans but makes decisions about which cans I want to hear and most of the cans are foreign spies anyway.
Twitter is like all the cans, all at once but also if Elon musk’s can had the thickest wire attached to it and I can’t turn it off and also the can is breaking.
TickTock is a can with a screen in it and the CCP at the other end.
Substack is like everyone got yet another can just to ask me to pay for more cans.
It’s easy to complain about this; easy to construct a metaphor that exposes the absurdity of the situation and leaves the writer feeling clever. So enough with the cans for now. I think you get what I mean.
The Post-______ Internet
Websites. Apps. Platforms. Whatever you prefer to call them, they are all bigger than they were ever meant to be. There are scaling problems all over the internet and the web — some technical, some economic, some social, some experiential — and all of them are possible to solve. Except for the bedrock problems beneath them that, mixed with enough money and power, make every other problem of scale virtually impossible to solve without knocking things down and starting all over again. You know The Ones: Greed. Hate. Fear. I wonder what we’d all think about the most toxic corners of the internet if just those three things were taken out. A man can dream.
Meanwhile, the internet that used to be an intimate series of connections is now bloated, crowded, loud, and dangerous. The connections often seem massive, like a swelling cloud of sick threatening to absorb us all.
Kelsey McKinney, in an essay for Defector titled The Internet Isn’t Meant To Be So Small, has another take on size, and it’s a good one:
“Though it makes me feel like a grandmother on her deathbed to admit it, I remember the days when the internet was vast, when there seemed to be more places to go than anyone could ever visit and infinite things to read. What you saw was not determined by some highly protected coded algorithm that lives somewhere in the cloud. You could just go out and find it.”
Later, she gets to the heart of her title:
“This is how every social media giant functions, now: come through the door to our app, and find a new world that you will never leave. There is quite a lot of money in becoming either a monopoly that destroys all competition (as Uber tried to do), or (like the big social media platforms) tries to supplant or replace the rest of the internet by becoming a very, very deep well that is very hard to escape.”
McKinney is right: You could just go out and find it, but really, you had to. As is true in so many life lessons, the work is the point. And the internet used to be more work to experience. Today, it’s more work to avoid.
Also, a well is an apt metaphor, because wells aren’t the value, they’re the container for the value. All the internet’s deepest wells sell their water — you and me. As much as every company likes to claim innovation and the technorati love to label innovators, innovation is not what’s happening here. Not really. The internet wells all do the same thing, which is sell access to the water. The advertising business model is the same, has been the same, and shows no sign of ever not being the same.
Finally, one last cut from McKinney:
“It is worth remembering that the internet wasn’t supposed to be like this. It wasn’t supposed to be six boring men with too much money creating spaces that no one likes but everyone is forced to use because those men have driven every other form of online existence into the ground. The internet was supposed to have pockets, to have enchanting forests you could stumble into and dark ravines you knew better than to enter. The internet was supposed to be a place of opportunity, not just for profit but for surprise and connection and delight. Instead, like most everything American enterprise has promised held some new dream, it has turned out to be the same old thing—a dream for a few, and something much more confining for everyone else.”
If you wanted to make a case for the death of the internet — 1969 - 2016 seems right — this would be the right way to conclude its obituary.
But what if it’s not dead?
What if the internet is just comatose?
What if the internet is just comatose — its observable body locked in an unrousable stupor, poisoned somehow, suffering a nearly terminal injury from its own contents? The fascinating thing about some who fall into comas is that the range of internal experience is wide. Some who later wake describe a timeless state of wavering awareness; others, the excruciating experience of every moment. But the ecosystem within the body lives on. Thought goes on. As just a tiny organism living on within the apparently dead body of the internet, I assure you, there is life here.
Pockets of life within the propped-up corpse of the internet might be it. It may be the best we get. But I’d prefer to be more optimistic than that. I’d like to think that those of us living on in small ways inside this thing have a collective, good reason to keep it alive. I’d like to think that what’s happening in here can spread and once again reach the surface.
That is both easy and hard. It’s not hard to be a force for good on the internet today. You can do that on your own terms in your own, independent spaces, and you can do that on Twitter. If you have no expectations, you are free. It’s incredible to realize that though this kind of activity is in the minority on the internet, its examples are still far too many to count or comprehend. That’s how big the internet is.
It is hard, though, to build and maintain the structures of the old, “smaller” internet. You can, today, still go back to the can-to-can structure that a personal website, an RSS feed, and a browser provide. It’s not perfect. It leaves an enormous amount of signal unheard. It requires more work to find things, and to be found. And, because the most readily available and easiest to use tools at every level — to make a website, to subscribe to an RSS feed, and to visit and view a website — are thoroughly assimilated to the identity fingerprinting, tracking, and advertisement-displaying function of today’s internet, it’s not 100% post-platform. There are ways, of course, to make your own website without Squarespace’s help, to syndicate its content without social media, and to look at websites without letting Google (or others) follow you around. It just takes even more work — unfortunately, a lot more.
But you can do it. And I hope you do, in some way.
The creation of the internet seems like a hard line in our cultural history, marking before — when some were heard — and after — when everyone is heard. But we are still inside this line. That transition is still happening. We may not even live to experience the world when its people have become accustomed to the freedom of speaking and being heard. You’ll know you’re in it when things are much quieter, because there’s no reason to shout unless you think you won’t be heard.