Hopeless visions or community utopia: the internet of tomorrow
Anna Shams IliWe view young people as digital natives, because they never had to learn to use the internet. For those of us who perhaps remember ethernet cables but did not grow up analogue, we know a world where the internet has become, or simply has always been, ubiquitous. Perhaps that’s why the idea of a 'vision' for the internet to start conjures up a lot of nothing. Best emphasised by the Musk Twitter acquisition and ensuing debates, the 'internet' as a concept for connection seems like both a natural and inescapable truth—something you have been told all your life, but which also seems far removed from control or personal ownership.
Tracing the original purpose of the internet seems like another world compared to Zuckerbergs vision of an 'embodied internet'. Networking technologies were necessary for computers to talk to each other during the Cold War, and thus the purpose of the 'ARPANET' (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) was to connect research and military institutions to further military advancement. However, it turned out that even researchers and military officers have a social need. As the network grew, the need to send messages turned into e-mail, which turned into mailing lists connecting people across hobbies and domains. Community erupted organically, from a want to connect with others.
When Tim Berners Lee established the World Wide Web, it was still strongly connected to CERN and the purposes of research. However, his ideas of the potential of the World Wide Web expanded far beyond this, recognising the communities it could enable. In his 'very short personal history' of the Web, he describes this as a vision of "a realistic mirror (or in fact the primary embodiment) of the ways in which we work and play and socialize." The idea still lives with the World Wide Web Consortium, where the website itself looks like a time pocket: flat, simple, hyperlinked, and without any ads. The visions highlighted surround ways that the internet brings people together. In times where social media platforms are meant to be the most social part of the web experience, the idea feels (in the face of misinformation, radicalisation, polarisation, and other bad-sounding '-ations') laughable at best.
In their mapping of early internet communities, one group of researchers describe early internet communities as primarily connected through chat rooms, bulletin boards, and games. While 3D environments seem like a thing of the future, virtual 3D gaming environments started in the mid-90s. What characterised a lot of the features of the early web communities, was the idea of community at its centre. Developers worked to make gaming environments more accessible by using lower bandwidth, and the open source movement connected people through goals of making close to everything that could be digital freely available. Whilst the late 90s saw the beginning of the internet as profit, there was a large and active community which believed in the potential of the internet as a place to connect with others across the world.
The idea of connecting different users across the world in the mid-90s, where most users were still somewhat affluent and mostly Western, was a utopian idea. Early internet community theory often imagines the internet as a city, which in the book "Digital Cities II," published as early as 2003, is a metaphor that works in three ways: the representation of physical cities, the information infrastructure which mirrors that of a city in rapid growth, and the systems that reflect community organisation. Within the same book sociologist Barry Wellman reflects on the emergence of 'computer-supported social networks': "This is a time for individuals and their networks, and not for groups."
Although bleak, Wellman's general idea of the social network as simply reinforcing existing connections reflects the transition away from a vision primarily by developers and nerds to a professionalised network. The dotcom bubble, a sharp sudden rise of (over) investment in web-based companies in the late 90s, showed a glimpse of an alternative use of the internet—for profit, and when combined with the popular use of the internet as a place for communication, it is perhaps not hard to follow the trajectory to today's social media landscape. Instead of an internet ‘by and for the people’, popular networks are usually connected to a single (straight, wWhite) man, and so big that it is easy to feel completely detached from the structure and politics behind them.
And we’re back to the ubiquity of the internet and digital natives who are supposed to run the digital world of tomorrow. The supposed tech savviness that everyone born after 1997 is meant to be born with seems, however, to primarily mean being able to move the mouse when playing a video, or setting up an iPhone faster. When it comes to better understanding how the technology works, young people, just as older generations, still 'passively soak up information'.
Of course, there are areas where this is changing. Young people both passively and actively are aware of algorithms, and change their language to accommodate this. But this is still within the constraints of large platforms. There is some level of awareness that the algorithm affects marginalised groups more on platforms such as TikTok or Instagram—but is there any drive or hope to change this? There has been some change in the recent app landscape, with apps such as BeReal or Dispo, which claim to take back concepts such as sharing images with friends by creating less polished and more intimate spaces for these exchanges. Similarly Clubhouse was rumored to start a revolution in how we think of social media when their sudden popularity led, speculatively, Twitter to adopt audio notes. However, rethinking user experience or mission statements are not necessarily changes that lead to something actually new.
Perhaps, however, this signals a change in the social media landscape to come. New social media app Somewhere Good also takes an audio-based approach, but in its initial marketing (the app only recently released in the US) puts a strong focus on creating a space where marginalised voices can thrive. How the technology will support this is yet to be seen, and will probably be the actual test. The current discourses on 'the web' are focused on the centralisation of power on 4-5 platforms which are controlled by large corporations and where data is the currency powering ads. Whilst our experience of the web may be communicative or connective, the reality is that it is largely driven by e-commerce and advertising of those services. The convenience offered by most platforms is in reality far less valuable than the data we give for free (and in cases of smart devices, even pay to give up).
Somewhere Good is an app aptly named for an age where a lot of internet users are looking for something better. It is easy to forget that sites, such as independent blogs, that are not Instagram profiles or Facebook groups also exist. One radical attempt at an alternative is the web hosting service NeoCities which copied the iconic (dead) mid-90s platform GeoCities in a flat web structure, requiring only basic HTML and CSS skills. And similar to these sites, mailing lists are still well and alive, and can be formatted individually. It is difficult to imagine a space outside the current data economy, but just as autonomous spaces have always existed offline, so can they be carved out online.
Modern visions of the internet are often seemingly dominated by a discourse on Web 3.0 and immersion. However, we are arguably already immersed, and have been so without much discussion. In the process, the democratic conversations about internet ideology seem to have been forgotten. Instead new technologies are pushed by product and profit optimisation, such as a VR social media platform that lets you replicate physical experience whilst capitalising on your social interactions. The focus seems to have switched from the relational networks Berners Lee envisioned to entertainment. Both can easily co-exist, but it requires us to expand our imagination beyond using Facebook as a landing page, through which other companies and organisations catapult, lure, and hyperlink us to the next site aimlessly.
It is a false claim that the internet is a free-for-all (if this idea even still exists)—by operating within the capitalist system, big sites that can transform data into sales will always have more power. However, if we believe in the metaphor of the digital city, we must believe in the best part of the city: The public library. A space that is free to use, not for profit, and which in many instances hosts volunteer-driven, community-based events. Coincidentally, this is also where a lot of physical communities are connected through a need for internet access. The fight for the internet cannot be one about who should own twitter, or how Facebook guidelines are unfair. Whilst these are important fights, they do not offer an alternative vision. And in times of bleakness, considering a web that is more like the library than the theme park or convenience store, is exactly what is needed.