What it is, is up to us.
— Howard Rheingold, author of The Virtual Community
I think of myself as an OG Internet inhabitant, because I was one of the early commercial consumers who arrived online after NSFNet began to release control of the network to corporate actors.
For me, that began in 1993. I had been hanging around bulletin board systems (BBSs) for a year or two, after peace activists I worked with started to use computers for communication and organizing. I ended up on a system I’d heard of some years before, The Well, created in 1985 and still operating today.
My dial-up modem screen from around 1993.
The Well had access to a Bay Area internet gateway, and there it was I discovered the joys of Telnet, Gopher, Usenet, WAIS, Archie, and Veronica. Also TinyFugue, a gateway to text-based multiuser worlds, and my favorite bit of Old Internet software.
I met my husband through TinyFugue, on a MUSE. We used to build castles together—in text.
Because at that time everything was text. There were no graphical interfaces on the ‘net, no World Wide Web. TCP/IP, the Internet’s information transport protocol, existed but was not in wide use yet. HTML was just being invented. Basically the “Internet” was a prompt on a Unix server somewhere, and everything online was done in plain old ASCII.
We even did our art in ASCII.*
The first HTML-based web page I ever saw was around 1995, at an NIST lab over a T1 pipe (massive bandwidth back then), which at the time was displaying live video conversations with astronauts on the Space Shuttle. I’d never seen, never imagined, anything like it.
This was definitely a bright new world of wonders, or at least the early sketch of one. The friend who set up that very basic web page hid a link in a period at the end of the thing (the link led to a bare page with a sentence written in ASCII of course). When we found it we were thrilled as if it were actual treasure. I built the first page of my own in ’97.
What I didn’t realize at the time was how very much the Internet of the early ‘90s was already being inexorably changed as the forces of commercialization, of corporate interests, began to build out the Web that evolved into what we know today.
In his recent book, Internet for the People, Ben Tarnoff argues that commercialization of the Internet has poisoned its ability to serve people as it should. That when we allow our ability to talk with each other to be owned and influenced by a handful of rich guys or wealthy corporations we damage our communities and distort the outcomes of our discussions of public policy.
That’s never been clearer than today, when we are watching El*n M*sk’s attempt to destroy Twitter, thrashing around in apparent distress because people there don’t show him and his horrible right-wing ideas enough deference.
Tarnoff believes that the solution is to remove the profit motive from the provision of the Internet itself, and from at least some of the social media services which act as global communication channels and which are invaluable in that role. Returning physical Internet infrastructure to public control, and siloing off at least some global communication to be run and managed by our citizens could at the very least mitigate some of the damage.
Chuck Wendig wrote a post about the situation at Twitter, and I replied with this comment, later posted on my account on Mastodon.
Speaking of old BBS systems, The Well still exists, well.com believe it or not. I’ve been hanging out there for nearly 30 years now.
We watched this whole internet thing get built from scratch. When I first got onto NSFNet as it was just turning into the corporatized internet we know today, you just got dumped at Unix prompt. There literally was no graphical web at the time, just plain old ASCii.
We built it all and we can do it again, if we want to. We can make it whatever we want it to be. Read Ben Tarnoff, He’s smart about this stuff.
What it is, is up to us. I agree with Ben that publicly-owned spaces have to be part of the solution, that we need to ensure that the Internet is freely available around the globe, to as many people as we can physically reach.
And then control of the conversation should be returned to the public, perhaps through decentralized services such as Mastodon (motto: Social networking that’s not for sale). Other services will no doubt arise as well. We the people are incredibly creative when we work together.
Please read Ben’s book if you have time, or at least his interview with Wired linked just above, and then think about how we might bring about these changes, together.
Footnote: *Sorry about the line-spacing, ASCII art connoisseurs! I couldn’t override the line height designation in my theme.
Edit to add: Please go at once and read this wonderful essay by Cat Valente. She was online even earlier than I was, and at a much younger age, and she sees clearly what is going on.
Stop Talking to Each Other and Start Buying Things: Three Decades of Survival in the Desert of Social Media
…And in many ways, that complaint has only gotten louder over the decades. Stop talking to each other and start buying things. Stop providing content for free and start paying us for the privilege. Stop shining sunlight on horrors and start advocating for more of them. Stop making communities and start weaponizing misinformation to benefit your betters.
It’s the same. It’s always been the same. Stop benefitting from the internet, it’s not for you to enjoy, it’s for us to use to extract money from you. Stop finding beauty and connection in the world, loneliness is more profitable and easier to control.…
12/28 ETA: Some additional reading for the strong-willed.
Thomas Zimmer in the Guardian:
Elon Musk was never a liberal, and his plans for Twitter were never benevolent
And some information about Eugen Rochko, founder of Mastodon:
Twitter rival Mastodon rejects funding to preserve nonprofit status
1/22/23 ETA: Useful report by an admin. On Running a Mastodon Instance