Reclaiming the Internet (and embracing the well-intended flame)
January 2, 2018
When I was in collge, back in the early 90s, I was first introdcued to the internet. I had an account on my school’s mainframe, ostensibly for academic reasons, and I had my first ever email address. Back then, no one had email addresses. I could only email my fellow nerd students and a few professors. Soon, I discovered Usenet, and I followed a number of newsgroups religisouly, especially the one’s that commented on beer in a world before micro-brews.
In the early 2000s the internet began to mature. Soon, websites were a thing. As were companies trying to sell you stuff on websites. With the Web 2.0 evolution, websites became dynamic and databse driven and real commerce could be done. I remember learning the basics of Perl and CGI when that was the number one way to create dynamic web content. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.
My life took a different turn. I went to seminary and became a pastor, while the internet continued to change and evlove, largley driven by economic forces. But I remember a few moments in the early 90s when the internet was about something else. It was about connecting with people, sharing information for the good of all, and, yes occassionally flaming people for not RTFM.
That said, whenever I was duly flamed, I was spurred to learn more. When the internet was not as mean-spirited a place as it is now, a flame was a helpful slap to encourage you to dig deeper, do your homework, be a contributor and not just a consumer. The internet, back then, expected me to have something to offer - and because of that expectation, usually, there was something to learn, something to gain, something to share.
Now, between Facebook and Twitter, the internet has become about shouting at people. Or narcissistically sharing the highlight reel of your life. Or about tempting our consumerist cravings until they explode in credit card debt.
I wonder if it could be different. Hosting this blog, on a server I pay for, with a set of open source tools that empower me to make the blog, all of which is free from anyone’s ownership or commercial ambition, is a reminder of what the internet can allow. The internet can allow us to freely express ourselves, to engage each other with ideas, to share what we are up to. And it can be a profound community that challenges us to be more thoughtful, more self-critical, and more engaged in meaningful, helpful ways.
Recently, I signed up for micro.blog, a new service that hopes to provide a more open, more accesible alternative to Twitter and Facebook. By providing an accessible framework within which people can share short posts of content, micro.blog enables the internet to resemeble its old self. If Manton (micro.blog’s founder) can find a way to keep micro.blog free of the commercial interests that have diminished the effectiveness of tools like Twitter and Facebook, and if the community continues to evolve in an intentional way, with strong and clear community guidelines, the future could be bright for micro.blog and by extension, the internet.
(Usenet began to decline when it’s servers were overwhelmed by people uploading pornographic images and pirated software binaries. I’m not judging, but good community guidelines are essential to ensure that any network or community lives up to it’s best ideals and original vision.)
The end of net neutrailty threatens new ventures like micro.blog. If it turns out that the only real purpose for the internet is to make some people rich, services like micro.blog and the old internet have no hope. Eventually, it might become necesssary for an entirely new network to be built - a public network that benefits all people. For now, let’s hope that enough of us care enough about the internet to realize it’s potential to really, deeply, meaningfully improve people’s lives.