Our beautiful, broken internet
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In a recent, beautiful piece at Wired magazine, “Why I Still Love Tech”, Paul Ford (who previously wrote "What is Code", and one of my absolute all-time favorite pieces of writing online, Woods+), muses that the internet is both wonderful and irreparably broken.
He says that there was a point where it looked like the internet was going to work, but then tipped over and didn’t.
But maybe! Maybe it could work. There was the Arab Spring, starting in 2010. Twitter and Facebook were suddenly enabling protest, supporting democracy, changing the world for the better. This was the thing we’d been waiting for—
And then it wasn’t. Autocracy kept rearing its many heads, and people started getting killed. By 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was shutting off Twitter in Turkey to quell protests, and then it came home, first as Gamergate, wherein an online campaign of sexual harassment against women, somewhat related to videogames, metastasized into an army of enraged bots and threats.
I’ve written about a similar phenomenon I noticed a few years ago, the idea that the internet is no longer fun:
In 2012, the internet was still, to some extent, carrying on in the traditional manner it was intended to: as an easier way for humans to communicate with and learn from each other. The internet of 2015, though, seems to be completely broken. Today’s web is littered with terrible practices at both the government and commercial level that are continuously eroding its immense usefulness to humanity.
Today, more and more people have noticed that the internet at large doesn’t work, for a number of reasons. First, as I’ve written before (in an extremely long, Thought Leadership-y post about Iceland), people are not wired to grasp social networks larger than Dunbar’s number.
Iceland is too small for a lot of things. In his book on Scandinavia, Michael Booth writes that Iceland is a country “where the talent pool is the equivalent size of Coventry’s [in England]… And if there is a limited number of doctors and teachers, that is also likely to be the case in terms of entrepreneurs, politicians, and economists…One cannot overemphasize, I think, how very, very few Icelanders there are. It is remarkable they have been able to build any kind of infrastructure at all. ‘Do they have heart surgeons, speech therapists, or yoga teachers?’ I wondered.’”
But, because it is tiny and homogenous and scrappy, Iceland is successful in many meaningful ways. The president can give boys rides home from soccer practice, and he can welcome the country’s refugees at his house.
Dunbar’s number, stating that the number of close relationships a person can mentally keep in mind is about 150, works so well here, because the whole country is so small. Reykjavik can decide to limit traffic to large vehicles in the center of the city. Statistics Iceland can count the number of unemployed in the country on a single spreadsheet. Small social networks are good, because the level of trust between people is high, and easy to rely on.
The more people you expose your online persona to, the easier it is for it to be misinterpreted, for things to devolve to name-calling, hyperbole, and insults, instead of the small i internet we started out with. John D. Cook writes,
Trying to please too wide and too critical an audience leads to defensive, colorless writing You’ll never use an allusion for fear that someone won’t catch it. You’ll never use hyperbole for fear that some hyper-literalist will object. You’ll never leave a qualification implicit for fear that someone will pounce on it.
Also, the more people that you imprint on, the more your permanent internet presence becomes a liability rather than an asset. Mike Isaac, a reporter for the New York Times, writes,
now, these companies are in a pickle. as facebook matured, we discovered the unintended consequences of living a life online. an errant, ignorant tweet from our teenage years can get us fired—or worse, canceled. our parents could have created an entire instagram dedicated to our poopy-diaped years without our knowledge or express consent. forget running for office if youve ever tweeted about, like, anything.
As big internet becomes more threatening, people are turning inwards. How?
First, they’re setting up *ahem* newsletters. Newsletters are, although also a viral risk, strangely intimate. It’s you talking to a single person in their inbox. They’re also longer-form than Twitter. They allow for arguments, for room to think.
The second way people are turning to “small i internet” is chat groups. Facebook and Twitter have become extremely noisy. Where they’ve failed, Telegram, Slack, Whatsapp, and iMessage have stepped in.
They’re an outright replacement for the defining mode of social organization of the past decade: the platform-centric, feed-based social network. For me, at least, group chats aren’t the new AIM. They’re the new Facebook.
Since 2016, I’ve been pulling friends off of Facebook and into small chat groups. These chat groups are a delight for me, a treat, a chance for real interaction with live humans instead of algorithms. I can talk to people directly without worry that something I say will go viral. I have room to think, to feel, to share personal information, quickly - all things the internet was originally designed for.
In some ways, we are living both the best of times - we can get a meal or a car or our house cleaned in less than half an hour thanks to strangers - and also the worst of times, fragmented internet of small groups, like shining beacons of decency in the feudal dark reaches of the present internet.
I think we’ll see more of this movement to smaller, more organic forms of interconnected social media in the future. The challenge will be how to make them work well.
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About the Author
I’m a data scientist in Philadelphia. Most of my free time is spent kid-wrangling, reading, and writing bad tweets. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter. This newsletter is published twice-ish weekly, with two subscription levels. Please send me any feedback (suggestions for links, thoughts, etc.) at firstname.lastname@example.org.