Niall McMahon

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The Social Experience of the Internet


In 2023, the internet is shaped by the companies that dominate it, the stories that they tell. Let's tell new stories, to create a better internet built for people.

This is a draft edit of a part of a couple of lectures I put together about the social experience of the internet. It's a complicated thing and not all the fault of corporations. State spying, misinformation and propaganda play their part. Politics also, and crime, of course. At the bottom, maybe self-interest, inequality and greed are behind all of these. As with other problems facing humanity, cf. climate and energy.

In or around 1995, when I was a freshman in Trinity, the other people I knew that used the internet were students like me. It was enjoyable in those early years of the World Wide Web, in the college computer labs, discovering bulletin boards, newsletters and personal homepages. I remember my first download was an audio snippet from Star Wars - what a thrill! I could also message friends across campus via the Unix server. This is how I remember my social experience of the internet.

In a summer 1996 interview with the World Wide Web Journal, in an issue called The Web After Five Years, Tim Berners-Lee offered his more qualified assessment.

He was surprised that people were willing to learn and write HTML, something that he thought was an unnecessary barrier to wider participation; this, he suggested, was one of the reasons why websites were often corporations talking to people. This is something I don't remember so much but must have been true.

He seemed put out, a little, that personal homepages often stepped over the line separating openness and exhibitionism; he'd hoped for a proliferation of private webs, where people could communicate with family and friends.Communication required greater bi-directionality - properly interactive web technologies - and less friction in the publishing process. This was yet to happen.

Domination by some future commercial entities was something that he thought about. He was concerned that the web could fragment into large segments, controlled by companies. Still, he was hopeful that people would want to keep the web from disintegrating in this way, that the incentives to have a fully open, accessible and interoperable web would outweigh commercial pressures to create closed versions.

Overall, Berners-Lee's assessment was - cautiously - optimistic. For me, in my inexperience, it was an entirely optimistic time.

In 1998, Jaron Lanier wrote that, "[t]he Internet has created the most precise mirror of people as as a whole that we've yet had ... we can breathe a sigh of relief. We are basically OK". At the end of the 1990s, the internet was still a new frontier, pretty decentralised and open with very many individual, joyful, home pages.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the dotcom boom and bust happened. This bust was fallout from a collision between fast growing commercial excitement about this new frontier and the technical and market realities.

After the dust settled, the internet companies that emerged intact were faced with the task of figuring out how to make money.

Google launched Gmail in 2004. Aiming to reach as many people as possible as fast as possible, the company settled on a business model that offered a free service supported by advertising. As a step further, Google asked users for access to their personal data, their emails, to allow targeted delivery of the advertising.

I remember receiving a beta invite sometime in the halcyon days of 2005 while I was working on my PhD. The idea that Google would read my emails to send me ads seemed far out - to my computing colleagues also. It was universally controversial at the time, despite Google's assurances that computer codes alone would review emails.

Gmail had a neat user interface and an effective search function; this meant that you could stop worrying about filing emails and use search instead. I started using Gmail experimentally, at first, and then as a secondary email address. It was my main email account within a couple of years. Search, not file, suited me and if Google cared only about extracting advertising keywords, perhaps this wasn't such a bad trade. Ads didn't bother me, I thought.

In June 2005, I was at MIT playing a bit role in a conference about computational fluid dynamics. One evening, I went to a bar mid-way between Harvard and MIT by myself and was reading a book. I got chatting with some people who were out celebrating the formation of a new company. I was too reserved to ask the right questions so I never found out which company it was and if it every worked out.

This wasn't an unusual event. At that time, between Harvard and MIT, there were more than a few new internet startups, the vanguard of the Web 2.0 era. One was Facebook. If you look at Facebook's pitch deck from back then, you can see a quote from The Daily Pennsylvanian, from an article published in March 2004. It goes, "I have a new addiction. It is powerful. It is disturbing. It is"

Leaning into surveillance and advertising, Facebook explicitly pitched to investors the idea of revenue from targeted advertising that was based on about 16 pieces of information, at that time, about the user. Users would be incentivised to remain on, and create content for, the platform - viewing the advertisements created for them and encouraging their friends to do the same. Revenue streams based on advertising to users drives companies to encourage user lock-in: it's in a company's interest to keep users on their platform and to discourage interoperability with other competing systems.

Perfected for smart phones, this business model, characterised by surveillance, advertising and manipulation, became the default mode of operation for consumer-facing internet companies. At the end of the 2010s, the average experience of the internet was one curated and controlled by a small number of companies. Some people have never known an internet that didn't entice and surveil them. The platforms that for most people are the internet, undermine the ideal described by Berners-Lee in 1996. Jaron Lanier's 2018 Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now is a nice counterpoint to that 1998 Wired essay - we are basically not OK could be the book's tagline.

It seems that the struggle for the internet imagined in the 1990s is on the back foot. So how to push back?

Perhaps a push back has been underway, for some years now.

Take Web3 - which seems to me a kind of fantasy built on remixed ideas. Drawing in dreamers, the disillusioned and the dishonest, Web3 is a rejection of the technology industry and its business models. At the same time, its worst aspects highlight the failings of capitalism, with get rich quick scams thinly disguised as technological innovation. It is a rage against the machine and a spotlight trained on the dysfunctions of capitalism. It is a kind of unfocused rebellion and, perhaps, a source of hope.

Ted Chiang makes a nice point about frames of thought and how "most of our fears or anxieties about technology are best understood as fears or anxiety about how capitalism will use technology against us. And technology and capitalism have been so closely intertwined that it's hard to distinguish the two", "that we are sort of unable to question capitalism".

Right now, the social experience of the internet is framed by corporations; we live with a version of the internet that they have created through the stories that they tell. Stories they tell to make themselves rich.

Web3, as a kind of resistance movement, is still mostly a story told within this framing. A kind of cyberpunk spinout.

Understanding how and why corporations frame our social experience online is the first step in reclaiming the narration of the tale of the internet for people.

In her wonderful novel, The Memory Police, Yōko Ogawa describes a world slowly disintegrating as people forget the things that have disappeared. The internet of the 1990s was framed differently; it's important that we think hard to remember these stories, that we tell new stories, to create a better internet, not for money but for people.

This page was last rendered on March 24, 2023.