The Internet Origin Story You Know Isn’t Right

But we’ve been telling the same story about Arpanet and the web for 25 years, and it’s no longer satisfying. It won’t help us understand the social internet we have today: it won’t explain the rise of commercial social media, it won’t solve the problems of platformization, and it won’t help us imagine what comes next.

Today’s social media ecosystem functions more like the modern world of the late 1980s and early 1990s than the open social web of the early 21st century. It is an archipelago of proprietary platforms, imperfectly bound by their borders. All existing gateways can be changed at any time. Worse, users have little recourse, the platforms shirk responsibility and states are hesitant to intervene.

Before the widespread adoption of Internet email, people complained that they had to print business cards with half a dozen different addresses: unfathomable strings of letters, numbers, and symbols that represent them on CompuServe, GEnie, AOL, Delphi, MCI Mail, and so on. † Today we are in the same situation. From nail salons to cereal boxes, the visual environment is littered with the logos of incompatible social media brands. Facebook, Google, Twitter and Instagram are the new walled gardens, throwbacks to the late 1980s.

In recent years, it has become commonplace to blame social media for all our problems. There are good reasons for that. After decades of techno-optimism came a reckoning. But it worries me how often people – not platforms – are the subject of this criticism. We are told that social media makes us stupid, stupid, intolerant and depressed, that we should be ashamed to enjoy social media, that we are “hardwired” to act against our own best interests. Our fundamental desire to connect has been pathologised, as if we should take the blame for our own submission. I call swear words.

People are not the problem. The problem is the platforms. By looking at the history of the modern world, we can begin to detach the technologies of sociality from what we have come to call ‘social media’. At the root of many of the problems we associate with social media is a lack of creativity and caring. Ironically, for an industry that prides itself on innovation, platform providers have failed to develop business models and operational structures that can support healthy human communities.

Silicon Valley didn’t invent ‘social media’. Everyday people made the internet social. Time and again, users adapted network computers for communication between people. In the 1970s, Arpanet allowed remote access to expensive computers, but users turned email into the great app. In the 1980s, the Source and CompuServe provided a wealth of news and financial data, but users spent all their time talking to each other in forums and chat rooms. And in the 1990s, the web was designed for publishing documents, but users were creating guestbooks for conversations and message boards. The desire to get in touch with each other is central. We shouldn’t apologize for the joys of being online together.

Commercial social media platforms are of more recent origin. Major services like Facebook were founded around 2005, more than a quarter of a century after the first BBSs came online. Their business was the containment of the social web, the extraction of personal data and the promise of personalized advertising. Through smart interface design and the strategic deployment of venture capital, platform providers have succeeded in increasing access to the online world. Today, more people can go online and find each other than was ever possible in the days of AOL or FidoNet.

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