The Internet Origin Story You Know Is Wrong

But we’ve been telling the same story about ARPANET and the web for 25 years, and it’s not satisfying anymore. It doesn’t help us understand the social internet we have now: it doesn’t explain the emergence of commercial social media, it can’t solve platform issues, and it won’t help us imagine what comes next.

Today’s social media ecosystem functions more like the modern world of the late eighties and early nineties than the open social network of the early 21st century. It is an archipelago of proprietary platforms, imperfectly connected to its borders. Any gateway that exists is subject to change at any time. Worse, users have few resources, platforms shy away from responsibility, and states are reluctant to intervene.

Before the widespread adoption of e-mail on the Internet, people complained about having to print business cards with half a dozen different addresses: inscrutable sequences of letters, numbers, and symbols that represented them on CompuServe, GEnie, AOL , Delphi, MCI Mail, etc. . Today we are in the same situation. From nail salons to cereal boxes, the visual environment is full of incompatible social media brand logos. Facebook, Google, Twitter and Instagram are the new walled gardens, dating back to the late 1980s.

In recent years, it has become commonplace to blame social media for all our problems. There are good reasons for this. After decades of technological optimism, a trial was held. But I’m concerned about how often people, not platforms, are criticized. We are told that social media is making us uncomfortable, stupid, intolerant and depressed, that we should be ashamed to enjoy social media, that we are “set up” to act against our own self-interest. Our basic desire to connect is pathologized, as if we were to take the blame for our own submission. I call it crossing.

People are not the problem. The problem is the platforms. If we look at the history of the modern world, we can begin to extract 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 are the failures of creativity and care. Ironically, for an industry that prides itself on innovation, platform providers have failed to develop business models and operating structures that can maintain healthy human communities.

Silicon Valley did not invent “social media.” Everyday people made the Internet social. Time and time again, users have adapted networked computers for communication between people. In the 1970s, ARPANET allowed remote access to expensive computers, but users emailed their killer application. In the 1980’s, The Source and CompuServe provided a lot of news and financial data, but users spent all their time talking to each other in forums and chat rooms. And in the 1990’s, the web was designed to publish documents, but users created guestbooks and conversational message boards. The desire to connect with each other is crucial. We must not apologize for the pleasure of being together online.

Social media trading platforms are of more recent origin. Major services like Facebook were formed around 2005, more than a quarter of a century after the first BBSs connected. His business was the closure of the social web, the extraction of personal data and the promise of personalized advertising. Through smart interface design and the strategic application of venture capital, platform providers were able to expand access to the online world. Today, more people can connect to the Internet and find each other than was possible in the days of AOL or FidoNet.

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