I’m starting to feel like a curmudgeon.
A pretty substantial part of my life has been spent on the internet, in one form or another, all the way back to BBS’s. So it’s coming as something of a shock now to look around and, for the first time in my life, see technology moving forward and leaving me behind.
I’m talking, of course, about social media.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of social media. I am, after all, a blogger, and it naturally follows I am the sort of person who believes that online conversations are a meaningful way of connecting with others. Still: something about facebook, and twitter, and even youtube rubs me the wrong way. I’ve been trying to put my finger on just what it is, and I think I’ve finally got it.
To understand where we’re going, we have to understand where we’ve been:
The Net grew like a weed between the cracks in the monolithic steel-and-glass empire of traditional commerce. It was technically obscure, impenetrable, populated by geeks and wizards, loners, misfits. When I started using the Internet, nobody gave a damn about it outside of a few big universities and the military-industrial complex they served. In fact, if you were outside that favored circle, you couldn’t even log on. The idea that the Internet would someday constitute the world’s largest marketplace would have been laughable if anyone was entertaining such delusions back then. I began entertaining them publicly in 1992 and the laughter was long and loud.
The Net grew and prospered largely because it was ignored. It worked by different rules than the rules of business. Market penetration wasn’t interesting because there was no market — unless it was a market for new ideas. The Net was built by people who said things like: What if we try this? Nope. What if we try that? Nope. What if we try this other thing? Well, hot damn! Look at that!
One of the hottest damns was the World Wide Web. It came out of efforts to create electronic footnotes — references between academic papers on high-energy physics that maybe a few dozen people in the entire world could actually understand. That’s why now, when you turn on your TV, you see www.haveanotherbeer.com.
Well, OK, a few things did happen in between. One of those things was that the Internet attracted millions. Many millions. The interesting question to ask is why. In the early 1990s, there was nothing like the Internet we take for granted today. Back then, the Net was primitive, daunting, uninviting. So what did we come for? And the answer is: each other.
The Internet became a place where people could talk to other people without constraint. Without filters or censorship or official sanction — and perhaps most significantly, without advertising. Another, noncommercial culture began forming across this out-of-the-way collection of computer networks. Long before graphical user interfaces made the scene, the scene was populated by plain old boring ASCII: green phosphor text scrolling up screens at the glacial pace afforded by early modems. So where was the attraction in that?
The attraction was in speech, however mediated. In people talking, however slowly. And mostly, the attraction lay in the kinds of things they were saying. Never in history had so many had the chance to know what so many others were thinking on such a wide range of subjects. Slowly at first, a new kind of conversation was beginning to emerge, but it would achieve global reach with astonishing speed.”
– Christopher Locke, The Cluetrain Manifesto, Chapter One.
I think there are three things about the future of the net that are bothering me.
First: the social media world (Facebook, Twitter, even Youtube to a degree) was corporate-owned/commercially-minded from the word “go.” Even when they were subversive in the beginning (as in the case of the early YouTube’s tacit approval of copyright-infringing content), that was only a tactic, a weapon used to bring down the barriers to entry. As soon as they could go legit and sell out, they did. People are out there trying to connect with one another, trying to have conversations, and the tech industry (which, in the past, has usually been a vanguard of privacy, freedom from authoritarian control, and experimental openness) is opportunistically taking advantage of that: using sophisticated data mining to erode our privacy and sell us stuff. It’s distasteful.
Second: Like the early internet just after the Eternal September, the sudden influx of “regular people” as a result the explosive popularity of social media has changed the culture of the net. The puritans, the hucksters, the authoritarians – they’re all here. They’re all watching. And some of them are buying your data from facebook.
Finally: I don’t like the increasing fragmentation of the web. The early internet was completely open and value-neutral, which created a lot of experimentation and a certain idealism (leading to the famous claim that the internet treats censorship like damage and routes around it). But now the iphone is locked down, the carriers are trying to prevent users from rooting android phones, facebook is a walled garden, my monitor won’t play blu-ray because it isn’t HDCP compliant, ICE is seizing domains without due process, and on, and on, and on. The authoritarians, not content to simply participate in the culture of the net, are redesigning its very architecture to give them greater control over our freedom of expression.
These days, the only thing that gives me hope for the future of the tech industry is the Kinect.
Anyway, I guess what I’m trying to say is this: Chris Locke is right again:
Now me, I’m still trying to get my head around “Markets are conversations.” I often worry (not that I lose any sleep, but still) that people will take this as a reversible reaction, to use a probably inappropriate metaphor from chemistry. I mean: that they’ll think, oh right, and therefore “Conversations are markets.”
But no, I don’t think that would be so good. In one week, Oprah racked up well over half a million followers on Twitter. There’s an instance of a “conversation” — and you know we need the scare quotes — being treated as a market. No matter how much you like Twitter, no matter how crucial you see it as being to the brave new world of social media, I’m sorry, that’s just the same old bullshit.