The Web I Lost
The Web I Lost

Four years ago, an absolute eternity in internet time, Anil Dash wrote a blog post called the Web We Lost. It’s an excellent piece of work and a great marker in time because in 2012, many of us had a sense that we had lost something. What we had lost wasn’t entirely clear, and what we could do about it was even murkier. In 2012 things just felt wrong. For myself, it was a shift in the air, a change in the way that I noticed people talking about the virtual world where I grew up. It was a change in the tone of conversations, it was the beginning of services I’d taken for granted shutting down, vanishing off the map. Culture quietly erased before I had a chance to remember it.

In 2012 we knew we we were losing, but the end didn’t seem so inevitable. Now that we find ourselves on the cusp of one of the darkest and most dangerous periods of the century, I’m finding myself circling back. I’m not really interested in hand-wringing and I’m not interested in appeasement: I’m looking for a way forward, because I can’t stay here anymore.

Those of you who are better positioned to effect policy, and more patient than I am, should analyse this. I will read and share your findings. In spite of having worked in this field, in spite of remaining with one foot in academia, I am not one of those people. What I am is one of those nerds of a certain age who is dismayed to find their world strip-mined to extinction. I am one of those who once felt most comfortable to say we came from the internet. One of those who once claimed this identity, felt of this place which was a non-place and which always felt more comfortable than any national or regional marker. This was a place where the absence of adult supervision led not to death and destruction or the instantiation of the Fourth Alt-Reich on US soil but to what we understood to be the fundamental opposite: the development of our own codes of care and support and, unapologetically, a deep and fundamental belief that the future was a nearly indestructible, invisible web knit from a plurality of voices.

We are the people who found we could literally think things into existence. We binged on sci-fi and then spent hours crafting and roleplaying these universes and then, half surprised, discovered the fiction leaking out and looping back into reality. On the weekend and after work we met each other in online form and then discovered we could meet in person. We hung out, became friends, lovers, business partners. We found the line between realities was malleable and this was good. We saw this applied to old and destructive scars and we saw things heal. We believed in the Arab Spring, because it was inevitable: it was what the network was for. We didn’t count on the refugees.

It’s an old and tired joke that every Silicon Valley pitch is for a revolution that makes the world a better place. That joke exists because we really believed it. Yes we were naive, but when we were making fun of you we didn’t mean to say that making the world better was laughable, we meant that your insincerity was laughable.

I suppose a joke isn’t funny if it needs explanation.

Now What

There is a process of folding-in that all cultures engage in. It’s an immune response, a way to normalize and consume the outliers. This process is so common and so widespread it’s difficult not to identify it as some sort of fundamental natural force. But my belief, until about a week ago, was that this chaotic process was a stochastic trend towards good. I was wrong. The backchannels of resistance are now paved and well-lit and optimized and monetized and if maybe we won the net neutrality battle on a technical level, we most certainly lost it in terms of ideas. Let’s not waste time trying to convince a commercial system optimized for ad delivery to suddenly care about community. This is a lost cause. A direct line can be drawn between the CEO of Facebook exclaiming that the managment of identity is a lack of integrity and the weaponization of social that we’re seeing in the US. This isn’t accidental and it’s not reversable at this point. The tiger’s just going tiger.

So where is my samizdat? Where are my virtual squats and my weirdos and all the fucked up kids that get shit done in time to make each other dinner? To the extent they still exist, they’re in hiding, in a dozen or more secret groups, on Facebook, Google, Slack. I can’t blame anyone for this. I would rather they share in secret than not share at all, and shit is toxic. Many people have retreated because they simply can’t speak without a deluge of undeserved violence heading their way. This isn’t ok, but I’m also not sure that abandoning the commons is the way we fix things.

Recently music sharing site closed. Former members have been all over the internet decrying the loss of a cultural artifact on par with the Library of Alexandria. The fact that we spend public resources defending the dubious rights of copyright holding corporations is a travesty, but the notion that an exclusive club for 150 thousand people is a significant cultural artifact is equally ludicrous.

So here’s where I personally broke: I stopped thinking of the creative work I did as valuable without external validation and I realized that the specific validation metric - view, like and share count - was the same popularity metric which contributes to the segmentation and isolation of communities for the benefit of advertisers. I lost the ability to share what was on my mind without also thinking about audiencing and this shut down my will to speak at all. Because my voice was tied to the platform, and the platform itself encodes a kind of use with a different agenda than mine.

About the time of Anil’s article I started taking some steps to shift my own mind on this a bit: wherever possible I started turning off badges and counts on my applications, hiding the numbers that tell me my latest idea is a 2 or a 10, trying to allow my brain to keep its own focus. I became more selective about the networks I was engaging in, I spent less time on Twitter and more time on Instagram. I deleted my Facebook account. Before FB bought and ruined Instagram, I made a point of looking at everything that every one of the people I followed posted there. In order. Every day. I loved this small gentle window into other people’s lives. It felt real, it felt like the internet I was losing.

Hit-counts are probably one of the most destructive things we’ve managed to conjure into recent existence. The seperation of Church and State in journalism has been eroding steadily, but what could be worse than to take a metric designed for advertising and apply it to daily life? The logical conclusion is that you push out the other side, you stop publishing for anything at all except the money you can make feeding the networks and you’re silent where that money doesn’t exist. You end up where we are today.

I don’t know if these specific techniques are good for you too. For one, I’m not a professional writer so I don’t need to contend with any of this in order to put food on my table, but I am pretty confident that being mindful of where your energy is going is a good idea. I’m done with providing commercial platforms with my output for free. I’m deleting my Medium posts. I will link-to but not post content on Facebook. I will still hang out with you there because I’ll go pretty much anywhere if the company is good, but I’m going to spend most of my time on my own weird corner of the internet.

I’m doing a few other things: I’ve stripped all metrics and tracking and advertising out of all of my websites. I’m done evaluating my creative contributions the same way we evaluate sales of toilet cleaner and airline tickets. I’m also deleting comment systems. It’s not that I don’t care, but if you want to engage me and I want to hear from you, you already know how to reach me.

I am going to spend more time looking at the stuff that you’re making. I care about your writing, and your ideas and your photos and your arts. Send me your personal websites, even better if they don’t look like bootstrap. If you have a mechanism for direct payment, I’ll try and contribute if I can. I’m not crazy about this newsletter thing, but I’ll read them. I’d like to try and find a way to keep this sustainable. Hey maybe we could make a web-ring. We do need to build something, we used to be good at that.