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Maybe the online world needs to push the physical world back a bit and make some space for itself again.

I’ve seen a number of people linking to Kyle Chayka’s ”Coming of Age at the Dawn of the Social Internet” piece in the The New Yorker. It is an excerpt from his book Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture and it is worth reading.

Chayka is younger than I am. He writes of first encountering AOL Instant Messenger when he was in middle school; my introduction to the internet was my first year of college when I logged onto the Cleveland Free-Net for the first time. And while I never got into the online gaming seen in the way he describes, the overall picture he paints feels very familiar.

I was particularly struck by this bit, where Chayka writes about first signing up for MySpace:

When I made an account, I was surprised to find that MySpace tethered my shadow self to my physical person. I was no longer just a pseudonym and a cartoon avatar; the site asked for my actual name and a photo of my face; it told me to list my interests for everyone to see. Before, going online had felt like being a solo hiker, exploring unknown territories. Now I felt like I was putting out a billboard for myself on the highway.

Throughout his piece, Chayka talks about how, on the early internet, you could separate yourself from your existence in the physical world. You could be anonymous, and that allowed you take on and try out different identities.

That allowed people who had trouble finding a place for themselves in the physical world’s social order to make one for themselves (for good or ill) in the online world. That all began to change with the rise of Friendster, MySpace, and eventually Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Those platforms explicitly and deliberately mapped themselves onto the social, cultural, and economic structures of the physical world. In doing so, they tied people’s identities in those two previously separate spaces together.

This move was a deliberate incursion of the existing social order into the online world, and not for the better.

I think that way of looking at it can help us to understand What Happened To the Web, why it went from being a place for weirdos and freaks and outcasts (and cranks and kooks)1 to one dominated by advertising, influencers, and all the same powers structure that dominate the physical world.

It also makes sense that, in those early days of the internet, it did seems revolutionary. A lot of the people whose experiences of the physical world were of being shoved into lockers, beaten up, ignored, or told that they didn’t exist got online. There, they suddenly found themselves in this huge open space that the bullies didn’t even know about, and they could be anyone they wanted there.

The problem is that the physical world still existed, and the powers and structures of the physical world surrounded and defined the online world, even if they were mostly oblivious to what was going on there. They were going to come for it eventually, though.

I do not mean to suggest that we can fix these problems by a return of anonymity on the internet, and I do not want to leave the impression that I think the current situation is inevitable, permanent, or hopeless. The opposite, in fact—I think the existing craptocracy that appears to rule the internet is a result of people pushing the idea that where we have ended up is inevitable and that we should all just accept it and adapt to it.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I think figuring out ways to take back little pieces of the internet bit by bit and turn them into something interesting is a good way to start. Make a weird account account somewhere and post pictures. Find some weirdos with websites and follow them in a feed reader. Make up stories and write them a sentence at a time on a janky-looking webpage. Gather a group of friends together in a forum. I don’t know—try stuff out and see what works and what doesn’t.

It’s not about making the web Like It Was. It’s all too easy to fall into the nostalgia of wishing things were like they were in college or whenever. I think it’s more about taking a look back at where we’ve been and having a think about where we went astray—or got led—to a place we didn’t want to be, and then figuring out what do about that.


  1. And to be clear, it wasn’t all great then, either. There have always been creeps and assholes there, too. ↩︎

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