The Internet Can Still Be Small And Nice, But It’s On All Of Us To Make That Work
from the take-some-responsibility dept
Techdirt is one of the few remaining independent blogs. And, in many ways, I really miss the era of independent blogging that became a thing mainly in the early 2000s. Over time, most people have moved on to either new media organizations (often funded or owned by the old media organizations) or simply embraced social media and tried to become relevant and widely followed on this or that platform. The switch from a truly distributed internet to one where most people are heavily reliant on some giant company is unfortunate — and it’s something that many of us warned about a decade ago.
Wil Wheaton just published a great opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal with the title “The Internet Used to be Smaller and Nicer. Let’s Get It Back.” I’ll get to the content of the article in moment, but first I want to discuss the choice of publication. By publishing in the WSJ, the piece is behind a paywall, though it does seem to randomly allow people to get in (often seems to work if you click through via Twitter). In some ways, the fact that Wil chose to publish in the WSJ is a microcosm of the issue that he’s discussing in the piece: you publish in the WSJ because it’s likely to attract a larger audience than publishing on your own site (and Wil does maintain and regularly publish his own independent blog which is full of great content).
But, there are always tradeoffs. Relying on someone else’s platform is often just much easier. It doesn’t involve having to maintain your own site, and it’s also often where the audience is. The issue with blogs is that you had to attract — and then keep — an audience. Tools like RSS acted as a method for keeping people coming back, but… then Google became the de facto provider of RSS reading tools, and then killed it. To this day, that move is still considered one of the defining moments in the shift from a more distributed, independent web to one that is controlled by a few large companies.
That’s not to begrudge Wil the decision to publish the piece in the WSJ. I would likely have made the same choice. The point he is making is one that more people need to see, and he’s more likely to have an impact with it there than on his own site.
As for the crux of the piece, he actually is talking about that more independent, smaller, more community-focused (rather than industry-focused) world that the internet used to be.
Of course, we mostly spent our time geeking out about the things we loved: science fiction, art, design. By the time I was starting to share my thoughts, this mostly happened on LiveJournal and proto-social-media platform Myspace. But the way I saw it, as a 20-something with a rigid sense of propriety, LiveJournal was for people who wrote fan fiction and Myspace was for high-schoolers. It’s embarrassing to think this now, but I thought I was better than that. Maybe I was insecure that I wasn’t. Either way, if I was going to find a community where I fit in, I would have to build it myself.
The thing is, I didn’t really know how to do that. Building a website at this time was complicated and time consuming. Everything had to be built using programming languages that were still relatively new. And even if you did manage to cobble something together, you sort of just had to hope it didn’t look terrible, since no one really existed to help you with design. I am still in awe of the cheap turnkey packages available today to turn any idea into a full-blown website in just a couple of hours. My first website (wilwheaton.net) took months to build, and frankly, looked terrible. Updating it was often harder—I’ve lost more work than I care to admit to a network timeout or Netscape crash.
The first solution I tried that made things easier was Blogger, a content management system that enabled me to post my thoughts immediately to the front page of my site. I appreciated how easy the tool was to use but was irked by its closed-source attitude. If I was going to be a writer, I wanted to own my words. I was lucky to discover Greymatter, which I viewed simply as an open-source version of Blogger. Both functioned similarly, but I could install Greymatter to my own server and retain control of everything I was writing. I quickly switched over.
The mention of Greymatter brings back memories for me. While Techdirt itself was never actually on Greymatter, our very first business model, back in 2000, was creating private, internal blogs full of relevant news and analysis on why the news was relevant for various tech startups. And all of those sites we originally hosted with Greymatter.
Wil talks about how there was this small community of folks who really geeked out on the power of Greymatter, and notes how Noah Grey, the designer of the software, personally helped him fix a problem he once had. I vaguely recall Noah helping me out once as well. It was all part of a community effort.
And, while Noah stopped developing Greymatter in 2002, and most people (who still wanted to keep blogging) moved on, first to Movable Type and then to WordPress and other solutions, recently Noah ran into a cascading set of difficulties which resulted in him launching a GoFundMe.
That small internet community that had existed twenty years ago reassembled to help Noah out, as Wil explains in his article:
After my friend Cory Doctorow texted me about the situation, I went directly to the millions of people who now follow my social-media accounts and blog and told them about Noah. Other OG bloggers and Internet graybeards also came together and boosted the signal. By the end of the day, we’d raised enough money to keep him and his sister in their home. By the end of the week, it was over $100K.
But, there’s a larger point here that Wil is arguing for: this should be a call to action. A reminder of the early internet, and a push to get us to think about how we get back there:
So, the story has a happy ending. But it is also, I think, a call to action. The internet imagined by people like Noah Grey is still possible, if we are willing to stand up to corporations that try to exert outrageous copyright restrictions on bloggers, governments that surveil our activity, and the trolls that use our insecurities to try to bully us out of the public sphere. After all, without normal people, the internet is just servers screaming at each other. Who would want to rule over that?
Of course, there are a lot of complexities here. Some of the success of this particular campaign was also because of these large, centralized institutions. The messages about Grey’s situation seemed to get the most traction on Twitter, a large centralized platform. And now Wil is writing about it in the WSJ, a very old and stodgy media organization.
I think the larger point is that there is room for both, and we shouldn’t cede the smaller, community-focused, independent web entirely to those centralized platforms. This world does still exist, but it’s become harder for those smaller players to survive, as so many of the users have drifted into the silos of the tech giants. It can be harder to find that content and to continue following it, and that’s also why so many people just find it so much easier to give in and embrace the intermediaries.
But at some point we need to all make an effort ourselves to embrace the internet that was. The true promise of the internet, one that enabled smaller players and independent voices to speak up and be heard.
A year ago, I wrote about the concept of the Eternal October, bringing back that promise of an early internet, but this time powered by the lessons we’ve learned in the intervening decades. I noted that there seemed to be a real hunger for that, and I think Wil’s article is just yet another example. I’ve been meaning to do a lot more writing on this topic, but the daily grind of responding to politicians, media commentators, and others all looking to destroy the underlying internet because they’re mad at this or that company has made it difficult to carve out the time to really focus on that.
Wil’s article is yet another reminder that we need to keep being reminded that this internet still exists and wonderful things are still happening on it. But it also requires some additional responsibility on all of us to not just keep it alive, but to make it thrive.