Does it ever seem to you like the Internet isn’t as great as it used to be?
I’ve felt this way for most of the 2010s, but I spent the early years of the decade surrounded by people who were particularly eager to brand me as a Luddite when I said so. In 2011, I completed a master’s degree at the University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI); as you may recall, this was also the year of the Arab Spring, that high point of technoutopianism. Back then, everyone could see that the Internet was going to destroy what was left of history after Francis Fukuyama’s capitalist liberal democrats had finished with it. Freedom was about to triumph! Many of my classmates at the iSchool (that’s what schools of information call themselves) were going to go work for the likes of Facebook and Google as midwives for that technoutopia.
iSchool, as it happens, has something in common with divinity school. My college roommate had recently earned a Master of Divinity from the University of Chicago; she once told me that a large number of her classmates were atheists, driven precisely by their lack of faith to study religion academically. While at UMSI, I sometimes felt like one of those atheist students, studying a religion whose teachings I did not buy into.
This is despite the fact that I was raised in this church. I was a kid who, in 1997 at age 15, got to be on CNN’s Computer Connection. This was a show about the new and dazzling wonders of the Internet, with live scrolls through Netscape Navigator screenshots, narrated by cable news anchors who saw value in telling TV audiences what they could find if they got on line. The CNN team came to my house to interview me because one of my online series stories was about a set of septuplets, and it just so happened that a real set of septuplets was about to be born, and back then, a kid with a web page was newsworthy enough to serve as good filler until the babies actually arrived.
So I was a fan of the Internet way back in the day. When I first used the World Wide Web a couple years earlier, it had been immediately evident to me that I’d stumbled upon a tool that I could use to advance my personal mission to become a writer. In 1989, in a summer camp program as I waited to start second grade, I remember stapling together the waste computer paper that Dad donated to my school, making books that I’d then fill with stories; I remember saying as I did so that some day I hoped people around the world to be able to read what I wrote. I did not expect, being seven years old, that I would accomplish this before another decade had passed—and not because I was at all precocious, but because suddenly, bam!, this thing called the Internet showed up and made it possible for a kid to publish her work without needing the gatekeepers to make it possible. In the summer vacation just before I started high school, in 1996, I asked my dad, a computer programmer, how people put stuff on the Internet. He showed me how to FTP into the space provided by our ISP, and within a few days, my stories were on the Net, at http://www.id.net/~kmannist/septs.htm. I remember Dad telling me over the phone while he was at work that the URL was “tilda kmannist”; I spent the rest of his workday confused because I had no idea what a tilda was. When he got home he showed me the squiggle.
In his excellent book You Are Not a Gadget, Silicon Valley visionary Jaron Lanier observed that the best websites tend to be the personal projects of a single passionate person. I liked to think that my personal online project was an example of that, so it felt like a personal compliment. But I agree not only because I was flattered; much of the worthwhile content I see on the Internet even now is still the work of a passionate individual, or at least a small group of people working together on some shared interest, not in pursuit of profit. (And though I mention that primarily to reflect on the source of human creativity and not as a critique of capitalism, please feel free to extrapolate.)
Regardless of whether you want to run off to the economic left with me, surely you will agree that the creations made by individuals with a drive to create and share are bound to be different from those whose goal is to get bought out by Facebook. This is just one reason why I think the 1990s were the Golden Age of the Internet. If you were even alive and online at the time, think back to the days before monetization, before clickbait, before constant connection, before algorithms and filter bubbles, when it really was largely a sphere of personal projects connecting people over shared interests.
Apart from myself, who looks at the new Internet the way Pa Ingalls looked at the house in the Big Woods when too many people moved in, perhaps only a few would go back to hand-crafted HTML, Lpage guestbooks, and the inability to reach the Mannisto residence by phone because their teenage daughter was always on the Internet. (On that last note, I’ll readily grant that some things have improved.) One might also note that there are still people out there striving to keep up the kind of web sites that Lanier and I so admire, even if they have become relegated to the less visited corners of the World Wide Web, as our attention is captured and sold by brokers—a fact that is starting to upset more and more of us.
So I doubt that I’m the only one who thinks that our present age, circa 2018, is not a Golden Age, either. The Web, if anyone even calls it that anymore, no longer feels world wide, or at most, it only appears so from the top down, thanks to the international trolls who are regularly in the news. Instead of that sparsely populated digital frontier, we have a few large content corporations—Facebook epitomizes this group—who may be world wide, but they offer us a view that is more parochial than ever. We dwell in the filter bubbles they’ve built for us, and we see this (not without some justification) as a service because the web is so crowded that we don’t have enough attention for everyone we encounter, so we must depend on others to curate it for us. Moreover, today, in place of a small group of people who are dedicated enough to some passion to put in the effort of constructing a small camp for it on the vast expanse of the Net, everyone is more or less expected to have some online presence, and what’s more, to be cranking out content repeatedly so as not to be swallowed up and lost amidst all the other voices. Businesses. Brands. Campaigns. Lonely college kids with no social status. Grandma. These people may not have anything in particular to say, but they tweet and snap and blog and vlog so as to assert their continued relevance. If they deactivate their account, they might think, they deactivate their relevance. But to be relevant means that Mark Zuckerberg has a file on you, and he is not your friend.
No, this is not a Golden Age.
You readers may question the point of indulging in this nostalgia. Even if I were to convince you that the 1990s really were a golden age, I have no time machine to transport us all back.
But the questioning has been fruitful for me. What was the Internet doing for me back then that I perceived as empowering? What is it doing for me now that I perceive as limiting?
And here is why, rather than trying to convince you of how wonderful the 1990s were for creative kids, I would rather ask you: when was the Internet the most engaging, the most enriching, the most empowering, the most enjoyable, the least burdensome for you, and why? What worked for you then? What do you miss? Even if some things may not have been quite perfect, why was that, on balance, a healthier time? What trade-offs did you make? Were they worth it? Which ones weren’t? Or perhaps you actually think that 2018 is the best year yet in Internet history!
If you can answer those questions, I’d wager that you’re on the way to returning to using the Internet as a tool to improve, not degrade, your quality of life. There will still be network effects and the attendant peer pressure; there will still be Silicon Valley magnates trying to manipulate your dopamine and direct your behavior in ways that you actually don’t like when you stop to think about it. Knowing what a Golden Age would be for you, whether or not it’s ever come to pass, will give you your own personal compass, to help you navigate your own digital life.
In some upcoming posts, I’ll dig a bit deeper into what worked for me back then, and what’s particularly tough for me and others I see right now. In the meantime, I’d love to know what you think: when would you describe as the Golden Age of the Internet, and why?
This page still best viewed with a
Netscape-era sense of agency.