Grieving the Early Internet 💾#

This is a topic I’ve wanted to write about for a while; and one for which I had way too many references stored. Until now, I hadn’t found a way to jump-start my internal monologue on the matter and spur the necessary motivation to put my thoughts to paper. That, however, changed last week when I engaged in a couple of conversations online on HackerNews [1] and Tildes[2] about the openness and diversity of our present-day Internet.

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Carta Marina: Olaus Magnus, 1539#

Introduction#

I couldn’t help but stop and ponder for a bit when I came across the question mentioned earlier on HackerNews. A user asked whether there was “a list of non-monetised, non-closed-ecosystem websites” and lamented:

I have rose-tinted glasses for the good old days of the internet where everyone just made sites for fun rather than as “side hustles”. Sites which didn’t have monetisation or adverts or analytics gubbins all bundled in or blogs which aren’t hosted on closed ecosystems like medium or substack etc. Is there a good source for finding these rare spaces again?

I too remember, albeit faintly, what computers and the Internet felt like as a kid in the Medellín of the late ’90s and early 2000s. Of course, and as you might expect from today’s point of view, everything was slow. The computer took a long while to boot, the browser took its time to start, the dial-up connection needed to be established and was, as you’d guess, slow (30kbit/s if I remember correctly). Moreover, surf-time was spent sparingly, as most kids bought prepaid internet access from a local provider such as Geonet, and the connection could be inadvertently interrupted whenever grandma got a call. Despite all of its quirks, the early version of the Internet was exhilarating.

The Internet then and now#

I’ve long thought about why the Internet of old felt that way while, for the most part, our present-day Internet doesn’t, and I have arrived at three conclusions.

Firstly, computers and the Internet were new to our family and exploring them as well as “mastering” them, whatever that meant, was a bonding experience for us.

Second of all, most of us didn’t know what we were doing, but we were still doing something with it which was useful to us; whether it was searching for recipes, connecting with strangers on AOL rooms or looking for ways to beat murderous Gandhi in Civilization III.

Finally, it felt chaotic; more so to folk unfamiliar with the ideas and systems that powered it while trying, at the same time, to understand what it could possibly be good for.

Lately I’ve become interested in Self Determination Theory (SDT) [3], and, at least to me, it seems like the early version of the Internet covered, partially of course, all three fundamental human psychological needs according to SDT: autonomy, competence and relatedness. We explored it on our own terms, got progressively better at leveraging it to fulfill arbitrary goals of ours, and, most importantly, this was all a highly social activity since most of your peers had embarked on the same journey or you interacted with people throughout the planet wo did.

Those three core needs offer a good, general, framework for understanding human motivation and why toying with the Internet at the time might have felt exciting, but I am of the opinion a fundamental aspect is missing which brings about drastic changes to any human endeavor: money and recognition. The art of personally profiting from the Internet wasn’t understood and much less well established. In other words: to most of us the Internet was a hobby, highly interesting and engaging for those curious about that “new frontier”, but a hobby nonetheless. The Internet costed money, for most of us it wasn’t a way to earn it.

The effects of money, both less and more of it, on social interaction are the subject of many interesting studies and I’m neither qualified nor well-read enough to discuss that at length here. Nevertheless, I came across “The Pursuit of Happiness: Time, Money, and Social Connection” [4] and belive it is worth mentioning here. This is its abstract, so you can get a sense for what the authors were after:

Does thinking about time, rather than money, influence how effectively individuals pursue personal happiness? Laboratory and field experiments revealed that implicitly activating the construct of time motivates individuals to spend more time with friends and family and less time working—behaviors that are associated with greater happiness. In contrast, implicitly activating money motivates individuals to work more and socialize less, which (although productive) does not increase happiness.

Without discussing diving to deep into the theses presented in the article, some of the points made by the authors seem like they support my claim about how a growing perception of the Internet as a means to generate profit, by corporations and individuals, have hurt its previously predominant perception and adoption as a creative outlet. Nowadays, however, the Internet constitutes a fundamental tool in everyone’s efforts to sustain yourself financially. We’ve adapted quickly to research and study using the Internet, also to find work as well as fullfil our duties with its help; some unscrupulous folk even use it to scam and rob others. Furthermore, what would become of us without the ability to run errands through, you guessed it, the Internet? The list goes on, but I hope the point I’m trying to make is clear: the Internet is no longer Terra Incognita. To most of us it’s actually the opposite: omnipresent. Perhaps that’s one of main reasons, if not the main factor, behind the Internet morphing into a corpocratic wasteland and partially losing it appeal.

Having said that, I’m certain, as I hope you are, the Internet is very much still being used as a creative outlet by millions to our collective benefit. After all, our present-day Internet continues to make us aware of otherwise unknown comedians, illustrators, painters, singers, dancers, writers, and more who eventually rise to fame. Therefore, perhaps a better title for this post would have been “Grieving the Average Internet Experience of the ’90s”. To me it seems that our increasing perception of the Internet as predictable and sterile says more about our own behavioral patterns and motivations, such that the very moment some palatable, yet boring, alternatives to the chaotic Internet of old such as Facebook as well as Instagram emerged we all simply flocked to them.

As I mentioned elsewhere[5], there will always be another social media corporation looking to grab our attention and one which will decide, due to greed or ignorance, to shaft us, its users. I am, for the most part, a capitalist, but I firmly believe capital has no place, at least explicitly, in human connection. We should never let capital become the sole determining means nor the sole motivation behind human interaction. Unfortunately, that’s what we do, every time, over and over again. If there ever was a so-called golden era of blogs and alternative news sources, there can be one once again. Yes, we’ve become a tad complacent, but that doesn’t mean we can’t bring it back.

Final Remarks#

I hope you enjoyed this post and are feeling less fatalistic about the future of the Internet! If you want to be notified when I write something new, feel free to join the newsletter. Finally, and as always, don’t hesitate to share your feedback with me via social media or email.

Acknowledgements#

Last, but surely not least, I’d like to thank Lara for her honest and always kind feedback as well as lively discussion regarding this post’s first draft.

Footnotes#