What the internet used to be
I usually feel like an old man when I remind myself that it's been over 20 years since my mom bought the first family desktop computer in 1998. I don't remember much about the specifications other than the computer was a Compaq with a 3GB hard drive, which the salesman assured my mother was plenty of space, an amount that we would never fill. The computer set my mom back about $1,200. Fast forward to 2019 and my $250 Android phone has 4GB of RAM and an uncompressed 2-hour Blu-Ray movie is over 30GB. The computer salesman obviously didn't foresee the changes in technology when he made his pitch.
The computer came with a 56k dial-up modem, so it made sense to get internet service. The boonies of North Louisiana are not early adopters of the latest technology, so we could subscribe to only 28.8k service. However, in reality, we were excited if we got a 19200 bps connection. At those speeds, we weren't exactly surfing the World Wide Web, but we were able to crawl along it. How spoiled I am now with my 200 Mbps option.
Looking back, it's pretty obvious that I was addicted to the computer and the internet. Actually, I knew it even at the time, but I didn't care. I spent every free moment basking in the glow of the CRT monitor. I did so to escape the village I called home. (Yes, with a population of few than 500 people, my hometown was actually a village.) Napster alone was a godsend, as the local radio stations played the same five bands on repeat every single day. That's why to this day I'm burned out on Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, Guns N Roses, Van Halen, and Bon Jovi. The computer screen (and eventually the phone screen and the tablet screen) became a means to escape into a far more interesting world.
Ample time away has made me realize that my hometown wasn't that bad; such thinking is too binary. But it was not a place I wanted to stay any longer than necessary. I wanted more than my hometown could offer. I wanted a diversity of personalities and diversity in things that really mattered to me: music, movies, books, and ideas. And all of that was available with a computer and the World Wide Web.
At the approach of the new millennium, the internet was a new digital frontier in the infant stages of realizing its potential. Before we were always connected via our cell phones and IoT devices, we had to throw ourselves into a mess of really bad personal webpages with autoplaying MIDI files courtesy of GeoCities and Angelfire. In the absence of social media, we met new people in various chat rooms and programs. If we made a new friend, we shared our AIM usernames or ICQ numbers. You weren't really sure who was on the others side of the computer screen, but often that wasn't what really mattered. It was more about the personality lost with you in cyberspace.
A new internet
That seemed to change with the mass adoption of Facebook. The early days of Facebook were cool if you were a college kid. The model of exclusivity that made Facebook interesting ultimately was not very profitable, so Facebook understandably shifted to a strategy focused on inclusion. Eventually everyone jumped on board. Your parents. Your grandparents. Your co-workers. That weird kid who moved after second grade you'd have forgotten about if not for that rumor that he ate boogers and drank puddle water. You were now connected online to people you were already connected with offline. Instead of finding interesting strangers, we're following brands and celebrities that we have little chance of truly connecting with.
The funny thing about the tools of Internet 2.0 that are meant to connect us is that they often leave us feeling isolated. It's the digital equivalent of feeling alone in a room full of people.
The sense of community of Internet 1.0 is gone. The mainstream social platforms (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) are so full of noise that it's difficult to extract anything of value. The fun of Internet 1.0 was stumbling onto something cool and worth sharing. Even though the world is at our fingertips or in a rectangle in our pockets, it's hard to identify harmony in all the noise.
A new hope
This is one reason I fled to Mastodon and more specifically to writing.exchange, an instance that allows for only 1,000 users. I enjoy that feeling of being in with the out crowd. I want to be on platforms that people want to be part of, not networks that people feel an obligation to join in order to satisfy their FOMO.
I also enjoy the sense of community that write.as has created with read.write.as, a feed of the latest public blog posts published on its platform. And even though reddit is hardly obscure to the mainstream, I do appreciate that each subreddit is its own community.
To be clear, it's not as if I want anyone to be excluded from a platform. I want everyone to have the opportunity to join. I just have little desire to be where everyone is. At some point, the increase in users stops adding value and at another point, an increase in users actually starts subtracting value. And the platform becomes more of a distraction than anything else.
From time to time, I will hear old hipsters say that modern day New York is too commercial, too corporate. I have to take their word for it as I've never been to the Big Apple, but their complaints about New York sound incredibly similar to my complaints about the modern internet: hip localities ruined by globalization, old hotbeds of creativity and artistry now look like anywhere else, and places once intensified by uncertainty and the chance for adventure now feel sterile in comparison. I am not an anti-capitalist, so I don't fault anyone for maximizing his own profits. I just don't want my options to be only color-by-number copies of each other.
I am not advocating that we should return to an Internet 1.0 or pre-internet world. I do not wish that the internet's capabilities had stalled. I benefit from the advances and do not seek to limit anyone's options. I just want to recapture the sense of community that I fell in love with 20+ years ago. I'm not concerned about sharing the digital space with the masses because I don't need another reminder that we don't naturally mesh. We often do not share similar interests, so I prefer to find personalities with which I have some things in common.
I want an internet that inspires me again. But maybe the problem isn't the internet. Maybe I am in fact an old man, destined to one day receive the Millennial equivalent of the “OK boomer” treatment.