Of course there’s no such thing as a Golden Age–some forgotten time in the medium-past where things were unambiguously better. The past is full of backwards savages and hard living. And even so, you can’t go home.
But I’ve got this suspicion that back in my day the Internet was better. It didn’t take itself too seriously, and so was actually worth while. But at some point in the last decade (maybe earlier) things changed for the worse. The Internet, like all the rest of the world, just isn’t what it could be–what it should be!
I’m being at least a little hipstery here–it was cool before it was cool, but now it’s uncool because it’s popular. But the truth is, the crappiness that is Facebook is just a reflection of a large swath of consumers. And I’m allowed to opt out.
Sitting on the Internet at the start of 2020, I feel like I’m sure I would have in 1970. Everything is bullshit and I don’t want anything to do with it. I want to buy a school bus and drive to some part of the country nobody cares about and start a farm. Of course the truth is, I really have no business going back to the land. I’ve taken up gardening as a hobby and learned that it’s hard.
But I do have this imagined past on the Internet I can attempt to go back to. I’m going to make an effort to return to the Internet of the early 2000’s. The Internet that Craigslist (for example) still protects–simple, excellent, and not trying to eat the world.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to use the Big Corporate Internet. I’m only imagining my packets being sent via artisinal servers lovingly tended to by ye olde sysadmin.
What made the Small Internet great was the artisinal content. Weird stuff made and shared by weird people. That stuff is still out there. The Big Internet filters still capture it sometimes. But the marketers have gotten to the filters that used to serve us so well. Reddit just isn’t the same as a Conde Nast property.
One move I’ve made is to join MetaFilter, a social media site that goes back to 1999! So far it’s been a delightful place (without sucking me in the way Reddit used to). Hitting the random button brought me Where’s Wallace–an homage to The Wire, which is still worth re-watching. A more recent post introduced me to an excellent advent calendar that brought more new and weird things across my radar.
Why should this experiment matter?
Partly this is an act of civil society. It’s not all markets and government out there. We’ve got this space to share and improve our public spaces. The Internet is one of those spaces and my Small Internet project is sort of like making an effort to walk through my neighborhood instead of just going back and forth from the freeway.
It’s also an exercise in questioning implicit assumptions in how I engage with this part of the world.
I like Stephen Wolfram‘s notion of exploring the computational universe for useful programs. You don’t even need to take a metaphorical leap in applying the idea to media consumption habits. There’s a lot more “content” (facts, opinions, entertainment, editorial judgement, comments sections, provocations, etc.) out there than I can (or want to) deal with. So I have to choose some sort of filter. Once upon a time, Facebook was a great filter, then Reddit, but now I want to try something different.
I don’t exactly know what I’m looking for yet. But I’m going to wander off into the computational universe in search of a better Internet, less encumbered with the interests of behemoths and more closely tied with serendipity, good humor, and those weird human things that made the back-in-my-day-Internet so much better.