Everyone who’s spent more than a few months “on the internet” knows (hopefully) that there are certain behavioral norms & expectations that ought to be observed in order to keep things civil. For example… DON’T TYPE IN ALL CAPS BECAUSE IT WILL LOOK LIKE YOU’RE YELLING or “It’s impossible to prevent this indefinitely, but let’s do our best to keep online discussions from getting to the point where both sides are comparing each other to Hitler for as long as possible.”
These aren’t “laws” per se, because (excuse my capitalization, but I really do want to yell this) NOBODY OWNS THE INTERNET, but they’re almost as universal as any law could ever hope to be. However, if you’ll refer back to my first sentence, please notice that I’ve qualified things by excluding those with “less than a few months” of online experience from being expected to know all these ins and outs.
Seems kind of preposterous today, since kids are now being exposed to the internet as soon as their parents realize that iPhones are more effective pacifiers than anything else yet devised, but try (if you can) to recall a time when this wasn’t the case. It was only 10 or 15 years ago. When did you first encounter email? Instant messaging? Chat rooms? Forums? Was it in high school? College? Jr. High? Until 1993 most people weren’t exposed to any of these until they got to college.
Every September, a new crop of freshmen were turned loose on the internet (or, as it was known in those days, “The Information Superhighway”) and left to fend for themselves amongst a puzzling variety of obscure protocols and acronyms that were only increasing in number. FTP, WWW, WAIS, Gopher, USENET, TCP/IP, etc. But at least they were all in it together. Once a few people clicked “Reply All” and alerted the entire Psych 101 class to their embarrassing weekend exploits the word got around, and by Thanksgiving most everyone had come to understand the basics “DOs and DON’Ts” of online etiquette. Things had returned to a sort of equilibrium.
So what happened in 1993? Well as those of you were too young to be in college at that point (myself included) will recall, it was then that our friends at America On-Line realized that their thriving floppy-disk distribution racket might be aided by including access to this “internet thing” along with your paid, dial-up subscription. And so they began allowing their members to browse not just the walled garden of AOL content, but also the internet itself: web, newsgroups & all.
Every day, more people downloaded the latest AOL system update (do you remember how long it took via 28.8 modem?) and decided to try clicking on the “Newsgroups” link that appeared on their next login. Every day AOL sent out more floppy disks & CD-ROMs. Every day more people joined the service. High-school students, 10-year-olds, cat ladies, construction workers, aging musicians and tax collectors, disgruntled postal workers, you name it. Do you see where I’m going with this?
Post-1993, there could be no equilibrium. Probably there never really was, but in any case… things changed. While some traditions were preserved (I.E. NOT USING CAPS LOCK) many others were forgotten or permanently altered by the influx of new users. Books & CDs became available for purchase. Magazines & newspapers could be read online. High-school & college kids started publishing their own websites & using the internet in ways that it’s previous inhabitants could never have predicted. Many long-time internet users recognized this sea-change & called it “Eternal September“.
But, and this is the important part, this is *exactly* what was supposed to happen. The internet in general, and the web in particular, were designed from the ground up so that it was as easy to publish and share content as it was to consume it. The very first web browser, as created by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in Switzerland was *also* a web editor. The web is a LEGO set and while it’s fun to follow the instructions and apply all the LucasFilm-licensed decals, it’s even *more* fun to stick Chewbacca’s head on Darth Vader’s body and put him inside a rainbow-colored jail surrounded by strange mutant trees.
A person who fell into a coma in 1965 and awoke in 1985 would probably have few problems understanding how the television in their hospital room worked. You turn it on, change the channels and wait for the commercials to end so that you can get back to the good stuff. But a person who missed out on even 4 or 5 years of the internet’s development would be significantly more confused. YouTube was founded in 2005. Facebook opened to non-academic users in 2006.
How did you first find out about Napster? BitTorrent? Yelp? MetaFilter? Wikipedia? Amazon? Google!? Chances are it wasn’t in a magazine or on a TV news report. Probably a friend or family member said “You gotta check this out.” And it turned out they were right. Things kept changing. You listened to music you’d never heard about before, read newspapers from other countries, bought a digital camera and started posting your photos online. People in Israel thought they were cool. Things kept changing.
Sometimes you weren’t sure if you *liked* the way things were changing. Your boss started reading your blog. All the photos you took with your ex kept showing up on Facebook. People started downloading the movies that your studio produced without paying for them. Was there anything that could be done to stop this? Who was in charge around here?!
Here’s the thing. You are in charge. I am in charge. We are all in charge of it together, but it is owned by none of us. In the absence of any (real) governing body, we have all managed to find a way to co-exist and use the internet together in (relative) peace and harmony. How? Why? Because on some individual level, each of us has made a decision that goes something like this:
The usefulness of being an accepted part of this community outweighs the risks or negative consequences of choosing to participate.
Of course… it’s not entirely that simple. Some people are forced to participate against their will (“Hey dude, don’t tag me in that Facebook photo”) or make decisions that they will later regret (“No, actually. In spite of those pictures of me smoking weed and wearing a Megadeth Rules t-shirt taken 12 years ago, I think I would make a great addition to the teaching staff here at Pleasantville High School!”) But, just as we were on those pre-1993 Septembers of old, all of us are in this together, and by the time “Thanksgiving” rolls around I think it will all start making a lot more sense. After all, as painful as it may be in the moment, humans are unparalleled in their ability to adapt to change.
However, there are certain institutions and entities that are not so adaptable. For instance, corporations, banks and governments. These have all been organized (at least recently) on the basis of predictable inputs and outcomes. Entire books have been written on the subject of their inflexibility, and whether anything can be done about it. It seems to me that we are starting to find out.
About 7 or 8 years ago I read an article in this weird Canadian technology magazine that ended up going out of business several weeks later. The article was about a bunch of the same things that I’ve talked about here and there was one bit in it that always stuck with me. I lost track of the magazine for years, and despite a number of attempts to track it down online, it wasn’t until recently that I found it in an old box of books and finally got a chance to re-read it. I’ll just paste it in here so you can see for yourself, copyright be damned…
And what the heck, I’m in a charitable mood so let me fire up the old scanner and share the rest of the article with you as well.