I embraced social media early and indiscriminately. With ardent curiosity beginning with Twitter in 2007, I collected profile pages like trophies, staking my user name and avatar into every new social territory I could find.
I did this like it was my job. In a way it was: I figured I should know how other design teams were inventing novel ways to gather communities online. Only now do I see these platforms weren’t just building communities, they were establishing products on the backs of communities at the expense of privacy.
Now, in 2019, things have changed. Design ethics conversations are frequent. We have elevated the “product designer” job title as if everything we design is now a product. I’m complicit in that productization of the internet (aren’t we all?). Russian meddling and the rise of deepfakes have opened our eyes to how indiscriminate sharing can hurt society at large — in particular the vulnerable. There have been so many brilliant exposés on these topics that I’m embarrassed it took me this long to wake up.
The dark outside
Yancey Strickler, cofounder of Kickstarter, wrote recently about the “Dark Forest Theory of the Internet” — how, as we have become more digitally savvy, we also more acutely fear the dangers of living online, and we mitigate this fear with self-censorship, like prey hiding from nocturnal predators in the dead of night. His is an insightful piece painting a somber picture of the web beyond what I could have conceived, yet I recognize in it what I had been feeling earlier this year: a prolonged anxiety of waiting to be eaten alive. I have found that what I’d internalized as a personal crisis of confidence could be felt the internet over.
Strickler confesses his own personal unease online and describes his self-imposed exit from social networks. In his words:
The internet of today is a battleground. The idealism of the ’90s web is gone. The web 2.0 utopia — where we all lived in rounded filter bubbles of happiness — ended with the 2016 Presidential election when we learned that the tools we thought were only life-giving could be weaponized too.
Like Strickler, I buy into the fear of an internet that has fundamentally changed since its inception. On a large scale I fear the internet both as an echo chamber and as a monolith; it was always its diversity and democratic exposure of the somewhat unbelievable that made the internet a vibrant place. Without that I’m unsure what’s left.
The flash of light
It is nothing new to live with the downsides of our connected world. In the early days of social media, countless articles were published about our paradoxical rise in isolation. From “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” published way back in 2012 in The Atlantic:
We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are. We were promised a global village; instead we inhabit the drab cul-de-sacs and endless freeways of a vast suburb of information.
As a first-generation digital native (right on the cusp), I understand that the internet-driven social and intellectual awakening I experienced when I was younger was absolutely real — and that my current dissatisfaction online is also real. I understand that something remarkable and unlikely was happening on the internet as I was growing up. It was a pivotal moment in the history of the web at a pivotal moment in the history of Me.
In the ’90s to 2000s there was a flash of bright light on the internet that is perhaps now finally fading.
Still, in moments alone I find myself wanting to participate online. To belong. To connect. To help. I wonder if there is a way back to the connective tissue of digital communities. It is why I am here on Medium as a subscribed reader, clapping away my membership fee to ensure other writers are paid. The light is not so bright, but still it trickles through the trees.
The bright inside
While I was mulling over the state of my online affairs back in December, I read “The Good Room” by Frank Chimero, in which he likens the internet to how we have intentionally built (and sometimes abandoned) beauty in public spaces like the New York Public Library and Penn Station. He posits:
If technology is a place where we live, a place that we carry around with us, shouldn’t we choose to be in lively and nourishing digital environments?
Chimero implies we have a choice in all this. How do we show up and build together toward beauty? Do we withdraw and “exercise our right to stay silent” as Strickler writes, or do we own the medium, write for ourselves, and experiment without measure?
Strickler, too, seems to believe we have a choice. He writes:
We can’t lurk in the dark forests and expect anything to change for the better. To improve and positively contribute to the communities and cultures we’re a part of, we have to actively engage.
Perhaps we may not be able to decide the fate of entire platforms, but it does seem we can more easily control our own individual digital landscapes. That earlier article from The Atlantic didn’t take long to be lambasted in Slate: “Like any tool, [social media’s] effectiveness will depend on its user. How we use these technologies can lead to more integration, rather than more isolation.”
It is how we use the internet that determines its usefulness. Perhaps this has always been so, but it is even more true now.
I have to wonder if that flash of innovative and energetic bright light from when I was younger is amping up again. Day by day we seem to better understand the internet’s effect on our humanity. We seem to use it more intentionally, more intelligently. Far less indiscriminately.
And if we keep doing that individually, what will be the net effect? I’m here, wholeheartedly, to find out.