Broken Promises of the Internet, Part I: Community, Schmommunity

I'm old enough to remember when the "Internet" was a thing of pure potential. Its John-the-Baptists painted pictures of what would be possible once a sufficient number of brains were hardwired into the system. But what was not apparent in those early days was that these dreamers were secretly hippies, terminally optimistic about the potential interactions of technology, commerce, and human nature.

They promised us a digital Eden, and what we got was a strip mall garden center. I'm here to officially complain.

"It will be a social boon and community-builder"

The Internet certainly has allowed new communities to form and for like-minded people to find out they are not alone in their mindedness. Like all large communities, the continued flow of thought amongst its members produces an internal churn which prevents stasis but also prevents lasting unity. The communities subdivide and splinter at a rate proportional to the flow of information, like liver cells dividing in the presence of sugar, until participation in the communities becomes defined by a pervasive narcissism of minor differences. Whereas membership in the group used to principally be about what we had in common, now it is about what we spend our time arguing about. One need look no further than the science fiction community for an example.

But even as each new subculture establishes its identity, the Internet's lauded transparency (originally the mechanism by which members found each other) now allows those outside, who have no interest in joining the group, to look in. Who (other than an anthropologist) would want to observe a subculture they have no interest in joining? A capitalist, that's who.

As the Internet's denizens self-organize into interest blocs, those on the outside see only another lever with which to pry into our wallets. Communities and subcultures are commoditized almost as quickly as they form, and the sooner you can figure out what to sell to a subculture, the cooler your company will seem. This has always been the case of course (I'm looking at you, Hot Topic), but the difference now is that the marketers don't have to wait for "news" of the new hidden trends to trickle to them through the verbal cultural grapevines.

Soon, the group's consumerist tendencies are perceived to be a defining characteristic of group membership, and cargo cults evolve which attempt to buy their way into the group by spending like the group spends (or like corporations say that they spend). The "geek" subculture reached the apotheosis of this trend with the advent of the ready-made group membership kit, complete with items stripped of context and caché but with market-research-validated ties to one particular definition of the label.

Again, this has always been the pattern ever since the invention of Madison Avenue: try to make your product seem "cool" according to the definition of one (or perhaps simultaneously many) different popular, money-having subcultures. The problem is that the community-building power and infrastructures provided by the Internet allow outsider, context-bereft, and (let's just say it) predatory forces to more effectively predate on the various groups it wants to consume.

The Internet is bringing people together and then showing marketers what they like to buy. This is not what I was promised. Our Internet was to be a peaceful communion of minds, paid for by people who wanted to consume the content, paid to those who produced it.

Somewhere along the way, a giant vacuum hose was attached to the lobe in our brains that cannot resist free stuff, and through it was sucked the simple, beautiful way we'd always imagined it would be when we finally found "our people". It sucked out our idealism along with our willingness to fight for it, and in its place it left a Ziploc bag full of tiny plastic toys with stickers on them saying "Free!" and "Sign up for our newsletter!". Thanks a lot.

Broken Promises of the Internet, Part 2: The Speed of Light is Slower Than My Car