Yahooligans to Decentralized Communist Internet

Over the past few weeks, I have really enjoyed reading all the articles about how the web has evolved and some of the nostalgia to past times. It has led me to question whether I’m nostalgic for anything on the web.

To be honest, for the first few years of getting my computer, I used it for Microsoft Word and playing CD-ROM games. In terms of the web, I remember it was connected to dial-up internet. I definitely do not miss that. There was also that fun search engine, Yahooligans, that I was taught to only use.

Though it looks fun, what we have now with Google is a million times better.  I remember it taking 30 minutes to download one song through Lime Wire. Not fun. I remember MSN Chat fondly. But I still do the same stuff now just on Facebook messenger instead. AIso I have the added bonus of video chatting and calling. And selfie filters.

I was still a kid when the Web was becoming widespread and I didn’t really use or understand its full potential or what people were hoping to do with it. I definitely wasn’t thinking critically about it. So reading articles from those who used the Internet as adults is really interesting. Similar to learning history, it is important to know what the Internet was like. So I don’t mind these nostalgia pieces. Even if they do romanticize it a bit – but that goes hand in hand with nostalgia.

Ther user-experience, user-interface, the speed, and our global connectedness has definitely improved over the years (at least I think so). I don’t mind the commercial aspect of the web as long as there’s transparency. Many of my friends have made a living off of the web by building an audience and selling content and I commend them for it.

I think what’s important to keep in mind is that these articles on the past are useful tools in looking towards and shaping the future. What comes next? In the Alex Singh twitter thread, there were some ideas thrown around: “decentralized communist internet”, “Industrialized internet”, “a shift to smaller communal and more personal or private online experiences”.   Looking at one of the B-side readings there was an article about peer-to-peer community run networks. The idea of looking back to the past to form a new future is highlighted in this quote:

“One thing that inspires me is that the original idea of the internet was a network of networks,” Hall says. “Different organizations like universities or the Defense Department would form their own network, and then they would join them together, and that is how the internet formed. We’re just getting back to the idea. We formed a network, and we join our network with other networks, and get rid of the ISP layer that we don’t really need.”

Using an idea from the past, people have been able to create their own mesh networks, changing the current systems in place.

I believe the same thing is happening with some new innovations such as Web 3.0 or decentralizing the web. In this Guardian article, it explains how Tim Berners-Lee (the founder of the web) is coming up with technology to store our data so that it remains our property. We are then able to move it around to different apps and websites without surrendering any control. It seems like a reinvention of what the web used to be where people owned their content and there was more privacy involved, just with some new technology.

I’m generally someone who enjoys change. So I’m looking forward to what the future has in store for the web. In the grand scheme of things, we’ve only had the web for such a short amount of time so we need time to make mistakes, improve, make mistakes again, and keep it evolving.

There’s No Place Like (A Digital) Home


When the web was in its nascent years I was too young to understand the possibilities it held. Although I did grow up digitally, and I think it helped that my dad was a computer programmer and our basement was packed full of PCs (at least 6 or 7) that he was constantly rolling his chair back and forth to. The whir of the fans was audible from the hall. Aside from coding he also ran a blog, one of those original blogs that Kottke reminisces over. According to my mom it was a place for him to vent and rant about all the things he disliked about the world, and there were other bloggers who hyperlinked to him and joined in the conversation. These are the times Derakhshan, Kottke, Meyer and Kolbert are nostalgic for, that they remember as golden years where the web was the next open space to pioneer. My personal anecdote was taking place in the late 90s and early 2000s to give context. To me, reflecting back on this now I see my dad as the equivalent to a cranky old man yelling at the kids to get off his lawn (digitally). At the time, I was none the wiser and was tinkering away on my own digital expeditions, dutifully typing in the URLs I knew by heart to take me to the websites deemed safe by my parents.

Since I was five-years-old I was learning the way of the World Wide Web and discovering the places I fit in. There was always something tangible about the web for me, that each webpage had its own feeling and some were more welcoming than others, so when reading Frank Chimero’s “The Good Room” I deeply identified with connecting physical space with digital space. At eight-years old I was already coding my Neopets page to my liking with simple HTML (putting in a little MP3 player, changing the background and type colour etc). At 10-years-old I was starting to explore beyond the designated websites to meet my curiosity and needs. I was (and am) a writer, and I wanted to find other writers because I wanted to get feedback and not feel like I was just writing into the void. A need to find a digital space that meets my current creative needs is always what has pushed me to migrate from platform to platform.

This is when I found a community of writing RPGs, where you could collaborate with other writers and develop your characters in the agreed upon setting. The platform we used was a repurposed chat-board (for the life of me I can’t remember the platform’s name), but the URL would look like www.RPG_name.platformname.com. There were limits with the look and construction of the website, but as I got older and found more digitally experienced communities it went from the default structure and colours, to a more customized platform where programmers had worked their magic with HTML to the point where these platforms barely retained their original structure. Of course, this added to the “feel” of the place, but what made the website home or not was the community who existed on the platform. We never knew each others real names, only our created monikers (which is a whole other tangent I could go on, about having the ability to rename yourself and create a persona that you want without judgment). But what we did know, was that we were a supportive network of likeminded writers who helped each other hone our writing styles. Where are they now, who knows? And those URLs have long since expired or turned to digital ghost towns.

With the fallout of these RPGs I migrated to Tumblr at 15-years-old, where I began to code the digital nook I’d carved out for myself. The complaint here, as discussed by Alex Singh, is that this nook isn’t really mine, that this nook that I’d created really belonged to Tumblr and I was a visiting guest while they profited off the content I created. Which is true, because look at that nook now. Since Tumblr went on a censorship kick it removed over half of the content I’d curated, and so what if I’d spent hours coding my “blog” to look and feel the way I wanted it to because Tumblr didn’t care. They don’t care about artists’ creative expression or the need to have a community to express that, all they (aka Yahoo, who owns them) care about is turning a profit and getting back on the App Store. These benevolent overlords are only benevolent so long as it serves them, and this is what happens when they decide a venture is no longer profitable: you get kicked off your digital plot of land. Now here I am, wandering the digital landscape again. I’ve been a nomad all my life, and the metaphor I’d use is more like a traveling bard hopping from village to village… and moving on when I either get evicted or the village burns down.

As time goes on I find myself seeking more and more “open” spaces where I’m free to build the place and community that I like, or to at least create my space where an already established community exists. This is why I currently feel un-homed, because for the first time in nearly 20-years I don’t have a digital space that feels like my own. Alex Singh’s twitter thread claims that we’re working under a digital feudal system––Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. where we create the content and the platform reaps the reward. Alex pines for the time of digital nomads, where we were free to roam. I can understand the desire to have a non-commercialized webspace that is that limitless space of possibilities it once claimed to be, instead of feeling like your choices are limited to bouncing between the various social networks. Because what happens when you don’t fit into one of those networks? Where does your digital-self belong? I’m still searching.

I Can’t Believe this Digital Feudalism is Free

The metaphor that resonated the most with me this week was Alex Singh’s analogy of the internet transforming over the span of 25 years from nomadic culture to a “mostly agrarian one.” An agrarian society involves the cultivation of the land. Singh notes the transition from HTML-only sites to CSS and JS, citing it as a move that shifted the power from the masses to the privileged and elite few. Initially, web users used to navigate from link to link, and site to site discovering new content. In this sense, the web used to be boundless. In utilizing medieval terminology for the analogy, Singh equates the emerging elite class with the “literate Priesthood,” arguing that the few at the top of the hierarchy can build, interface, and moderate the web, but the vast majority of users are “peasants” whose labour is exploited by the lords of the land, and whose convenience comes at the cost of their freedom.

 

Countless times on twitter and Facebook I have encountered posts where people remarked “I can’t believe this website is free.” It is possible some users mean it in an ironic way, but the reality is that most major platforms are not transparent about how they monetize their platform and what we, the lowly peasants, are sacrificing without our knowledge. The analogy makes me think deeper of how platform creators regard their own user-base and where the value of that platform is really generated from. Dragging Tumblr into the conversation once more, I cannot help but compare it to platforms like Youtube. I once read a post where users complained that Tumblr was the worst platform to invest one’s time into – unlike Youtube, where users can make a living off subscriptions, or Instagram where users can get sponsorships and leverage their popularity, Tumblr offers no monetary reward to its producers.

The platform is monetized through ads, but none of those funds are circulated to its content creators. Another Tumblr user complained that her posts had been screenshotted and shared on other platforms, including Buzzfeed, with listicle writers making a profit off of the free labour she has been providing for years. Tumblr’s userbase is becoming increasingly aware of their exploited labour while platform owner Yahoo becomes increasingly aware of how unprofitable it is to be the feudal lord or king of Tumblr. Yahoo’s likely solution? Abandon the land altogether or poison it until the peasants grow dissatisfied enough to migrate to the land of another lord.

For Tumblr, the greatest resource to mine is attention. But Facebook and Twitter have thrived at monetizing not only attention, but also data. We users, the peasants (or serfs), are creating videos, art, stories, and all while surrendering data to our lords (platforms) who are siphoning that data and monetizing it. As Zach Scott and Singh point out, this process is neither fully consensual nor voluntary. The “give me all your data so that I can sell it” part is usually buried in fine print. Any time people start mass migrating to a new platform, or a platform changes its rules and regulations (whether discreetly or publicly), there are usually a small group of users who take the time to thoroughly read through the policies before vocally raising flags about clauses and terms that the vast majority of us would have never noticed. In 2018, Tumblr released a safe mode that by default set every user account to hide any potential adult content. It was users who brought this new feature to light and who shared information on how to disable it. Another example is Snapchat, an app that surprised users by adding a feature that automatically tracks users’ locations and display them on a map. This, too, can be disabled, but the fact it is the default setting makes it ethically questionable. A user’s freedom to make choices about their privacy or online experience has been abused by lords who value their users only as labourers.

As Singh mentions in his tweet thread, there is also class and accessibility to consider. With websites shifting to CSS and JS, many of us do not have the skills and resources to code our own websites. It is a dilemma we discussed in class and not one that has an easy solution, especially since users have gotten used to having their digital services conveniently but dangerously centralized on a handful of platforms. And then there is algorithms. Instagram’s algorithm is a mystery and twitter has rallying against chronological feeds for years now, allowing popular posts to thrive while new posts get buried. Not only that, but our communication within the land is defined based on the restrictions of our lords – Tumblr now hates images posts, Twitter has a maximum word count, and Snapchat is near impossible to use as a chat platform.

In “I Can’t Believe this Blockchain is Free,” Michael J Casey writes:

“The challenge, then, is to design an architecture that allows the producers of data – we, the users – to become less beholden to these centralized aggregators and create a more decentralized digital economy in which we can trust each other’s data and make better personal use of it…should, in theory, result in better economic and political decisions for all.”

We have to bring the power back to the users. It is time for users to start demanding more transparency to ideally dismantle the feudalistic hierarchy by becoming less dependent on a system that exploits and polices us.

Sources:

Digital Feudalism
I Can’t Believe This Blockchain is Free
Web’s Neolithic Revolution

Introducing My Virtual Good Room

From last week’s reading The Good Room, Frank Chimero claimed that “in the last decade, technology has transformed from a tool that we use to a place where we live.” I was intrigued by this place metaphor. He also mentioned that “the web is a marketplace and a commonwealth, so we have both commerce and culture”. It reminded of an online “good room” I feel belonged to and I would like to introduce it to you because I think it is an interesting example where culture and commerce have been married successfully.

As we all know, Facebook, Twitter and a lot of other social media platforms have been banned in mainland China but the Chinese created (or shall I say “copied”?) its own version of social media such as Renren mimicking Facebook or Weibo mimicking Twitter. Among all the social media platforms, one of them is an original platform that I cannot think of a Western equivalent so far. It is called “Douban” which means “bean paste” in Mandarin. It has multiple functions: rating and reviewing books, movies and music; socializing with people who share the same interests on in the same city; providing FM broadcasting services and podcasts; providing self-publishing services; selling their self-designed items such as cups, calendars or clothing. Generally speaking, it is a comprehensive website including the features of Goodreads, Rotten Tomatoes, social media, podcasts, self-publishing services and markets.

The logo of Douban

 

After moving to Vancouver, lacking meaningful, long-lasting friendship has been a problem for me for a long time. I found it was very hard to find people who share the same interests as me. However, since I became a frequent user of Douban from 2015, I met other Chinese living in Vancouver who also like reading, writing or watching films (as I mentioned last week, I had known my best friend through this website!). And now it has become part of my identity. I pictured this website as a virtual street in a quiet neighbourhood where there are bookstores, theatres, coffee shops and markets alongside.

Culture is the core theme for Douban as it has been trying to connect people through books, movies and music. Its slogan can be roughly translated as “Douban, a corner for your mind”. Comparing to other Chinese social media platforms, Douban is a slow-growing company. However, as the young generation in the Western society moving from Facebook to Instagram, its Chinese equivalent also gradually moved from Renren to Weibo or WeChat. But Douban has always been there no matter what the trend is. I am curious about how Douban makes its profit and maintains its status in the furious competition.

According to my research, it has several revenue strategies. First, Douban profits from redirecting its users to Dangdang, JD.com or Amazon to purchase books or to buy movie tickets from online ticket sellers. Second, it gains income from ads. Douban values the users’ experience so they strictly select ads that fit its target users (young urban white collars or college students). Recently, Douban also launched a variety of paid online classes which covered topics like creative writing, calligraphy, photography, design and philosophy. Overall, these are some of its revenue strategies.

In my opinion, I enjoyed my experiences with Douban so far and I don’t mind seeing ads on the website as long as it still provides high-quality content. I found the users on Douban also tend to tolerate some of the commercialized steps that Douban had taken recently. For example, they would mock at the badly self-designed hoodies or socks that Douban was selling but still continued to be frequent users thereafter.

The socks mocked by most Douban users

I think it could be an example of the “lively and nourishing digital environments” that Chimero was talking about.

 

References

The Good Room

6 Chinese Social Media Sites You Should Know About

Decrypting China’s most wonderful website: What is Douban thinking? 

The Web as Space

 

This week we examined the web through various metaphors. For me, the metaphor that was most interesting and agreeable was Chimero’s The Good Room, (2018) where he suggested that the web has transitioned from being merely a place we visit to a space in which we now live. In the following I will first explain why and how I agree with Chimero. I will then expand upon Chimero’s idea of the web as a space in which we live, and suggest that it is specifically a heterotopic space. Lastly, I will explore how this space shapes us, and how we can potentially reshape this space.

Part 1 Defining Space

To begin, I agree with Chimero’s suggestion that the web has transitioned from just a place we visit to a place where we now live, even if some of us don’t even realize it. It is much like a koan from David Foster Wallace of the fish who asks of another “how is the water?” to which the other fish replies “what’s water?” We are so surrounded by the web that it’s near impossible to see without first getting outside of it. Think of the terminology we use to describe things on the web–from “homepage” to “forum” to “chat room”, these terms reflect and imply a physical space where people meet and congregate. They are talked about as real spaces enclosed by four walls, discrete rooms with interconnected pathways between them, which we must navigate.

Growing up I always imagined the web as looking something akin to the Super Nintendo version of SimCity—a series of roads that connect buildings or spaces, both public and private. An ever growing network. It’s a simplistic simulacrum, but one that I have always found effective at understanding the web as a space (or a realm) where we roam. In his article, Chimero states (like my Sim analogy) that the internet is made up of spaces we choose to visit like a person popping into stores up and down the high street, but this not the only version of “space” that the web contains. Since the web is a ‘space’ is also must function in time and distance. In both cases, the web compresses and warps time and distance, or at times rendering them obsolete.

Part 2 The web as Heterotopic

To borrow an idea from Foucault, I would expand upon Chimero’s idea to say the web is not just a space but a heterotopic space. While I am not well versed in postmodern philosophy, I will try to break this concept down as simply as possible. According to Foucault heterotopic spaces are:

  • Spaces where norms of behaviour our suspended–while he obviously used the example of a asylum or jail, I think we can all come up with examples of this online. (Just look at what anonymity does to the typical forum member or youtube commenter)
  • Spaces that are reflective of the society which they exist—I will expand on this idea more, as I would argue that the current configuration of the web is a direct product of our economic structure
  • Spaces that juxtapose real spaces simultaneously—he uses the example of a garden, showing that different plants from different regions can coexist simultaneously. Space in regards to distance is defied, much like space on the web connects people and ideas from all over the world.
  • Spaces that are linked to slices of time – a place where time can either accumulate (like a museum ) or be transitory (like a traveling fair). The nonlinear nature of the internet fits in with this concept perfectly.
  • Spaces which are not freely accessible – they must be entered with a gesture or some sort of ritual—for the internet this can simply be the very fact one needs a device to enter, and a lot of online communities have their own gate-keepers.
  • Spaces that function in relation to other spaces that exist- either spaces of illusion or compensation (Jones, 2010)

In other words, the internet is not just a space where we visit sites, but it is a world within a world–one of warped space where time, distance, and social norms can be suspended.

Part 3 Reimagining Space

Like Chimero, I believe that our thoughts and experiences are shaped by our spaces, digital or otherwise. I also agree with him that we can reshape and redefine our spaces and the meanings we bring to them. Through creating alternative spaces on the web we can change our relationship with it and impose more culture into the commerce driven domain. But it isn’t quite this cut and dry. There’s often incentives to turn more cultural items into consumer products, to monetize your content, be it through changing the content itself, or through advertising. As Alan Kay said, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it” (Gopnik, 2015). Although Chimero is slightly idealist in his view of the original web being a commonwealth built on strong social bonds and communalism, I agree that we can create more subversive spaces for creativity and reciprocity to shine.

Since we have the ability for expansive growth on the web, just imagine all the possible ways we could choose what physical web sites (or high street stores) we pop into, or what international communities we belong to, and what control we could have over our relationship with time.

Because digital space reflects the physical space in many ways it is fundamentally shaped by the broader socio-economic system. I believe this is why much of the web is a market place, built for subjects who have been socialized first and foremost as consumers. In turn, the web also influences the economic system – particularly in the way that it makes transactions instantaneous and creates new methods of distribution (such as amazon warehouses and a digital storefront replacing our old fashioned retail stores). It is hard to imagine a different web space without a different economic system. This is good evidence to support the thesis that we live in the web space rather than just visit it from time to time. The web is a structuring force in our lives, and it is so embedded in our society that it is hard to see the web change significantly without concomitant change in society more broadly.

If we agree that there is a strong structuring relationship between the web and the broader socio-economic system, then we can argue that changes made to the web (both cultural and economic) can have broader changes in the rest of the world.

Although here we would run into the same problem that Marxists have always argued about, which is if there needs to be a shift in the economic base in order to change the ideological ‘superstructure’ (culture and institutions) or if there needs to be a cultural shift before we can bring about change in the material base (capitalism / more of production). The web is just a space in which what Gramsci called the “war of position and the war of maneuver” takes place.

 

Chimero, Frank. 2018. The Good Room. Frank Chimero.

Gopnik, Alison. 2015. How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis. The Atlantic.

Jones, Victoria. 2010. An Outline of Foucault’s Six Principles of Heterotopia. Youtube.