Why the internet is the way it is
Some people have heard this before, but since I now have a public forum, I figured I can share it with the world…
At one time or another most people wonder why the internet is the way it is. There was a time when it was considered to be THE way of the future, where the world pool of knowledge would be there for people to have access to when they needed. Things like spam weren’t even dreamed of (porn was there almost from the beginning). So what happened? How did the internet become the cesspool of flames, spam, and general idiocy? Well, the answer is obvious, but it’s elitist:
The internet got dumber when idiots could access the internet.
That is to say, when there was more drain on the internet collective brain power than there was source returning valuable content, the internet began to, and continues to, get more stupid.
Roll the calendar back to 1988. Usenet – a more-or-less email based message forum system was the king of discussion. There was an internet, sort of. There was no World Wide Web, but there was Archie. People exchanged ideas freely. Sure there was some flaming and some stupidity but for the most part, anything you said or did on the internet stood to scrutiny by the other people on the internet – much as it does now. The difference between then and now is that there were better people on the net.
In 1988, you needed three things to get internet access:
- MONEY: You needed to be able to afford a computer, modem, and phone line. That seems trivial now, but it wasn’t then. A mediocre computer could run many thousands of dollars. Modems cost hundreds of dollars. If you wanted to spend much time online, you’d need a second phone line and that could add up fast. You want content? That’s going to cost you. I spent a fortune on GEnie and Compuserve back in the day. I think that’s where I originally ran into Gordon Dewis. On other BBS networks I met Eric Jacksch. Eventually, I set up a cost sharing scheme to split a commercial UUCP account and provide access to things like e-mail. This was big-ticket stuff back in the day. If you didn’t have a computer, you pretty much needed to be paying tuition at a university, or have a job at a big company. Either way, you had some $ on the line. People value things according to what they pay for them or what is at risk.
- BRAINS: You needed the computer acumen to actually connect to anything. You, the potential internet user, had to know how and where to connect. The only help you got might be from your friends. This was a steep learning curve if you weren’t naturally inclined to computer geekiness.
- SOCIAL SKILLS: Unless you happened to work somewhere (like a university or big company), you needed to have at least one friend who could cut you some internet access out of wherever they got it from. You could overcome this with gobs of money (thousands of dollars a month for a dedicated T1, hundreds for a dial-up commercial UUCP), but for the most part, you needed friends and that meant you needed to be able to interact with other human beings in a meaningful way. As noted above, I met some folks that I’m still friends with to this day. Gordon provided my first internet access.
And that’s just how it was for a few years. If you posted a lot you became known to literally everyone on the net. If you passed the three hurdles, you had access to the global brain power. I can remember once, having some issue with my aquarium. I posted a note to one of the aquarium news groups, and half an hour later, I had an email from a marine biologist at the New York aquarium explaining what I could do to alleviate this issue. Wow!
There was porn, of course. Probably half the net traffic was porn, which isn’t surprising given that most of the net denizens were young men. But the porn was different. It wasn’t nearly as commercial, and despite being half the traffic, there was a lot less of it than there is now.
So what happened?
Well, the three hurdles disappeared, and with the demise of each one, a little something was lost.
SOCIAL SKILLS went first with the advent of the Free Nets. The concept of Free Net was that the internet should not be elitist and that everyone should be able to tap this global intelligence for the benefit of mankind. Unfortunately, this also meant that a lot of truly vile people now had access to the net. Noise levels immediately went up, information quality immediately went down. Because you didn’t actually have to be nice to people (realistically you couldn’t get kicked off the Free Nets), a lot of people used the opportunity to put their anti-social skills on display.
BRAINS went next with the introduction of America Online. Until AOL, you still had to have a few firing neurons to be able to operate a computer or at least a Free Net terminal. But America Online changed all that with its Internet-in-a-can distribution of disks (later CDs) that could have you “surfing the net in 5 minutes”. Anyone who had been a regular net user prior to AOL’s ramp-up could actually see the collective intelligence of the internet plummet as the AOL folks came on in droves. AOL gave spam (which, prior to AOL had been a comparatively rare inconvenience) a huge forum and the means to propagate. AOL brought more intellectual drain to the internet than it did intellectual source material. America Online essentially killed the original internet and resurrected it as a half-baked, electronic Mos Eisley, simply by making it accessible to anyone who could turn on a computer. Although I’m sure that the people who made it to the net via AOL found it fascinating and useful, the rest of us found the net getting cluttered and less useful.
The final barrier was money… but computers have become commodity items. If you work, you can afford some kind of computer. It might not be some gamer-nerd special, but it’s enough. Internet access can be had just about anywhere, and it’s CHEAP. Ultra-high speed access costs less than cable TV. This causes the internet to be flooded with people, and again, most of them are a net drain. But the real money issue isn’t “poor people on the internet”… Hell, the internet can help people find work, etc. so that’s a good thing. When the money issue went out of the equation though, so did people’s perception of value. In 1988 internet access could cost hundreds of dollars a month. Doing something to jeopardize that meant jeopardizing an investment. If you had net access through school or work, doing something stupid could be career limiting or get you fired/expelled. When internet costs $10, it’s worth $10… so if you get kicked off, who cares? You go somewhere else. Internet access becomes a disposable commodity and people treat it as such.
The money issue is more than just cost related, too, because everyone now can access the net. The net is truly viewed by every idiot with an idea as an advertising forum. EVERYTHING is commercial. There is so much advertising it is becoming a challenge to find real content. Want to look something up? Sure, you can use Google… but you’ll spend as much time sorting through the chaff as you would going to the library and just looking it up. At least at the library, the books won’t send you spam about your short penis or Canadian pharmaceuticals or herbal Viagra. The books don’t have Flash advertisements at the top of every page. The books tend to be written with a modicum of proper grammar and spelling – yes, I have noticed that my own use of grammar and spelling has declined and I attribute that to being surrounded by illiterate gits that I wade through on the net every day… in effect, exposure to the internet has made me a little bit dumber for the experience. Books don’t steal your credit card information, and the authors don’t swear at you because they disagree with you. 80% of the library isn’t porn.
The internet now strives to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It focuses on form over content. Presentation over quality. Beauty over brains. Instead of being a place to learn, it’s a place to separate people from their dollars. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
Despite tools like Google, it’s becoming ever more increasingly difficult to find the information you need. Usenet? That’s toast… it’s a cesspool of spam, and irrelevant drama. Bandwidth? Sucked up by porn and video/music piracy. Content? overrun by advertising, java script and animation that adds little real information.
The internet is the way it is because the three things that made it truly promising, and indeed attractive, were that all of its users had brains, money on the line, and social skills. Those days are gone and I, for one, miss them.