Lizzie O’Shea, in Future Histories, just said something that I had to re-read a few times to make sure I was reading it right. About two-thirds of the way through the second chapter, “An Internet Built around Consumption Is a Bad Place to Live”, she remarks upon a changing internet.
In other words, shared public space begins to vanish; increasingly there is no single collective experience online.
“In general arc if not always specific sites and services,” I observed about Joanne McNeil’s recent book, “Lurking is the story of my internet, too. For her, it was AOL and Geocities; for me: gopherspace, MindVox, IRC, and Usenet.” I’m reminded of that statement because it serves to contradict O’Shea’s allegation, in that there never has been a “single collective experience” on (or of) the internet — there might have been places within all that ethereal expanse which this or that group of people might have shared, but not some overall “shared public space” in the sense O’Shea seems to mean.
People who got online around the same time often, as I suggested, have similar arcs to their onboarding and initial experiences, but the specifics will have been more or less unique.
O’Shea doubles-down on what I feel is a fundamental misconception in her next paragraph.
If we think about the Internet as a place rather than a service, this process of abstract identification is not empowering — it causes fragmentation and distance between people. It creates a world where the population is subject to different framing effects, making for increasingly insurmountable political and social divisions, worlds that stand apart from each other despite nominally existing in a communal space.
What I find weird here is that in many ways, the modern internet has more widely-spread and shared communal spaces (if not places) than it has since the heyday of Usenet — which arguably doesn’t count as a true “public space” due to the comparatively small population of the internet at the time — due to platforms like Instagram and Twitter, where anyone and everyone mostly can access anyone and everyone else almost at whim.
(Whether or not that lack of friction itself actually precludes the idea of such platforms being usable as any kind of true “public space” is another thing altogether.)
The usefulness, to me, of the early metaphor of “cyberspace” precisely lay in its amorphousness, but it’s weakness lay in conveying the idea that there was a there there — instead of communicating simply that there was room for any number of places to arise. It suggested, perhaps, that there was a sort of virtual firmament and if everyone was going there it must be “public space”.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t be trying to find better ways for us all to be online than the current ways so dominated by marketing companies abstracting our collected and collated behavior into just so many lobotomized versions of Max Headroom (“people translated as data” indeed, Bryce).
It’s just to say that, given O’Shea’s exhortations early in the book to properly characterize, and take a kind of ownership of, our past in order to inform how in the present we conceive of possible futures, it sticks out to me that she seems to get such a basic idea about how the internet has or has not changed so wrong.