The news last week The WELL, what many consider the first ever online social network, faces impending doom, has inspired Mike Barthel to write a history of Internet politics over at The Awl, explaining the conflicts modern social networks, like Facebook, face today. As we see with Barthel's history, The WELL (aka, The Whole Earth 'Lectric Link) and the social Internet started as a sort of utopian ideal. "The site's ethos was one of open access and general personal freedom mixed with more than a slight whiff of hippiedom: it was a meeting place for Deadheads, and was titularly and organizationally linked to the Whole Earth Catalog," he writes. Replace the hippie part with a hacker equivalent, we can see how Facebook's mission mirrors a similar sentiment, with its whole "open and connected" spiel. While this sounds all liberal and well meaning, as Barthel explains The WELL's ideals ran into both its and the Internet's growth, compromising not only the network, but the rest of social Internetting for eternity.
Specifically, here's where things went wrong for The WELL, per Barthel:
What does that development look like? We can draw a line from the San Francisco hippie culture that inspired the Whole Earth Catalog through to the WELL and to the online discussion boards and social media on which we talk, organize, and produce online. But in the course of that movement, something changed: the people living off the land all of a sudden got a lot of money. And once a company changed from that scrappy, personable startup or nonprofit venture to a profit-seeking enterprise, all those nice ideas about serving users often go out the window in favor of a nigh-irresistible economic imperative.
That's a familiar Internet circle of life, isn't it? At least to us it sounds a lot like the contradiction Facebook has found itself in of Zuckerberg's "hacker way" versus Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg's business mindedness. This "hacker way" borrows from WELL's founding principles in that it celebrates a counter-culture. And just like The WELL, the ideals didn't take too long to turn to contradictions. "The web's desire to expose everything about users (and nothing about corporations) opposes the privacy rights that lie at the heart of individual liberties," writes Barthel, which we can easily apply to Facebook. Often, Facebook has faced privacy complaints over its "open and connected" motto, which also happens to serve the social network's bottom line. Zuckerberg himself has said the age of privacy is over. Things no longer sound like a liberal utopia, but a Ray Bradbury dystopia.
But because precedent, starting with The WELL, has convinced us that these tech companies represent some kind of utopian democratic space, we have come to accept this as the Internet norm. "The government can't impose a universal identification system on the web, but Facebook or Google can. We do this because those corporations have been very good at convincing us they're not those sort of corporations," Barthel writes. From The WELL to Facebook, we trust these companies, for who knows what reason because they were engineered by a bunch of antisocial computer nerds looking for a way to connect that they could not in the human world. But, let The WELL and the social Internet it built be a lesson. This is what a corporation governed society looks like:
Instead, we get a lot of shockingly high-minded rhetoric about innovation and the internet's magical ability to fix everything if just left alone. The ideology of the internet advocates throwing all the resources we can at those few people and companies that succeed, and telling everyone else "you're on your own." Maybe if you're lucky, a video will go viral and you'll get a few hundred thousand dollars in donations. Otherwise—well, I guess you just didn't innovate hard enough.
Barthel's whole piece can be found on The Awl